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Q&A | What to do if a spaniel is choosy about his food?

For a breed that lives to eat, it is always a surprise to see or hear about an English cocker who refuses his food in a manner of an ingenue prepping for her big break.

Yet, these dogs clearly exist because their mums and dads contact me on a practically daily basis asking a very simple question “Why my dog does not eat?”

So lets discuss several scenarios that may lead to anorexia (which is a veterinary term that describes loss of appetite) and ways to help your dog re-discover his inner gourmet.

Is it just because he no longer likes his food? Not always…

Dogs may refuse to eat because…

… they are not feeling well. Most dogs are likely to skip their meals if they have temperature, feel nauseous, have diarrhoea, or any kind of digestive discomfort. Several serious health problems can also lead to anorexia.

… they are getting older. Just like humans, dogs begin to lose their sense of taste with age. This can lead to loss of interest in food or changes in food preferences.

… they had diarrhoea or felt sick after eating their meal. This does not need to be immediate for a dog to put two and two together. The time lapse between eating and sickness can be as long as several hours.

… they tasted medicine added to their food. If a dog hated the taste of medication (or worse, felt any form of discomfort after eating the meal – see above), he may start associating all his meals with the one containing meds – and refuse them all together.

… they are teething or have dental problems. Teething puppies may refuse their kibble during their teething period because their gums often become swollen and may even bleed. Adults suffering from dental issues are likely to lose interest in their food, too. Dry food or any food that requires chewing and toothache don’t make a good combo.

… they recently had their vaccinations or boosters. Some dogs may be more sensitive to the vaccines and lose their appetite for a day or two as a result of feeling a bit “off”. This does not mean that you need to start skipping vaccinations – this inappetence is temporary and your spaniel should be back to his happy self within days. If you are concerned or unsure, talk to your vet.

… they are stressed. The brain suppresses hunger and digestive function during periods of stress and focuses on the vital aspects of survival instead. It is important to bear in mind that dogs can’t simply relax if the stressful even is over – instead some may “pile up” the stressors and become chronically anxious. This will affect their appetite accordingly.

… they suffer from separation anxiety. For many dogs, separation anxiety is a stressful event (see above) and a form of panic attack. During such moments food and treats become irrelevant.

… they find themselves in an unfamiliar territory. Travels, trips and house moves can make a pup stressed and lose interest in his food until he is either content with the changes or returns home.

… they don’t like their bowls. This may sound really odd, but dogs can be picky about their bowls – their shape, colour, depth, height or even the noise it makes if dragged around the floor during meal times.

… they can smell or taste the change of ingredients in their food. Sometimes pet food manufacturers decide to alter the recipe without any notifications. The dog won’t even need to read the label to know something is not quite the same anymore. He’ll be able to smell it as soon as the bag is opened.

… they prefer different texture. By nature, most dogs would prefer to eat moist cooked food over kibble because they can consume wet food faster and easier than a typical dry dinner.

… they know the food is gone off. It can be past it’s expiry date or you may simply have a bag that’s been opened for too long.

… they have been overfed. If they overeat once or twice, most dogs will naturally do their best to avoid food until they restore the equilibrium, which may take a day or two. This can change for overweight or obese dogs because brain chemistry and their response to hunger can change.

… they have been given too many options. Dogs are smart. They also like novelty even though they don’t particularly need it long-term. They can train you to feed them a variety of foods and treats very easily just so they can try as many things as possible at least once. If the “sad puppy eye” technique works, many spaniels can literally pressure you into giving them only “the good stuff” and ignore their dog food as completely unworthy. In 1987 Fogel even came up with a term “starvation games” to describe this behaviour. Sums it up perfectly.

... they have been given too many treats and snacks between their main meals and don’t feel hungry by the time their own meal is served.

So what can you do?

First of all, make sure that your dog is well and healthy: watch him, look out for any changes in his appearance, behaviour and toilet habits, check his mouth and teeth, and consult a vet.

If you feed kibble, try changing the texture by adding warm water to the dry biscuits, just enough to create “a gravy”, then leave to cool before feeding.

Weigh his food to avoid overfeeding.

Stick to meal times. If your dog is an adult and can technically skip a meal without serious outcomes (this is different for puppies!) leave his bowl for 10 minutes – and remove if he didn’t touch it or left something out. Serve the following meal according to schedule.

Do not feed table scraps and too many treats.

