#20 - Building Food Motivation

[00:00:00] Allie: For those of you who have individuals in your home who are good eaters, where you’re like, “Yeah, this isn’t potentially relevant to me.” It may, at some point in time become relevant to you. I have somebody who is a very good eater, and that change in his eating schedule, and his eating habits was the tip off to me that something is wrong, and that’s a very common thing that happens as our pets age.

Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:00:44] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:45] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts. Last week we heard from Kathy Sdao, and one of the topics we discussed was food motivation myths. This week, we’re going to dive further into how to build food motivation in your pet and talk about implementation with the animals in your life.

In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about how food motivation is malleable, factors to take into account when changing the environment to make food more desirable, the yellow flag I saw with Oso, my quote unquote good eater when he didn’t eat one night, and the change that Emily made for her dog Copper, which changed him from a finicky eater to someone who reliably eats.

I’m so glad that we had Kathy on to talk about food motivation, especially cause I think this is a topic that will likely impact all pets. At some point in time. As she said, there are nuances to this topic like eating meals in general, versus taking treats during training, versus being picky about what kinds of food they’ll eat, versus discriminating based on how food is delivered, and more, and because all living beings need to eat in order to survive, it’s a topic that is relevant to all pets of all species.

[00:02:09] Emily: It’s interesting that a lot of times people think of not food motivated as a single phenomenon when in reality, there’s actually a lot of different reasons that an animal might appear to not be food motivated, which means that there’s a lot of different things that we can explore to change or improve that, which is great news. Because it means that there’s a lot of different options to us. We’re not powerless. We can try lots of different things to figure out what’s going to be successful for any, any given pet.

[00:02:41] Allie: Absolutely. That’s a good reminder for behavior professionals that are listening too because a lot of time we’re only thinking about stress as a reason for not eating, as professionals who work primarily with anxiety related behaviors, but Kathy brought up a good point that this can also be a learned behavior.

[00:02:58] Emily: I think we’ve both encountered a lot of behavior professionals who think, not food motivated means the animal is chronically stressed, which is in many cases true, but there’s a lot of other possible explanations. But then, you know, the pet owners and lay people tend to think of it as this intrinsic trait.

Like there’s nothing that can be done because my dog just isn’t food motivated. Just intrinsically as who, who they are, right? And in either case, there’s actually good news. Like we have more options than that. There’s more to explore.

[00:03:30] Allie: That’s a good segue into our take aways. So, let’s get into some takeaways that you can implement with your pet.

[00:03:36] Emily: All right. The first one that we need to talk about is, again, we probably sound like a broken record, but really research your species, the species of animals that you’re living with. And get to know their eating habits as a species, their natural history. Where would they eat? What would they eat? What is their eating schedule look like? How much do they typically eat? When you know, what is typical for the species that you’re living with, you can have a better idea of what is normal or what is typical, uh, what you should expect from the animal that you live with.

[00:04:11] Allie: And in addition to that, looking at eating habits as they age as well, like I know for Zorro, what the dietary needs are for a little baby, tiny turtle is different than an adult turtle. They’re more carnivorous as they’re younger, and more herbivorous as they’re older. So, looking at the natural eating habits for your species across life stages as well.

[00:04:35] Emily: That’s a really good point.

[00:04:37] Allie: Our second takeaway is to make sure they’re eating enough to maintain a healthy body weight. Now, as Kathy and Emily talked about in last week’s episode, those of us living in the US may have a skewed idea of what a healthy body weight looks like. So, we recommend that you check out a body condition score for your pet species.

If they aren’t eating enough to maintain a healthy body weight, see your vet ASAP, since that can be an indication that there’s an underlying medical cause. And no matter how good you are at training, you can’t out-train a medical issue.

[00:05:09] Emily: Because I love to work with all different species. I have to actually give a shout out to non-mammalian species who don’t really have body condition scores. That’s not true for all non-mammals, but a lot of them like birds, for instance, they don’t have body condition scores because they lay fat internally, and if you see fat under the skin, you’re in trouble, that animal is morbidly obese. Right? So, for those species who aren’t mammals, who don’t lay the body fat down, outside under the skin first, there are other ways to learn how to make sure that they’re getting a healthy amount of calories. So again, going back to point 1, get to know your species, but for, for most other animals, and especially all of the mammals that we live with, body condition score charts are, are super great.

