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I have a rescue dog who is three years old. She is relatively well trained but has a real obsession with food that I have never really been able to train away. The obsession is understandable, as she spent the first six months of her life on the street and, I suppose, not knowing when or how she will get her next meal at this young age. My theory is that she learnt to beg for food (she looks very cute), and often when there are triggers that she associates with food (such as the sound of opening the food box, etc.), she will start to squeak/whine a lot, shake, and generally try to look like something someone should pity her (to get more food).

She is well fed and well looked after (not malnourished), and reliably will get the food she needs to maintain a healthy weight. What I want are ways to make this less stressful for us both. I would like to eliminate the behaviour of whining, squeaking, and shaking, and I am careful to make sure she only is allowed to eat when she is behaving well. Often the following will happen: I will start to get her food out, she will start to whine, I will put it in her bowl and then tell her to go back in her basket or close the door to the room where the food is. I will then try and ignore her, so as not to encourage the squeaking and hope she connects that it isn't the squeaking that gets her food. When I see that she relaxes, I will then let her go to her bowl and eat the food.

I have tried a lot of things with her: I've worked with several trainers (who didn't help too much tbh), we do dummy training, and currently I am trying to carry all her food around in a bag and just give her portions of it when I see her relax (behaviour I want to encourage).

I don't know how to communicate better with her so that she doesn't have such stress and worry around feeding. It seems like she just gets overwhelmed as soon as there is the thought in her head that she might get food and all her cognitive ability goes out the window. She wont be able to follow a command like "sit" or "lay down," and will mix them up and just start trying random actions whatever command she is given to try and get the food. She is quite excitable and, regardless of whether she eats from the bowl or the dummy, the process even of interacting with the box where the food is kept is enough to induce this sort of panicked behaviour. Even the possibility that the door to the kitchen is closed (where the food is) can cause her to think that food is there for her (even when it isn't). I have tried a lot of searching but I have never really found much on dogs that behave like this and don't know what I am currently doing wrong that I could be doing better.

Edit: Added additional information based on an answer below

Yes I agree, something I am doing is not helping or even contributing to the issue. We have had success with basically every other facet of training apart from this one. Which seems to just have ups and downs but never significant meaningful progress. I like your suggestion of disruption and have tried some similar things in the past.

  • In general I keep her in the room furthest away from the kitchen with all the doors shut in between but somehow she still hears it. I set up a camera to test this, while she was in the lounge (where she typically likes to be), sleeping, I can see on the video that as soon as I interact with the box where her food bag is she wakes up hears it or smells it and is instantly tense. I know her senses are much more attuned than mine but really I set this up to be as quiet as is possible and somehow she is still aware of it.

  • The bowl really could be one of her triggers and I will change this, as she does almost always squeak (even if she had remained quiet up to this point) as soon as she hears her food hit the surface of the bowl.

  • I have tried sporadically to move her bowl into a different locations but this didn't have an observable change in her reaction.

  • The main acoustic cue for her is the food pellets knokcing each other as they are scooped out with the cup. Unfortunately changing her food is not possible as she has several food allergies and seems to only not react to one or two brands of dried horse food, almost everything else she can't eat - so the acoustic cues are hard to change. I thought about preparing all her portions for the week in advance so I could eliminate this by just dropping splitting a small bag and having the food fall out, instead of this big bag rustling multiple times a day.

She needs to see and hear the new cues of her feeding routine multiple times a day, at completely random times, without getting food. If you have a certain measuring cup to measure her food, take it up and put it back down without feeding her. If you have a certain spoon, move it around on the counter, just to make a sound. If her food is stored in a certain room, enter and leave the room without doing anything in there. If her food is in a big bag or sack, touch it just to make it rustle. And all that at least 10 times a day, every day.

This is really helpful and I will start doing this with her current food bag, maybe she can become desensitzed to it.

I currenlty feed her twice a day (after the morning walk and then after her evening walk), at lunchtime she normally gets some treats depending on how well her lunchtime walk goes. I can try and increase this to 3-4 times a day - I haven't tried that before.

Always feed her at the same time every day. That makes feeding more predictable.

I had been told before this should be something to avoid (I have no source), as it can mean she will start to always expect something at particular times and the time itself can then also become a trigger. Generally the feeding time is beginning at the same times each day, but can be variable depending on how long getting her to calm down takes. Is this a subjective opinion or is it proven fact? I must confess I do not know much in general about how one studies or learns this.

As a general addition; I know she is capable of behaving well in this scenario and there are days when she remains perfectly well behaved and quiet and gets her food without problem - some days she can't. I feel that she tries to manipulate me into giving her the food / what she wants with this kind of behaviour, and I can really observe in front of others this kind of "pity me" "poor sad dog eyes" act really gets her a lot of attention from friends, co-workers etc. and this results in the attention / food she wants. So definitely there is something (many things) that I need to work on, and these suggestions have given me some new things to try for sure.

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The reactions you describe - her panicky state, shivering and inability to follow simple commands - points to a visceral reaction comparable to a panic attack.

Humans and animals have different regions of the brain taking care of different functions and actions.