Avoid adding “just a bit of chicken” to your dog’s food to encourage him to eat. He will eat the chicken. And then ask for more… chicken… And then he will manipulate you to obey him over and over and over again. Because now chicken is life…

Check the ingredients list on your dog’s food for any changes and expiry dates.

Do try to change your dog food once, usually from kibble to wet option. Ensure that the new food you choose is complete and balanced, and remember to make a gradual swap over several days – not overnight.

Do not start swapping various dog foods every other week to see if there’s something he may like. Best case scenario is that he will like the first new food you give him and happily eat it. If he doesn’t approve your choice and you start offering him something new over and over again you are likely to end up dealing with frequent bounds of diarrhoea or finicky behaviour.

If your dog is old, try hand-feeding him by putting small pieces of food in his mouth to stimulate taste buds and encourage him to eat. Always discuss this with your vet and nutritionist to make them aware or the problem and any improvements.

Mix food and fun by using food as training treats or hiding it inside enrichment toys.

Make sure that your dog is comfortable when eating – his bowl is at the right height for him and doesn’t spin around the kitchen floor turning every meal time into hard work.

 

Photo source: “Tell me this isn’t celery” (C) by Cartoon Comics for Shutterstock / Perfect cocker spaniel

Are English cocker spaniel aggressive? Research and science-supported evidence of cocker spaniel behaviour / Rage syndrome / Perfect cocker spaniel dog blog, breed & puppy guide (C) Natalia Ashton

Can English cocker spaniels be aggressive? Let’s talk about biting, growling & the rage syndrome

Can an English cocker spaniel be aggressive? Of course! But does it mean that a sweet puppy you just picked up is going to viciously attack you at every given opportunity? Not at all.

Let me put it simply.

Any dog, absolutely any dog, cocker or not, can react. Just like any living being, you and me included. We have our off-days and moments when something or somebody scares, frustrates or annoys us. Do we just “smile and wave”? No, we don’t. Which makes us pretty similar to dogs. Yet, dogs are still kinder, I’d say. They bite without breaking hearts. Humans, on the other hand, can come up with all sorts of cruel outcomes.

So let’s focus on our dogs and English cockers today and discuss the subject of sudden and no so sudden aggression these dogs can exhibit.

First of all, the forever hot topic that I simply must include in this post – the Rage Syndrome.

Cockers are said to be one of the breeds know to have a tendency for this trait. In short, the affected dog is said to suddenly become aggressive towards his owners, bite hard without warning, often have a change in facial expression and eyes, and then stop as if falling out of some uncontrollable state. It has never really been scientifically proven, but solids (reds and golden cockers, in particular) were said to suffer from it.

There were a few studies that looked at aggression in English cocker spaniels, however.

The one from 1996 was conducted by the Kennel Club and involved two thousand ECS owners chosen at random. The 1008 responded (and 932 were found to be suitable) by completing a questionnaire that included information about age, gender, neuter status, and coat colour. The owners were also asked to use a 1-5 scale to indicate whether or not their dogs ever showed aggression towards various stimuli including…

… aggression towards other dogs (1)

… aggression towards strangers approaching the dog (2)

… aggression towards visitors (3)

… aggression towards people approaching the owner when out and about (4)

… aggression towards children in the household (5)

… aggression towards other dogs in the household (6)

… aggression towards owner showing attention to other person or animal (7)

… aggression towards the owner or family member (8)

… aggression when disciplined (9)

… aggression when reached for or handled (10)

… aggression in restricted spaces (11)

… aggression at meal times / defending food (12)

… aggression without apparent reason (13)

The results of the researched showed that…

… solid cockers showed aggression in 2-13 situations and red/golden spaniels were more likely to be aggressive in situations 1, 4, 5, 7-13 compared to black cockers;

… males were more likely to react when with other dogs, towards their owner, when disciplined and when reached for or handled;

… females were more likely to become aggressive towards other dogs in the household, and neutered females were more likely to become aggressive towards children in the household;

While “the rage syndrome” was one of the main reasons for the research, the study could not determine whether or not it truly existed or was just a combination of genetic and neuroendocrine factors. It did however highlight two very important points:

… “neutering was not found to be useful as a preventative measure for aggression”

..and…

… aggression was always a result of a stimulus.