And our third takeaway is, paying attention to what Kathy was saying last week about being very purposeful, and intentional, and aware of the contexts in which food is being given. So, remembering what is happening immediately before the behavior, what is the consequence of the behavior, of eating? I mean, specifically. All of the things surrounding eating, the environment, the time of day, who’s present in the room, remember that one case that Kathy discussed where the person themselves had become the signal to not eat to the dog? And so, they had to teach the dog how to eat in that person’s presence again. Thinking about, the times where food has predicted really unpleasant things for the animal, so that they no longer want to eat in those contexts, because food has predicted unhappy outcomes. Be aware of all of those possibilities as you’re watching your animal eat or not eat. Try to figure out how you can change the environment, so that food itself has a really lovely association for the animal, and that food is a context for desirable behaviors, all those different things that Kathy discussed last week. When we are more mindful, and paying closer attention, and observing the contexts in which our animals are not eating, we can typically figure out what the culprit is, but if you can’t, if you’re like, “Look, I’m just a pet parent, I don’t know all this stuff.”

That’s what behavior professionals are for. So, hire a behavior professional, and if you are a behavior professional, you still may need a behavior professional, because none of us can be our own behavior consultants. We all lose objectivity when we’re talking about our own pets. Like Kathy was discussing, many of her clients who come to her for food motivation issues, our behavior professionals themselves.

So, it’s always good to reach out to somebody else to get help if you’re having a hard time figuring out the culprit of the food motivation issues on your own.

[00:07:59] Allie: I don’t remember if Kathy said this in last week’s episode, but I know I’ve heard her say that you need to be looking at what is different for your pet.

And so, my example of this for today is a story about Oso, shocker, I know. But it’s a story about Oso and how I saw a change in his eating habits, and that, that was alarming to me because it was a change in his eating habits. Now, Oso is a good eater, quote, unquote y’all, can’t see that because podcast, but also is a good eater.

He is not picky. He likes eating all of the things, he doesn’t typically skip meals. All of that, all that, that goes into what being a good eater looks like. This past summer, he had a night where he didn’t eat dinner. Now, we usually feed Oso, his dinners out of food puzzles, and so we put his food puzzled down just like every other night for the last however many years.

And he said, ” No, I don’t want to eat that.” And I thought, ” That’s weird. That is abnormal behavior for him. I’m going to keep an eye on this.” Even though it was just one meal that he missed, that to me was a yellow flag. Ooh, maybe this is something. And then the next night he was like, “No, I don’t want to eat that either.”

Okay, well this is now becoming very strange two nights in a row that he’s not eating, and we said, what if we try your bowl instead of a food puzzle? And he’s like, “Yes, I will eat out of a bowl.”

We took it to, uh, to our vet, and they were like, “Yeah, it’s, you know, sometimes they don’t eat as they get older.”

And I was like, “No, no, no. Oso’s normal is eating every single meal. Is eating every single piece of food that drops onto the floor. I know that when we’re talking about like dogs in general, maybe this isn’t concerning, but for my individual dog, this is concerning.”

What we ended up realizing is Oso has a chronic shoulder injury, which I talk about fairly frequently now because he’s a senior and it’s a big part of our lives now.

The days that his shoulder was hurting, he wasn’t willing to eat out of his food puzzle. It wasn’t that he wasn’t hungry, it was that most likely, it was a little bit too owie to eat out of a food puzzle. On the days that his shoulder hurt, we’d say like, “Okay, do you want a food puzzle?”

He would say, “No.” He’d turn his nose up at it, wouldn’t eat. And we’d say, “All right, we can, we have other options here, buddy.” On the days that he’s feeling okay, food puzzle is fine, he dives right into it, all of that good sort of stuff. One of the things that I wanted to point out is for those of you who have individuals in your home who are good eaters, where you’re like, “Yeah, this isn’t potentially relevant to me.”

It may, at some point in time become relevant to you. I have somebody who is a very good eater and that change in his eating schedule and his eating habits was the tip off to me that something is wrong, and that’s a very common thing that happens as our pets age.

[00:10:54] Emily: Yeah, I think that’s a really good example, and I’m also going to use one of my dogs as my example for today because Copper is a really interesting case of appearing to have food motivation issues as well.

He had always, as long as we had had him, which I think he was about two and a half when Chuck adopted him.

So, as long as we’d known Copper, he would just have days where he didn’t want to eat, and he just wouldn’t eat that day, and the next day he needed a normal amount of food. And we weren’t too concerned about it because he was maintaining his weight, he ate enough unfrequently enough that he was able to maintain his weight.

