The Behavioral Side of Eating

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

I leave dry food down for my dog all the time, but she never eats when I’m gone. As soon as I come home, though, she eats it all. Why does she do that?

Many seemingly strange canine behaviors often make sense when viewed in terms of the three strongest animal priorities:

  • Establish and protect the territory
  • Find food and water
  • Reproduce

Until an animal feels secure in its territory, it won’t feel comfortable eating or drinking. Until it has enough to eat and drink, it will have difficulty successfully mating, giving birth, and/or raising its young.

What do you think your dog does when you leave it alone? Many times our answers reflect our beliefs about what we would do or how we think our dogs should feel under those circumstances far more than any canine reality. If we feel guilty about leaving our dogs, we may envision them pining for our return the entire time. If we see nothing wrong with leaving our pets while we go off to work or play, we may imagine them happily playing with their toys, eating, drinking, and napping the entire time we’re gone.

In reality, though, most of our pets’ behavior probably falls somewhere between these two extremes because of that deeply rooted need to establish and protect their territories. Let’s consider the behavior of two dogs, Barney and Nibblet, to see how different dogs may respond to the same changes in their environments when left alone by their owners.

Barney, a well-trained, stable dog, dozes off in a favorite patch of sunlight shortly after his owner departs, but snaps to instant alertness the moment he hears the letter carrier or meter reader coming up the walk, or the school bus stopping in front of the house next door. When this occurs, he lets out a few barks to alert the perceived intruder of his presence and protect his territory. After the intruder leaves, Barney takes a few laps of water, nibbles a few crunchies, chews on his favorite toy for a while, and dozes off again.

Nibblet doesn’t feel as secure in his surroundings as Barney does and he never quite settles down. Because he’s constantly alert lest he miss any change in his territory, he reacts to the sound of the wind in the trees and squirrels running through his owner’s yard as well as the letter carrier, meter reader, and school bus. In addition to reacting to more real or imagined threats to his territory, Nibblet also reacts longer. Whereas Barney drops the matter once he’s acknowledged the intruder with a bark or two, Nibblet barks from the instant of first awareness until he feels convinced the intruder has disappeared completely. Because he lives in a busy neighborhood, that means he barks while the letter carrier and meter reader visit every house on the block, and he barks every time the school bus starts or stops anywhere in the development in which his owner lives. Consequently Nibblet spends practically all of his time protecting his territory and rarely relaxes, let alone feels comfortable enough to eat or drink. When his owner arrives home and relieves him of the burden of protecting that space, however, he dives right into his food.

If Nibblet experiences no medical or behavioral problems, then his owner can probably ignore his feeding pattern. On the other hand, if he’s prone to nonspecific vomiting or other digestive problems, if he’s a member of a breed prone to bloat or gastric torsion, or if he chews rugs and furniture, disturbs others with his incessant barking, or marks the couch or his owner’s bed with urine or stool, then his owner needs to think about ways to make him feel more comfortable in his territory when left alone.

Basic training to build canine confidence and low-keyed owner departures and home-comings can help relieve territory-related tension. Dogs trained to hold a down for thirty minutes often will roll over and fall asleep, and owners who give this command before they leave set the stage for their pets to relax in their absence. Owners who leave quietly and greet their pets calmly when they return eliminate much of the tension exuberant owner departures and arrivals may generate.

Providing carriers with cozy old-sweatshirt bedding, or old sleeping bags or other comfy nooks where the dog can get away for a quiet nap also can help. While keeping the radio or television tuned to the owner’s regular station may comfort some dogs, sound machines that produce “white noise” that blocks out a myriad of sounds may be more effective stress-relievers for others.

The more we do to create a secure territory our dogs can easily protect, the more apt they’ll be to eat and drink normally in our absence.