I often talk about discarding labels and we recently had yet another reminder of why that is important when trying to understand an animal’s behaviour. Labels often can carry an undercurrent of judgement and that can prevent us from getting the full picture. When I first graduated from Turid’s class, I asked her for parting advice. She said to me, “You are quick to label and you do too much. You need to observe more”. At the time, I just did not understand what she was saying. I’ve since had the good fortune to work with more than 2000 dogs and learn from them, before wrapping up my consultations. Recently, I had another reminder.
…Labels often can carry an undercurrent of judgement and that can prevent us from getting the full picture…
A few months ago, Nishi suddenly lost interest in her food. She often does so when she’s stressed. We followed our standard protocol of waiting it out for 12 hours and offering her probiotics instead. She was drinking water, but her appetite did not return. In fact, she had started recoiling from her food bowl, as if she expected it to hurt her. Blood tests were performed . Blood work was fine, but the vet did notice an infection deep in her ear. That, perhaps, could explain the loss of appetite, because it can get quite annoying to chew with an ear infection, sometimes even painful. This was more so in Nishi’s case and let me take a detour to explain that bit.
…A few months ago, Nishi suddenly lost interest in her food…Blood work was fine, but the vet did notice an infection deep in her ear. That could explain the loss of appetite, because it can get quite annoying to chew with an ear infection, sometimes even painful…
Nishi was in a bad accident when she was a juvenile and her face came under a car. Her jaw broke, she lost use of one side of her face and all ducts and nerves were severed. She has no sensation on one side and only uses one side of her face. Her broken jaw never healed correctly and she struggles to open her mouth too wide. Hence, she needs her bowl to be elevated. She needs to move her head forcefully down and up in order to get food into her mouth and down her throat. It made a lot of sense that an ear infection can be really painful. We did start her on medication immediately, but we also started checking with her if she preferred her food hand fed and her interest in food somewhat perked up. Desperate to get SOMETHING in her, we offered all kinds of things she showed interest in, including some homemade dog cookies, which she seemed to eat more readily. I got a video at this point and while the bobbing of her head is reduced when fed by hand, you will notice that it is still significant.
As the days passed and her ear infection cleared, her interest in her food did not improve much, but her interest in the cookies did. At this point, it’s quite common to conclude that during this process she discovered that if she refused food, we’d follow it up with cookies. The trouble with this conclusion though is that there is a little underlying judgement that she inadvertently picked up some form of “food faddism”. When we label it that way, it needs some type of behavioural correction, be it positive or negative.
…As the days passed and her ear infection cleared, her interest in her food did not improve much, but her interest in the cookies did. At this point, it’s quite common to conclude that this is food faddism…
But I have now learned to peel back labels and look for a better explanation. In this case, it meant asking myself why my dog would prefer cookies over her meal? To me, a dog not eating his meal or an insatiable appetite is not an explanation in itself, but is information, a clue about the health of the dog, nutritive value of the food and appropriateness of the food to the dogs health. My dogs are on a diet of good meats and vegetables, some complex carbohydrates, good oils, fats and herbs…of their choice. I do recognize that their needs change based on their health and environment and often when they reject food, I pay attention and change it till they find it appropriate and joyous to eat their meal. So, why was Nishi offering me this behaviour?
Could it perhaps be that the cookies met a certain nutritive need that her meal did not? Stressed and unwell dogs often seek some carbohydrates. We ruled that out by changing the composition of her meals, but nothing seemed to be appealing to her.
…Could it perhaps be that the cookies met a certain nutritive need that her meal did not?…
On one of the days that followed, I was in pain because I had pulled a muscle in the back of my leg and my sciatic nerve was acting up, causing me pain all the way up to my hips. I struggled uncomfortably in my chair as I started editing Julia’s blog on collar damage. Julia had written about how a muscle injury in the neck generates scar tissue, which shortens the muscles of the neck, pulling close the vertebra, pinching on nerves. I massaged my own sciatic nerve as I edited that bit, until it suddenly fell into place. I knew why Nishi was not eating.
It was not about behaviour or nutrition, it was literally a pain in the neck. See, Nishi has not only suffered an accident, she also has patellar subluxation in the hind knee that I am very sure is by now arthritic. She compensates for the lack of strength in her hind knees by using her front legs, neck and shoulders. It’s easy to see this on her, with the muscles on the front developed far more than the muscles on her hind legs. It’s very easy to see how these neck muscles are going to be shortened and all the pressure in that area. Add to all this, the years of her tossing her head back and forth so violently…it fell into place. The ear infection perhaps was simply the last straw, but this was perhaps the underlying issue.
…It was not about behaviour or nutrition, it was literally a pain in the neck…all this, the years of her tossing her head back and forth so violently…it fell into place…
I decided to test out my theory. We changed the texture of her food, to make it solid, so that it was easier for her to take a bit off, much like the cookie. And tada! Problem solved. Her appetite returned. I threw in a few myotherapy treatments and her mood improved too.
Is this going to be the reason behind all dogs that offer “food faddism”? Of course not. As you can see each dog perhaps has a different reason for doing it. Among my clients, I found a host of issues for “food faddism” or “gluttony”, including, but not limited to:
- Undiagnosed soft tissue discomfort in the hind legs, shoulders, back or chest or bone disorders like hip & elbow dysplasia, patellar subluxation, spondylosis etc…that can make it difficult for them to bend down to eat
- Ear, sinus or teeth issues that make it painful to chew
- Collar damage on the neck, tongue bone, structures of the neck which make it difficult to swallow
- Hormonal diseases that impact appetite
- A mismatch in the nutritional needs of a dog and the nutritive value of the food
- Anxiety or excitement around other animals in the house or in the environment in general that could make them gobble food up or just not show interest
- Undiagnosed malabsorption diseases or other digestive issues that may result in voracious appetites or loss of appetite
- Past trauma / experiences, including harsh training around food
Many of the above issues are very hard to detect, even with diagnostic tools and expert help. But all of the above have the ability to impact a dog’s eating habits, either to reduce their appetite or in some cases even drastically increase it. In some they may result in odd behaviours like hyperactivity, restlessness or aggression around food. All of the above are very sad for the dog, if he/she is experiencing it and one we would definitely try to address, if we were aware of it. However labeling it too early can result in us not looking further.
…all of the above have the ability to impact a dog’s eating habits, either to reduce their appetite or in some cases even drastically increase it. In some they may result in odd behaviours like hyperactivity, restlessness or aggression around food…
Many of the labels we use today are either products of outdated science, misinterpreted studies or folk wisdom. The field of dog behaviour and animal behaviour is growing and how, with new studies and revelations coming out every day. With it, there is also a flurry of bad science. How then, do we know which explanation is the right one here? We don’t. I am not even arguing that dogs do not exhibit gluttony or food faddism. But I always chose to look under labels that have negative undercurrents because not only do such labels prevent us from looking past them, they can also often justify our meting out some consequences or behavioural alterations (positive or negative) to our dog. How sad it would be for a dog that is experiencing any of the above to also have to face these consequences and have to force themselves to do something that causes them more discomfort.
This not an easy concept. Once you peel the label back, then what? How do you know if the explanation you arrived at is right or wrong. There is no easy way to know. The more you do it, the more you get the hang of it. I am sharing some of my older blogs on the topic, if that helps give a better idea on how to go about this business of peeling labels off. If you are facing issues with your dogs that conventional wisdom or old science is not able to explain, try discarding the labels and seeing if the answer lies in observing the dog itself. As I say often to my students, at our school we do not learn to teach dogs, we learn to learn from them. That’s the legacy of my teachers.
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