Even though the paper did not describe nor specify any conditions the dogs were raised and housed, whether or not they were socialised and trained, if they were free or lead- or barrier -constrained when meeting strangers or other dogs, and how the children approached these dogs or what kind of “discipline” was used, it made it absolutely clear – none of these English cocker spaniels acted out of nothing

To explain my scepticism towards the missing information situation by situation from 1 to 12, I need to mention that dogs naturally

… (1) may feel growly towards other dogs, especially when the other dog approaches in a certain manner, the cocker is restrained and have no means of avoiding the situation, or the cocker is suffering from fear-related reactivity;

… (2) do not enjoy being approached by strangers, especially when strangers start reaching out trying to touch the dog – it is the dog who should be allowed to approach a stranger if and when he is comfortable to do so, not the other way around;

… (3) see visitors as intruders unless this habit is eliminated through positive training during puppy socialisation weeks;

… (4) are suspicious of strangers approaching the dog’s owner unless the dogs are properly socialised or counter-conditioned out of the “habit”; They may also feel uneasy about anyone moving at unsteady pace (think, drunk people, for example) or carrying objects;

… (5) do not attack children unless provoked through acts of affection (which can be annoying and frustrating for the dog unless he is fully awake and prepared for it), high pitched noises, fast movement and running (dogs see these as an invitation to chase and catch), actions that dogs simply wouldn’t tolerate (think how many parents would insist of taking a photo of the dog next to a child or a child hugging the dog or, worse, sitting or lying on top of the dog) – several studies (1, 2, 3) ) concluded that young children, especially boys, were likely to be bitten by dogs, but none of them had details on the causes of the bites as those were never discussed with the families;

… (6) take time to accept other dogs in their household, especially when one dog is older than the other or they are of the same gender, or one of the dogs suffers from illnesses that leaves him in pain or discomfort, so unless the owner knows how to introduce and manage these dogs, they can end up fighting;

… (7) feel insecure (especially at young age) when the owner shows affection towards other animals or dogs, however cockers can be jealous at times and react;

… (8) avoid getting into any situation when they’d attact the owner, so there are a lot of reasons that may push the dog over the threshold – and these were not mentioned here; according to another study, cockers often showed “impulse aggression towards owners”, which can often be a result of spoiling the dog and allowing him to do anything he pleases instead of teaching him respectful behaviour (with Deference protocol as a reference source); a 2017 study highlighted that “spayed/neutered dogs were more aggressive towards owner”; and one more study showed that “nurture also influenced whether or not a dog was aggressive; the variance due to the sire heritability of aggression was only 0.2 (20%) whereas that due to the dam was 0.46 (46%) indicating a maternal-environmental effect”;

… (9) will not growl when disciplined unless the type of “discipline” involves a form of punishment, the dog learnt to associate the “discipline” with unpleasant outcomes or the dog is reactive as a result of fear or stress brough up by “discipline” methods, incorrect training, lack of socialisation, owner’s own emotional state, improper diet, pain, discomfort etc.;

… (10) do not like being “reached for” – it is the unwritten rule that you do not approach a dog, but let the dog approach you; additionally, dogs who are reactive, fearful, in pain, or startled when approached (say, they are losing hearing or were asleep when approached) are likely to snap, too;

… (11) like to have enough room for moving around (that’s why dogs find it extremely odd and stressful to walk at heel down a busy crowded street); a form of enclosure, barrier or anything that prevents their ability to escape danger should it be necessary, raises the dog’s stress levels and likely to lead to reactivity and “aggressive behaviour”;

… (12) do not share food or treats they are currently enjoying; they can be trained to know that there’s no harm at having your hand touch their bowl during dinner or spitting the horrible looking  piece of street junk, but unless a dog is coached properly, with kindness and patience, from the very beginning, he will snap trying to protect his “treasure”.

But as long as it’s getting (for which I apologise – and would be happy to buy you a coffee should we ever meet to browse the blog together), this story is not going to be complete without a few further studies.

A fabulous 1997 study published in VetRecord by British Veterinary Association analysed behaviour of 285 owners of purebred English cockers to reveal that “the owners of high aggression dogs were significantly more likely to be tense, emotionally less stable, shy and undisciplined than owners of low aggression dogs” and owners of “low” aggression dogs were older and had strong bond with their cockers (Podberscek & Serpell, 1997), which we can now explain even more when combined with recent research about dogs mimicking their owners stress hormone levels and another peer-reviewed study that discussed impulsive aggression, “a trait more common in ECSs” and low levels of serotonin in dogs that exhibited such a behaviour.

