Why Are Dogs Always Hungry?
This is such a great question, and one I get asked all the time. So why are our dogs always hungry?
The answer isn't as straightforward as you might think. When we're thinking and asking questions about our dogs, we often come up with hypotheses to our questions based on our experiences - past, present, and future. When it comes to hunger and dogs, this general rule holds up. As we're unable to ask our dogs why they're always hungry (or at least, appear to be hungry), we have to look at a number of variables before we can take our best guess.
Age plays a huge role in determining your dog's appetite. Young, growing dogs in their puppy or adolescent stages of growth are absolutely hungry the vast majority of the time (barring any health issues, which I'll discuss in greater detail below) because they're growing. Their bodies grow fast, and they've got lots and lots of hormones fueling that growth. For our growing dogs, having a healthy, robust appetite ensures that they eat enough to grow strong, healthy, and ready for whatever the world might throw their way.
Dogs that are quite unwell, or dogs that are taking certain kinds of medication, may experience increased or decreased levels of hunger. In most cases, these kinds of changes (big upticks in hunger or decreased desire to eat) will be something your veterinarian talks to you at the time of your dog's diagnosis. My dog Gus is a great example of this. Gus has always had a really healthy appetite. He loves to eat, and he can't get enough of new flavors and textures. It's something we enjoy exploring together.
But when Gus came down with IMT (Immune Modulated Thrombocytopenia) in late 2021, he had to go on a big round of prednisone. This medication causes huge increases in both thirst and hunger, something Gus and I have been navigating ever since. I am hugely sympathetic to Gus' increased hunger, and do my utmost to provide healthy, low-calorie treats he can satisfy himself with between meals. It hasn't been easy, but keeping Gus healthy, free of distress, and on the course to full recovery is my #1 priority.
Dogs that receive dog food that is substandard in its quality nutritionally are often hungry despite eating their full mealtime allotment each day. This is because the dog's body is deficient in some key nutrients that keep them on the lookout for more food with which they can address why they're not feeling great. The key to this type of challenge is to take a close look at the food you're giving your dog each day, and being sure that it's a reputable brand made here in North America. Gus and I were with Petcurean for a long time before his IMT diagnosis, and today we rely on Hill's Veterinary formula to ensure he's getting what he needs on a daily basis.
Reinforcement & Behavior
The final key to this puzzle comes down to the kinds of behavior we reinforce with our dogs. Understanding that food is the fastest and most effective reinforcer when working to modify behavior with our dogs is critical here. When a dog begins to understand that you respond to them reliably to behaviors like: begging at the table, stealing food from plates, and counter-surfing, you can bet that you're going to get a whole lot more of that behavior.
Knowing this, should you punish your dog for these habits? Absolutely not. What's interesting here is that, even if your response is a negative one, the dog registers that you responded first and foremost. The nature of the response (pleasant/unpleasant) is secondary. What's worse, if you respond to this type of behavior with punishment, instead of getting a truly compliant dog who understands the boundaries of the household, you will have a dog that sneaks around behind your back. This is not a good setup for any relationship, let alone a cross-species one.
Instead, set yourself and your dog up for success in three easy steps:
1. Manage the environment. Remove any and all opportunities for counter surfing, plate stealing, and begging at the table. This may involve securing food where your dog cannot reach it, and giving your dog a tasty kong during mealtimes to dehabituate the begging behavior.
2. Stay consistent. Bad habits take a long time to unlearn, so stick with it. Over time, you'll begin to see the changes you want to see in your dog if your management is good and your responses to poor behavior are minimal.
3. Reinforce what you DO want. When you see your dog doing something you want to see your dog doing, reward them. Really make a big fuss. Be careful not to overdo it here though! If your dog is easily startled, gentle reinforcement and praise is the way to go here. Whatever you do, remember this: what we give our energy and attention to, we're going to get a lot more of. This is nowhere more true than in our relationships with our dogs.
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Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.