If I’ve learned nothing else in my time as a FetchFind Academy student, it’s that consistence is paramount in dog training. If you’re not consistent with the rules, your dog will never learn them.
While I’ve extolled the virtues and advantages of consistence when people have asked me questions about dog behavior, it’s quite another thing to put that consistence into practice with your own dog. But it’s something I’ve recently had to learn to do. And I can tell you, it’s not easy.
Not long ago, my dog Chester had his annual leptospirosis booster shot. That night, he didn’t eat his dinner. He didn’t eat his breakfast the next morning. I wasn’t tremendously concerned, honestly. I’d read that the lepto shot can cause upset stomach and decreased appetite for about a day. So skipping two meals didn’t worry me.
But when he didn’t eat dinner that night or breakfast the following morning, I got a bit concerned. Chester’s always loved eating, so this new behavior was a bit alarming. But he wasn’t acting sick. He was eating treats, going to the bathroom normally, he had his energy. He just wasn’t eating his dry food.
So I did what I thought was the right thing – I decided to try something new.
And that was my mistake.
He ate the new food I got him for dinner that night. He really seemed to like it. So I tried it again the following morning. He ate about half of it and then stopped. Refused to take another bite. But again, through the course of the day, he ate treats normally. He drank plenty of water. He clearly wasn’t sick.
So that night, I made another mistake – I tried yet another food. And guess what? He ate it. So once again, I gave him the new food the following morning and this time, he didn’t touch it. Same thing at dinner.
Now I was really getting concerned. So I left a message for his vet and the next morning (after again not eating his breakfast), I took him to her. She examined him and told me that medically, he seemed fine (and had, in fact, GAINED weight). And then she said something I hadn’t thought of, though with my training, I probably should have.
She told me she thought his not eating was behavioral. And that I had most likely reinforced it.
By giving him new food when he wasn’t eating, I had inadvertently taught him that by not eating, he’d get some new and exciting food. The solution, she said, was tough love. If he doesn’t eat his regular food, he doesn’t eat. She also told me not to give him any treats or extra things because he needed to be hungry enough to make the choice to eat what I put in front of him.
It wouldn’t be easy, she said. She told me she’d seen healthy dogs be stubborn enough to go up to five days before eating. And with Chester being a healthy dog, she said she was comfortable with letting him go that long if that’s what it took and as long as he was drinking water and otherwise acting normally. If he didn’t eat in that time, she said, I’d bring him back to her.
As I write this, it’s day two of not eating. Chester seems fine. He’s still acting normally, drinking water and using the bathroom. This whole tough love thing seems to be tougher on me than on him. I just want to throw treats at him, do whatever I have to to get him to eat. But I have to turn on my trainer brain. I created a bad behavior in my dog and now I have to fix it.
By the way, in case you’re concerned about what happens if he doesn’t eat within five days, the vet did offer a secondary theory. If I bring him back, she said, she’s going to test his thyroid (among a few other things), as a messed up thyroid can cause a dog to gain weight while still decreasing appetite.
Anyway, my point is this: No matter how much you study, no matter how much you think you know about dogs and how they operate, when it comes to applying those things to your own dog, it’s hard.
And there’s no shame in that.
Even trainers get emotional and worried when it comes to their own dogs and that can keep us from applying what we know in the ways we might tell other people to apply it to their dogs. So don’t worry. Whether you’re a trainer or just a novice dog owner, when it comes to training your dog, at some point, you’re going to screw up.
And as long as you learn from it, that’s ok.
After five years as a newspaper reporter in western Illinois and two more as a freelancer in Chicago, Bill’s life has gone to the dogs in the best way possible. These days, Bill lives in Chicago with his terrier mix, Chester, and works at a small, no-kill animal shelter while he studies to be a professional dog trainer at FetchFind Academy. Bill also blogs about his two favorite things – dogs and beer – at Pints and Pups.