Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to email@example.com. We love dogs and cats equally, and reserve treats for questions about your turtle, guinea pig, bird, snake, fish, or other beast.
Dear Beast Mode,
My boyfriend and I have a puppy-training dilemma that is causing a lot of friction. He has a 7-month-old Maltese-Yorkie mix who won’t eat. He’s an extremely picky eater and is pretty underweight, per his vet. We’re divided on how to deal with this issue: I take a softer stance—trying different foods he might like, like chicken or eggs, and making sure he’s eating something. My boyfriend, on the other hand, says if the pup doesn’t eat the kibble, he doesn’t eat at all. But the dog sometimes goes days without eating properly! This sometimes leads him to steal food from the table (including stuff like Airheads or pizza). My boyfriend then proceeds to blame the dog’s food theft on eating too much people-food. But he’s just hungry! So my question is: Who’s right? And will he eventually start liking the kibble?
—Full Bowl, Empty Stomach
Dear Full Bowl, Empty Stomach,
Have you seen Marriage Story, that Noah Baumbach movie everyone seems to be talking about? I have not, but for the purposes of this article I will assume it’s about Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver arguing over their puppy’s eating habits. While they each want to be “right,” they realize in the end that the dog’s nutrition should come first. Kudos to Netflix for giving filmmakers the freedom tell the brave kibble-related stories audiences need to see.
If your vet says the dog is underweight, then getting it to eat should be both your and your boyfriend’s priority. There are no bragging rights or moral victories here. If there is to be a winner, make sure it’s the puppy, who should enjoy packing on some much-needed poundage.
First, we need to address something that should be easy to fix. You say your dog has been stealing food off the table (which, at the very least, is a sign that he is hungry). How tall is your table? Unless this is some sort of Incredible Hulk situation, it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep a Maltese-Yorkie mix away from your dinner. Either he’s climbing something or you’re lifting him up. Either way, tuck in those dining chairs when not in use and keep an eye on your plate if he’s chilling on your lap. That human food is extra delicious, and the prospect of nabbing a slice of pizza will always be more enticing than the scientifically engineered health food sitting in his bowl.
All kibble isn’t created equal, and you need to make sure that your dog is getting the correct type. “For a puppy that age, he should be getting fed puppy food only,” Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and co-founder of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies, tells me. Puppy food is not some marketing ploy; it’s a nutritional must. “It is high enough in protein for his growing requirement.” The good news is that there’s a real chance your dog won’t need much encouragement to eat it once you make the switch. “Dogs tend to like protein in taste tests,” Dodman says. “It’s the most appealing type of food. It’s what he needs.”
However, if you have been using puppy food to no avail, then it’s time to shake up the menu with different brands. “You should cater to the dog,” Dodman says. “Get three different foods in small quantities and put them down. It’s called a preference test. He’ll go up and wave his magic wand across the top, which is his nose, and he’ll eat the one he likes. Take the one that he likes, and you can do another test with that against even more foods.” Pet stores often offer sample sizes for different brands, so you shouldn’t have to remortgage your house to facilitate this discerning pup’s buffet.
There’s no guarantee the taste test will automatically work, but kibble is not the only option. “Dogs generally like wet food better than dry food,” Dodman says. “Sometimes with fussy dogs you can make the wet food more attractive by warming it slightly. That brings the aromas out.” Wet food tends to be a little more expensive (and less convenient) than dry food, so I understand if you want to stick to kibble. If so, don’t worry; there are ways to make it work.
“I prefer the kick-start approach, which is to add a little something to get the engine going,” Dodman says. This could be a favorite treat or even a little bit of safe-to-eat human food, like the chicken or eggs you sometimes feed him.
That method may kick-start the old disagreement you were having with your boyfriend, but take solace in knowing that you are not alone. “I understand the question very well,” Dodman says. “Me and my wife are both veterinarians, and we are having the same discussion about our own dog.” Dodman says his wife is more of a hard-liner, while he describes himself as a “big softie” who prefers to spruce up the pooch’s meals. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with adding a little something to the top, a little je ne sais quoi to get him going.”
The enticing snack in your dog’s bowl isn’t forbidden fruit. It’s an innocent gateway grub that should help him appreciate the nuanced flavors of his kibble. If you and your boyfriend continue to disagree, try to think of the strategy as a compromise. The dog is the protagonist in this story; the human subplot will sort itself out over time.