The so-called higher working levels of the brain in humans include things like good manners, rational thinking, recalling memories, etc. In a dog they include things like following commands, bladder control and appropriate behavior like not barking and whining.

The lower working levels or the brain (aka the lizard brain) include emotions, memories, motor control and our senses. They take over when we experience extreme fear, trauma, a life threatening situation or when something reminds us of such a past experience. It's the "fight or flight" reflex, a PTSD flashback, a panic attack or what WWII soldiers called "shell shock".

When the lower working levels take over, the higher levels are completely deactivated. Your dog is unable to think clearly, recall commands or learn new things while in that state, because half of her brain simply doesn't function. You should always try to get her out of that state as gently as possible. You must also avoid additional stress as much as possible because that keeps her in that state for longer.

You write:

I will start to get her food out, she will start to whine, I will put it in her bowl and then tell her to go back in her basket or close the door to the room where the food is.

I honestly think that by doing that, you contribute to the problem. For a "normal" dog that would be appropriate to teach them staying calm. But you know that food is one of her triggers. You show her what she craves so much and then you take it away and make her wait for it. Imagine showing a drug addict his next dose and then locking them in a prison cell until they calmed down...


It seems to me that the simple act of preparing her food is too much of a trigger for her. She probably knows her feeding times by habit now. She probably follows you into the kitchen, because anything "food" is absolutely ingrained in that very place. You probably get nervous or tense because you expect her whining any second now. She can read all those signs and it ratchets her anxiety up bit by bit. Just the sound or smell of you preparing her meal is enough to push her over the edge and trigger her lower brain levels.

I suggest that you completely disrupt this habit. Push the reset button and give her a chance to learn a new way of coping. That means:

  • She doesn't get to follow you when you prepare her meal. She has to be in a different room (preferably 2 doors away to muffle sounds) and the door must be shut so she cannot see you. She only gets to enter the room when her meal is ready and she can start eating immediately. (In other words: don't taunt her with her next fix)
  • She gets a different food bowl. You can even feed her from a dinner plate or soup bowl for the duration of the training and later switch back to her regular bowl. If you notice her behavior degrading after switching back to the old bowl, it's one of her triggers and you need to switch permanently to a different dish.
  • She eats in a different room than the kitchen.
  • If possible, change the acoustic cues by putting her food into a different storage container.

Don't be lazy here. Dogs have much better ears and noses than humans and any sound or smell can be a potential trigger. So observe yourself and all the containers and utensils you use very carefully and change as much as reasonably possible.

She'll need a few days to learn the new routine and the new triggers. That gives you the opportunity to start desensitization training at the same time, meaning: before the acoustic cues of her new routine become true triggers, you get her used to them by repetition.

She needs to see and hear the new cues of her feeding routine multiple times a day, at completely random times, without getting food. If you have a certain measuring cup to measure her food, take it up and put it back down without feeding her. If you have a certain spoon, move it around on the counter, just to make a sound. If her food is stored in a certain room, enter and leave the room without doing anything in there. If her food is in a big bag or sack, touch it just to make it rustle. And all that at least 10 times a day, every day.

If you only take up the measuring cup when you feed her, it quickly becomes a trigger. If you take up the measuring cup 10 times a day but feed her only one time, it becomes background noise.

The only exception should be her food bowl. You need to start small and avoid pushing her into the lower brain level (where she's incapable of learning). I suspect that her food bowl will be too much of a trigger to effectively desensitize her.

And last, but not least, some general advice for food anxiety in dogs:

  • Feed her 2 - 4 times a day instead of only once. That reduces hunger during the day and makes feeding feel more reliable.
  • Always feed her at the same time every day. That makes feeding more predictable.
  • Never approach her or stand too close to her while she's eating. That might feel like you want to steal her food.

Sources:

Note: I also looked for some instructional Youtube videos, but the ones I found were far, far too advanced in their training. The dogs were already several days or weeks into the training and could tolerate things like having their food bowl in front of them without eating. You cannot expect that feat from your dog. She may never be able to tolerate that because of her deep trauma.

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    Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a long and detailed response. Based upon what you have said I added some additional information to my initial question. I think you provided some really good advice, and my question would be if any of the additional information I provided would change / affect some of your advice?
    – Aesir
    Dec 20, 2021 at 20:04
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    @Aesir Your additions didn't change my answer. Only one more desensitization: scooping some food into the cup. Since this is a strong trigger for her, you could use a different cup (to change the acoustics) and just scoop some food and pour it out again. - Oh, and tell your friends and coworkers in unmistakable words that they are to completely ignore her antics. As long as she gets positive results for her whining, she won't stop.
    – Elmy
    Dec 20, 2021 at 20:42
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    Would it help to wet the food to change the acoustics? Dec 20, 2021 at 21:28
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    @Allerleirauh that is a good idea as well, I will try this on some of the food to see how well it holds up when it is a bit damp / wet.
    – Aesir
    Dec 21, 2021 at 7:19
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    @Allerleirauh In my experience (we always wet our dogs food) it doesn't change much. When you pour the kibble into the bowl (with water already in it) it's still dry and hard and makes sounds.
    – Elmy
    Dec 21, 2021 at 9:17

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