Pepper is a sweet, small dog. She lives in Seattle with Cindy and their family of three humans, and one other dog. Generally, she is healthy and happy, but ever since Pepper was adopted into their family, Cindy has had a lot of difficulty in getting her to eat.
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“She wouldn’t eat until she was alone with the bowl, and if she was startled at all—forget about it,” Cindy told me.
Cindy was willing to do whatever it took to make certain her dog was getting the nutrition she needed.
“For the longest time I was feeding her by hand, but my vet said I had to stop.”
According to the vet, what Pepper needed was a little bit of tough love.
“He said, ‘either she eats or she doesn’t,’ and that I shouldn’t indulge her.”
But then Cindy was given a piece of advice that changed everything.
“I was going out of town and needed to leave my Pepper with a friend, and when I told her about how the dog wouldn’t eat right away if you just put the food down, she was like, ‘Oh, well have you tried spitting in her food?'”
Cindy tried it. “And it totally worked!”
According to Cindy’s friend, spitting in the food taps into the dog’s pack animal heritage. Pepper can’t relax and eat because she’s worried about eating out of turn. She needs reassurance that pack leader (Cindy) has eaten her fill, and that it’s Pepper’s turn to dig in.
This all made sense to Cindy, knowing that Pepper had been the smallest of six dogs in her previous family. She is a pack dog and responds well when treated as such.
The Gritty Details
I asked Cindy to walk me through the process, step-by-step.
“Well, she has to see me do it. I’ve tried faking her out and it doesn’t work. She needs to watch me, and I can’t just go through the motions. There has to be actual spit in her bowl.”
Cindy brings the bowl up to her face, spits into the food, and places it on the floor, all without breaking eye contact with Pepper.
After Pepper watches Cindy go through this process, she walks right over to the bowl and eats until she’s full. Occasionally, she still gets startled if someone moves quickly nearby while she’s eating, but for the most part, it’s smooth sailing.
Does Anyone Else Do This?
The idea of spitting in your dog’s food seems to have originated with Adam Katz, author of Secrets of a Professional Dog Trainer.
Katz, retired now, wrote about following up with an old client:
“When I asked how Dotty was doing, Jeff responded that Dotty was absolutely fantastic. The best dog they’d ever had, due in no small part to their diligence and consistency in applying the dog training techniques I showed them.
But then Jeff said something very interesting: ‘I’m still spitting in her food. In fact, she won’t even touch the food until after I spit in it.’ (Remember: the Alpha dog always eats first!).”
The “alpha owner” mentality is controversial, but this author’s holistic approach to it worked for Jeff.
Cindy got this tip from a friend, who had also heard of it by word of mouth. All of them saw positive results.
What If I’m Squicked Out?
I asked Dr. Erin Perotti-Orcutt, of Four Paws Veterinary Center, what she thought of the idea. While not entirely disapproving, she had a few suggestions for owners of nervous dogs who would prefer not to spit in their dogs’ food.
- Stay calm and grounded. Your dog will find it much easier to relax if they can see that you are calm.
- Use a puzzle feeder. This will absorb your dog’s attention so they’ll be less likely to startle.
- Sit with the dog and pet them while they eat to positively reinforce the act of eating.
As is so often the case, different approaches will work for different dogs. Cindy has found an approach that, while unconventional, works for her and for Pepper.
Maybe it’s because she needs an alpha—or maybe Pepper is just gross! But it works, and that’s what matters. The proof is in the pudding, and Pepper won’t eat the pudding unless you spit in it.
Do you have a trick for getting a nervous dog to eat?
*names have been changed