Tails of a Dog Therapist – Episode Sixteen

When I did my original training to become a dog behaviourist, I was told that dogs should have set mealtimes and that if they didn’t eat when you put the bowl down then you should pick it straight up again and not feed them anything until the next mealtime. This was supposed to instil the ‘if I don’t eat it I have to go without’ mindset.

I was also told that dogs will not starve themselves and will always eat once they work out that it will just be taken away again. This is the one thing from those days that I have continued to follow with my dogs, mainly because I want to be able to make sure the right dogs are eating the right amounts of food to stop them being overweight and also because I need to make sure the right dogs get the right supplements, so the bowls go down and as soon as a dog walks away from theirs I take it back up again. However these last couple of months I’ve been really struggling with getting one of my dogs to eat.

Jess is a Dachshund x Jack Russell and has been with me since she was 15 weeks old. I wasn’t planning on getting another dog when I took Jess on, I already had 3 dogs and was still getting over losing one to epilepsy the year before and I’d said I wasn’t getting another dog (a comment I’ve made many times since).

One evening Kev was on the internet and he suddenly told me to come here and look at this. I questioned what it was not wanting to move off of the sofa and he told me it was porn. I was a bit shocked because in the time I’d been with him I’d never seen him watch porn and I went to see if he was telling the truth. When I reached the screen there was this tiny little black and tan puppy with massive eyes and wonky ears and the saddest story I’d ever heard at the time. She had been found at around 5 weeks of age at the side of a railway line. She was dumped with her litter mates and was the only one who had survived. She’d battled Parvo and come through the other side, this little girl was a fighter! Now she needed a home and I knew I just had to have her so I filled out the online application form and waited to hear from the rescue.

When they contacted me they said they had been inundated with applications for her but would like to come and do a homecheck if possible. The only problem was that I was on a course for work and away from home for a week when they wanted to come and do it and because of the amount of homes they had to choose from they weren’t willing to wait for me. I rang Kev and he agreed to deal with the homecheck for me.

On the day of the visit I was worried sick. Would they like Kev? Would the other dogs be ok? Would Kev have tidied the house enough? Would he have cleaned up the poo in the garden? Would our home be classed as suitable? I knew what they’d be looking for and we were missing some of those things. All I could hope was that they saw how great our other dogs lives were and neared that in mind.

I waited all day and didn’t hear anything, I spoke to Kev and he said that they seemed impressed. They had picked up on the things that I knew wouldn’t meet their criteria, like our garden fencing. At that time our garden was surround by post and rail farm fencing because we live on a farm, and all the dogs had to do to get into the open fields was step over the bottom rail. Obviously this wasn’t an issue with the dogs we had because they spent most of the time out loose on the farm with us anyway but rescues normally like 6ft high secure fencing. Kev did say that the home checker told him that they didn’t see how they could deny a dog the life we could give them so I was hopeful that we’d get a yes. When the call came to tell me that we’d been accepted and that Jess was ours I was ecstatic.

I picked her up on Mother’s Day in 2010 and was instantly in love with her. On our journey home we stopped at a set of traffic lights and she started barking at a lady standing at a nearby bus stop, she had the cutest little bark. It was a warm day and the car windows were open so the lady could hear her and suddenly she started barking back at her, I laughed so hard I struggled to drive when the lights changed.

She has been the perfect dog since the day I bought her home and other than developing a cyst on her spine that had to be removed, she’s never had any health problems. Then in February this year she just stopped eating overnight and I’ve been struggling to get her to eat ever since. I’ve tried cooking her chicken or scrambled egg, feeding her cheese or ham, I’ve tried the most gourmet tinned dog food, dried and moist kibble, cat food, her normal raw food, basically anything I can think of to try and get her to eat. Originally she wasn’t eating anything but now she eats the bare minimum to survive.

She dropped 2.5kg in 4 weeks and now weighs less than 5kg. When you pick her up she feels really skinny. There are several things that happened when she stopped eating and I know that any or all of them could be the cause.

1) her worm count came back a little high so I wormed her with a natural wormer that I’d used countless times before, but that day she was sick almost straight after she’d eaten.

2) she ate her dinner that day at the same time as another one of our dogs and while I was out of the room putting bowls down for a couple of others he had a go at her and chased her away from her food, leading to me telling him off and making mealtime a little stressful for her.

3) she had started to go out with Kev a lot more and would leave her bowl and wait by the front door as if she didn’t have time to eat because she didn’t want to be left at home.

4) being out with Kev more regularly had meant being fed more dog treats but also being fed a sausage if he went to the chip shop or kebab meat from the kebab van so I thought maybe she was filling up on rubbish or not eating because she thought she would get the human food!

So I started off by doing what I always did, putting the food down and then picking it up again uneaten when she instantly walked away from her bowl. After 5 days of this I decided I couldn’t do that anymore and started feeding her the other things. She would nibble and pick at these things but not eat more than a couple of mouthfuls and she started to turn her nose up at things when she was out with Kev as well. While she was nibbling at the food she would throw it around in her mouth and then spit it out again as if it either tasted disgusting or was causing her discomfort.

I booked her in with the vet but had to wait a couple of days for an appointment so I communicated with her to see if she would tell me what was wrong and she showed me a dull ache in her top right jaw, it wasn’t toothache it was the whole length of the jaw. I also asked a fellow communicator to try with her and she got the same but also got a really sicky feeling. Jess told her that the food made her feel sick and that not everything natural was good for her. I took this to mean the wormer but it’s not something I hadn’t used before.

When she got to the vets they gave her a full health check and did tests and it ended up being just as much of a mystery to them. The only thing the could find wrong with her was a slight heart murmur. I came home and again tried to feed her and she gulped down the whole bowl of dog food. This happened for the next 3 nights and I thought I’d cracked it. I thought the trip to the vets had scared her into eating but then on the fourth night she decided to stop eating again. She went the next week eating the bare minimum again and at one point I’d got so desperate that I had started force feeding her which only made me feel like shit and made her terrified to come near me.

I’ve tried everything that I know with her, all of my techniques and I still can’t get to the bottom of why she’s being like this. Nearly 2 months later we are still having this battle over food. I’m feeding her little and often because I’m aware that her stomach has shrunk and on the odd day she’ll eat more than her normal daily amount but mostly she’ll just pick at anything that I offer her and not eat enough at all. She’s absolutely fine in herself, she still wants to play ball and go out with Kev every day and strangely still has loads of energy, she’s just not eating properly.

I’m still seeking help for her, I’m in discussions with the vet on what the next step could be and I’ve also spoken to a couple of other people about it this week who have set me thinking about it from a different point of view and suggested some other people who might be able help.

I have gone through a whole range of emotions during this time, I’ve questioned how I can have all of these different skills under my belt but still not be able to get to the bottom of what is wrong with my own dog. Thankfully I know that everything in life is here to teach us something. I’m confident that I’ll find the answer eventually and this experience will supply me with more knowledge and help me to be a better therapist for my clients dogs, but for now the food battle continues.