We weren’t super concerned. I was working for a vet at the time where I was able to take him in, we did some GI diagnostic stuff. Couldn’t find anything. So, um, we just kind of accepted it again. Behavior professionals lose perspective with their own pets, right? We just kind of accepted that Copper was a dog who some days just didn’t want to eat, and lived that way for a few years. Brie has a lot of health issues, so she always has to have a pretty expensive kind of a home cooked, or a raw diet something along those lines. She’s never been able to handle kibble, and because Chuck and I both had limited incomes at the time, we kind of had to this, the squeaky wheel got the oil, right? So, Brie was getting the really expensive diet. So, we had Copper on a pretty decent quality kibble, and it was, that was kind of our status quo. Well, when Chuck and I both started to get paid more, and we made more money, we were able to allocate more of our budget to pet food. And so, we started feeding Copper, the same diet that we give to Brie, so a nutritionally balanced, home cooked meal, and he immediately turned into a dog who always loves food, who always wants to eat. He never has off days. I realized that he probably was getting some kind of upset tummy, like low-level upset tummy from eating this extruded kibble.

And the reason I think it’s that as opposed to just a taste preference is because on the days that he wouldn’t eat, he wouldn’t just not eat kibble. He didn’t want to eat anything. He wouldn’t even eat treats, or chicken, or cheese, or anything. He was really just kind of off of food for that day, and then when we switched him off of kibble onto a home cooked diet, he immediately went to not having any off days where he’s always down to eat whatever we offer him.

And so, I don’t think it’s just like, well, yeah, of course, he’s going to be a more eager eater he’s getting, fresh food. It’s more than that because, the finickiness completely went away. So, he doesn’t have any days like that now. He has no off days. I do want to say really quickly, my story is not bashing kibble in general, I think we all know that nutrition, like behavior, is a study of one, and there are some dogs for whom kibble is absolutely the right choice. Specific kibble diets may be the right choice. So, I’m not bashing kibble, but for my individual dog, for Copper, it seemed to be causing some kind of low level GI upset where he just had days that he just didn’t feel like eating. And getting him off of that was the best diet for him because now he has none of those days. He’s always down to eat, which is what we would expect from an opportunistic scavenger species. So again, not only, you know, Allie and I are using our own pets as examples, but also this is a really good example of how I lost perspective because it was my own dog.

And if I had asked one of my behavior professional friends and colleagues to give me input, they probably would have been like, “Emily, would you tell a client that it’s just normal that some dogs just skip eating every once in a while for a day?” And of course I would’ve said, ” No, that’s, I would never say that to a client.” but it was, it was a really important learning experience for me.

[00:14:43] Allie: That’s a really good point, too. When we’re talking with clients, and we’re asking them about GI issues, and GI upset, a lot of people don’t see the kind of like lower-level signals that maybe there’s something wrong. And this is true for, for all of us, I’m not saying this is only true for people who are not behavior professionals, as you just said, Emily, you also missed it with your own pets.

And so it’s really easy to miss with your own pet, but you know, when we’re talking about GI issues, a lot of people are only looking for vomiting, or diarrhea, or runny stools, or whatever it is when it could be something as, as subtle as not taking food that they sometimes like sometimes don’t like, or there could be a whole lot of other things that go into that that are way beyond the scope of this conversation since diet affects so much of behavior. But that’s a really valid point, that diet is an important piece of this conversation.

[00:15:43] Emily: Absolutely. And of course, we run across lots and lots of cases where it is something like chronic stress, or acute stress, where the animal is so jacked up about something that they, they can’t care about food in that moment. So, we’re not saying that that’s never the case, but we wanted to pick situations where it wasn’t actually about stress. It was something else.

[00:16:05] Allie: Absolutely. There can be a lot of reasons beyond eating, and that’s why observing your species’ eating habits, and particularly your individual pet is so important.

So today we discussed building food motivation, and our takeaways for today are like, I just said, research and observe, uh, your species’ eating habits and natural history. Make sure your pet is eating enough to maintain a healthy body weight and be purposeful when it comes to using food, look at the environment and figure out how we can change the environment, or the consequence, or both so that we can improve eating habits.

Next week we’ll be talking with Ken Ramirez. I feel like Ken is a man who needs no introduction, and I could leave it just at next week we’ll be talking with Ken, and you’ll already be excited. But if you need further, enticement, Ken has been such a driving force in LIMA training and enrichment over the years, and it’s truly an honor to get to speak with him. From training elephants to change their migration paths to avoid poachers, to training I can’t remember if it was a beluga whale or a sea lion, cause you know, those are super similar, of course it’s a blow air rings in water, to training butterflies. He really has been there, done that, and seen it all.

And fun fact, his animal training book was the very first training book I ever got. I asked for it for Christmas, like 20 years ago. So, he has a special place in my heart, for sure.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.


Thank you for listening and happy training.

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