Two more pieces of research that worth a mention is a 2010 study that looked into brain structure and development of aggressive and non-aggressive dogs (the cockers fell into the non-aggressive group) and another study from 2010 that looked into several genes found in ECSs to see if there is a link between canine aggression and dopamine- and serotonin-related genes defined previously. They discovered that four of the genes of the aggressive dogs had distorted haplotypes when compared to non-aggressive dogs.

And since I’ve already mentioned that neutered dogs were not essentially well-behaved following their surgery, look into the studies on neutering showing undesirable behavioural changes, increased aggression towards other dogs in castrated dogs, and owner-directed aggression in neutered springer spaniels.

Additionally, diet and environment play a vital role in developing of behaviour, too, and should not be overlooked. In fact, I think that, after genetics, diet is the most vital element since the body develops from and depends on the nutrients, so the deficiency or excess of some can make a huge impact on the behaviour.

How can you ensure that your cocker spaniel is not the aggressive type? Well, in reality, you cannot have an insurance for that… Instead you can…

… get a puppy from the KC-assured breeder;

… see puppy parents;

… see the way a puppy behaves;

…  feed your spaniel a balanced complete diet;

… socialise and train your dog;

… protect your young puppy from excessive exposure to emotional and physical stimuli, positive or negative, and allow him plenty of rest;

… teach young children how to handle a puppy correctly;

… don’t neuter your dog to “fix” his behaviour;

… train using positive methods, not devices or punishment;

… be calm no matter what or as much as possible;

… love your dog unconditionally.

Image credit: Katrin B. from Pixabay

Reasons why dog like to dig so much / Canine behaviour explained / Perfect cocker spaniel, dog blog and book guide to English cockers and puppy guide, grooming, diet, nutrition, training / (C) Natalia Ashton

Seven reasons why spaniels like to dig so much

Once in a while we get to share our lives with a dog who loves to dig. In fact, most of them do. It’s just some seem to be obsessed while others tend to grow out of the habit after escaping adolescence.

So why do they do it? Why some pups treat our garden as their play ground while others act in the manner of the obsessed treasure hunters?

Here are a few reasons to explain their behaviour – and help you solve the puzzle if your cocker is particularly keen on remodelling the lawn and flower beds like they are going out of fashion.

Fun

Puppies will dig because it’s fun and as a part of their learning and exploring development. You can desensitise them by using the area for playing, training and other activities that take the pup’s mind away from excessive digging. Puppy-proofing the garden can also help.

Prey drive

Cocker may leave the proper hunting for terriers, but they do love and can sniff out and hear any form of life crawling in the grass or soil. And some dogs will do their best to find out exactly what those creatures are by digging them out. Desensitising the pooch, using the area to play “find food” and scatter feeding (by throwing kibble on the grass for your dog to find), and reducing the unwanted guests whenever possible are the best solutions.

Boredom

Dogs may dig when they are either tired and frustrated or don’t get enough mental and physical stimulation during a day. Re-think and plan your routine. Giving your dog enough time to run and explore, adding a few training sessions and using food puzzle toys and interactive games should help.

Phobias

Dogs who suffer with fears (for example, a fear of loud noises, thunderstorm or fireworks) or severe separation anxiety may try to dig their way out of the confined area.

If this is the case, find out the reasons for your dog’s fears and work out a plan to support him. You can find some tips on separation anxiety and helping a dog get through the fireworks season on the blog, but consulting a behaviourist can be extremely useful.

Hot weather

Have you noticed how much cooler the soil or sand inside a hole is? This is precisely the reason why a dog may dig a cosy nest on a hot day. It’s their version of a cool mat! Avoid the problem by providing plenty of shady spots, cool mats and damp towels for your dog to use instead of digging holes.

The bone collector

Some dogs may dig a hole to hide items that are either particularly precious to them or to save something for a rainy day. The least destructive, this habit can be stopped by supervising your dog, distracting him with toys or cues, or keeping him out of the garden while he is playing with chews or toys he’s likely to turn into… let’s call them… preserves.

Nature calls

Pregnant bitches may dig to create a safe nest and the boys may dig spots near fences if they can smell a female in heat. The most effective way is to keep your dog under supervision when at home, and on a lead during walks.

Help them with kindness and love, and avoid any deterrents (chemical, electrical or noise-producing) that may stop the dog from digging, but only as a result of fear. Trust me, hugs and fun are much more effective!

 

Photo credit: ktphotography from Pixabay