Don’t Worry, I Don’t Starve My Dog

I sometimes comment in posts here or on my Facebook page that Barnum earns his food via training sessions. Thus, he doesn’t usually get “meals,” as such.

I’m also aware that some days I post or tweet that we haven’t been able to train that day because I was sick. Other days I say things like, “Barnum was really eager to work because we haven’t been doing much training, so he was bored and hungry.”

I have wondered if maybe I should include a note to reassure readers that I’m not starving Barnum, but then I thought, “No, nobody would think that, would they?” But recently someone asked me if I fast Barnum on days we train, so I thought I better explain the details and nuances of the situation better to put your minds at ease. I also wouldn’t want anyone to think that I am advocating starving an animal to make them hungrier to work. That would be cruel and counterproductive.

So, what I mean, usually, when I say that we did “no training today” is that we didn’t have a formal or lengthy training session or series of them. Nonetheless, every single day Barnum earns treats just for incidental things throughout the day. For example, almost every time I go to the bathroom (several times a day), Barnum follows me in and I reinforce behaviors like eye contact, cooperation with handling (holding still for petting, cleaning out eye boogers, tick-checking his ears or pulling out excess ear hair or wax), or other simple behaviors like targeting parts of my body with his chin or nose. He gets food (kibble, hot dogs, cheese, raw beef, or a trout-and-potato biscuit) for almost every repetition.

When I am too tired, sick, or in pain to train more actively, and I want him to learn to respect my need to rest, I put the MannersMinder on his mat or in his crate; I set it to dispense food on a variable schedule to reward him for staying put and getting out of my face. Depending on how often its set up to dispense, this can add up to a meal’s worth of food.

He’s also starting to do a lot of incidental service skills throughout the day — bracing when I transfer to and from the toilet, turning on and off the bathroom light, getting my slippers if they slide under the bed, opening and shutting my door, and things like that. Again, each of these behavior is rewarded.

Sometimes there are days, though, where I’m too sick to do even some of these behaviors, and then I usually do something that will both give him some nutrition and some mental activity. This is generally giving him a knuckle bone to chew in his crate, or his Buster Cube or IQ Treat Ball to nudge around the house. The Buster Cube, in particular, holds an entire day’s worth of food, so I try to only use it if I think we’re not going to be doing any substantial training for 24 hours.

Barnum does actually get something every night that he clearly thinks of as a “meal,” although I consider it a “snack” because it’s a very small quantity of food. He gets several squirts of salmon oil, and a dropper full of Lyme-prevention tincture, usually mixed with two scoops of canned dog food. Sometimes instead of the wet food, he gets a small amount of table scraps — a bit of leftover rice or veggies — or some cottage cheese or raw liver or kidney. I say that Barnum perceives it as a meal because it’s in his bowl, it happens at about the same time every night, he is absolutely thrilled about it (and looks forward to it all evening, once it’s set up on his crate), and he always needs to go out to eliminate after. So, it has the routine of a meal that dogs seem to love.

If Barnum were a total foodie, or if he did not eat primarily a raw meat diet, I would probably make sure to give him more meals. Raw food is digested much more slowly than cooked food, so a raw-fed dog can go a day or two on one large meal and not be overly hungry. Barnum is also a self-regulating dog. When he gets full, he stops eating, even if there is more food available. In the case of his MannersMinder, he’ll just walk away from it and lie down somewhere else. If he had a piece of raw meat that he doesn’t want, he will “bury” it by wrapping it inside the sheet on his dog bed! (I take it out and put it back in the freezer.)

Still, it’s true that if we go a few days with very little training, Barnum might start acting ravenous, and then I’ll give him an actual meal, which is a big hunk of raw meat, usually a partial chicken carcass, but sometimes raw fish or pork. He’s usually only hungry enough for a real meal once every one or two weeks.

Anyone who has seen Barnum in the flesh knows that there is plenty of it (flesh, I mean) on his bones. He’s not fat, but he’s definitely not skinny!

So, have no fear, dog lovers, Barnum is well fed!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I didn’t get all this gourmet food my whole life!), and Barnum, well-fed and pampered SD/SDiT

P.S. I still consider myself to be on blogging hiatus, but I am trying to do short posts as issues arise that I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle.

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6 Responses to “Don’t Worry, I Don’t Starve My Dog”


  1. 1 Cyndy Otty June 20, 2012 at 8:06 am

    A different situation than yours, but I can relate to the bewildered questions about food. Judging from the, um, comments I received prior to Yara’s EPI diagnosis, I think people take well being a bit far sometimes. Their hearts are theoretically in the proper place when it comes to their concern, but some synapse is misfiring that leads them to believe that actual cruelty is occurring where logic and fact dictate otherwise. I had to set the record straight countless times with my situation — and there was technically evidence to the contrary since Yara was ill and rapidly losing weight. But honestly, I’m still a bit wounded at the accusations that were made.

    FWIW, there was a point with Uschi where she wasn’t getting regular meals because she wouldn’t eat a regular meal. And so I would trick her into getting enough food in her belly via training incentives and the like. I’m glad that she’s finally back to eating properly, though, as it’s much easier on me. But I think that added work we did not only helped her get over her fear/stress but alsostrengthened our bond.

  2. 2 pattibrehler June 20, 2012 at 8:14 am

    Excellent post, Sharon. It’s too bad that service dog handlers have to deal with the public’s “concern.”

  3. 3 Sharon Wachsler June 20, 2012 at 9:28 am

    Oh, no. This is someone close to me who asked in a careful, caring way. I wasn’t at all offended. I thought it was a valid question. Maybe I should put that in the post.

    Yes, sometimes the public has ideas that are ridiculous, like if the patches say, “Don’t pet me, I’m working,” they think the dog is never petted by anyone! But that’s not what this post was about. This was a sincere response to what I imagined others might also be thinking.

  4. 4 Sharon Wachsler June 20, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Hi Cyndy.

    Yes, I remember reading about when Yara had EPI and how horrible the situation must have been. I can imagine how people who saw her losing weight would be concerned. So, that must have just added to your already stressful and upsetting situation, to have to keep explaining that she was sick and that you were doing your utmost to help her. It sounded like a truly horrible time.

    I’m glad the “bonus training” with Uschi helped in additional ways, along with getting food in her. This reminds me of when Barnum was a puppy and he didn’t eat much. I had read about how puppies should eat three meals a day so they wouldn’t have low blood sugar, and I was so worried because he refused to eat most meals. Looking back, I realize probably all those articles and books that said, “YOU MUST FEED YOUR PUPPY THREE MEALS A DAY OR HE WILL GET SICK AND DIE!!” probably were not written for people who were doing several clicker sessions with food rewards a day. I actually called his breeder — the only time I did — because I was so worried he wouldn’t eat, and she was like, “Yeah. He’s not going to let himself starve.” I was such a clueless puppy mommy! LOL

  5. 5 pattibrehler June 20, 2012 at 10:53 am

    Maybe I should have read your post more closely, because I read it a bit differently. It’s a good point you bring to light of how others’ perception of what is really happening might be inconceivable to ourselves.

  6. 6 brilliantmindbrokenbody June 24, 2012 at 12:52 am

    Yikes! I can’t imagine thinking that you didn’t feed your dog, or fasted him for performance. I’m guessing it’s someone who doesn’t have a huge amount of experience training a dog. Anything that makes a dog feel crappy is going to make them not perform as well – including being distracted by too much hunger.

    ~Kali


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