There’s an old cliché about dogs — they’ll eat everything you put in front of them, whether they’re hungry or not. There may be a grain of truth to it, but not all dogs are voracious eating machines. Some are perfectly content to snack from their bowl when they feel the urge and others will stop when they feel full, not going back for seconds at all.
But there are certainly plenty of dogs to give some truth to the cliché. No matter how well fed they are, they will never turn down more, and it’s quite easy to imagine them wolfing down food until they explode. It seems like the dog is hungry all the time.
Hungry, hungry hound dog
So you may ask yourself, “Why does my dog act hungry all the time?” The short answer is… we’re not absolutely sure. Some experts believe that dogs came to look to us as a food source after early wolves basically domesticated themselves — the wolves that were curious but non-aggressive and came close enough to human camps to scavenge leftover scraps wound up being rewarded with more food.
This, combined with their natural instincts after a hunt — “eat it when the alpha wolves let you and before any other wolves can” — naturally led to them gobbling up anything offered by a human. Of course, to a hungry dog “offer” can also mean leaving it on a counter, dropping it on the floor, or putting it in the trash.
Wolves (or dogs) hunting in a pack also learn the concept of scarcity and food being a limited resource. They may not eat every day, or even every other day, so they fall into a “get it while you can” mentality. This carries over even when the dog is getting two or three regular meals every single day.
Of course, our domestic dogs have not been wild wolves for a long time, so it can be hard to reconcile such an ancient trait with modern behavior. Our dogs probably never grew up going on a hunt and being allowed to share food in pack order. Another possibility is that our dogs really aren’t that hungry. They’re just very good at manipulating us into giving them handouts.
How to handle a hungry dog
If you do have a dog that would gobble down anything — and especially if that dog is overweight — then you have to take control as the Pack Leader. Consult your vet on your dog’s actual dietary needs per day, create a regular feeding ritual and schedule for your dog, and stick to it. Don’t let anyone in the house give him human scraps or handouts, and only give treats when your dog has earned them by doing a job and then showing calm, submissive energy.
You can also slow the gobbling with special bowls that have pillars in them that the dog has to eat around or, if you want a cheaper low-tech solution, you can put a tennis ball in the dish, which she’ll have to nose around.
When you start with this schedule, leave the food down until the first time your dog walks away from the bowl, whether he’s eaten everything or not, then take the bowl away. This will help reinforce the idea that this is meal time and he won’t be finding more food until the next meal time.
A sudden change in appetite
Maybe your dog isn’t a voracious eater and knows when to stop. A dog’s habits can change. When they do, it’s usually a sign of something. If your dog goes from finicky to gluttonous, you need to determine the cause so you can take care of the problem as quickly as possible.
There are two reasons a habit as basic and instinctive as appetite might change suddenly: psychology or physiology. Psychological reasons include changes in environment. Have you moved recently, or has there been a change in the household pack? For example, have grown kids moved out, significant others moved in, or are there any new dogs?
Things like this can lead to insecurity and anxiety, which can trigger a dog’s feast or famine mentality. Part of the pack went away, or a strange new person is here and might be a threat to these resources. In the case of a new dog, that may actually be the case, and you’ll need to monitor things to make sure that the new dog isn’t trying to intimidate the old dog away from the bowl, then stealing the food when you aren’t looking — or vice versa.
If a formerly docile dog starts to show food aggression, then the cause is definitely psychological, so you’ll need to deal with that problem in addition to working on the dog’s anxiety over household changes.
If you have a new human member of the household, let him or her take over the dog’s feeding duties for a while. If someone has left the household, place something with their scent on it near the dog’s bowl. If you have a new dog in the house, make them both earn their food by sitting and showing calm, submissive energy, feed them with separate bowls placed at a distance, then monitor them and don’t let either of them approach the other’s bowl, even if it’s to sniff around for scraps once they’ve finished eating.
If it’s not all in your dog’s head…
If there have been no obvious changes in the household recently, then the most likely cause of your dog’s increased hunger is a physical problem — and this is also the case if there have been changes but the methods above show no results after a week or two.
A sudden increase of appetite in a dog can be a symptom of a number of conditions:
- Bacterial overgrowth in the intestines
- Cushing’s disease
- Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency
- Reaction to medication
In many of the above cases, the underlying mechanism leading to increased hunger is the same: your dog’s body is unable to absorb the nutrients in the food or digest it properly, so their appetite goes into overdrive. They are actually starving no matter how much food they eat, so they compensate by eating everything.
The Pack Leader’s job
As a Pack Leader, your job is to provide protection and direction. If your dog suddenly starts overeating, then you need to determine the cause, then take the behavioral or medical steps necessary to solve the problem. If your dog is just naturally inclined to overeat, then you need to take charge and control what she eats, how much, and when.
We naturally love our dogs and it can be hard to resist those big eyes and cute faces, especially when they act like they’re starving. But if there’s no medical cause, we’re doing our dogs more of a favor by not indulging their appetites. An overweight dog is not a happy dog no matter how excited he may get about food. He may have no idea when he’s had enough, but we do — and, unlike dogs, we know how to work a can opener.