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Do you struggle with a picky dog? New research in Labrador Retrievers may hold the answers big dog owners have been looking for.
As I sat on the floor next to Maya, hand-feeding her kibble mixed with boiled chicken and topped with cheese popcorn, it occurred to me that this must be what addicts feel like when they hit “rock bottom.”
And I was the addict.
I had absolutely no willpower to stand there and witness Maya, my beautiful 150-pound Mastiff, so uninterested in eating. Not all eating. Just the eating she was supposed to do out of a bowl. Hindsight suggests that perhaps I should have substituted raw meat for the cheese popcorn, but, hey, raw wasn’t a thing back then.
Twice a day, every day, presented a new dilemma; what to add to Maya’s food so she would eat?
Countless times I would stand in front of the refrigerator evaluating my options. Yogurt or shredded cheese? Cut-up ham slices or leftover Papa Johns’s? Hard-boiled eggs or ice cream?
While I never knew what would work on any given day, I always knew it would not work two days in a row.
Glass half full tells me to appreciate all of her opportunities for me to “think out of the box.”
My husband would tell me repeatedly that I was enabling Maya.
He would brag about how he had a “normal” dog. The one that didn’t need coaxing or cajoling to eat. The 105-pound yellow Labrador retriever, Burton, would eat whatever you put in front of his nose. And even anything that his nose led him to; Hersey Almond Bars, 5 pounds of Orijen dog food, retainers, John Deere hats. You know, the normal stuff.
[You can read more about Maya and Burton in Do You Own A Big Dog Or Want To? Big Dog Mom Can Help!]
What Can We Learn From The Labrador Retriever?
Fortunately, shortly after hitting rock bottom with that bowl full of uneaten kibble and cheese popcorn, Maya’s fastidiousness improved.
I admitted my addiction and joined the Picky Eater Enablers (PEE) support group, a top-secret organization veiled by an acronym. With a little tough love, I was able to get her to eat like a “normal” dog again.
Like other addictions, and despite the PEE therapy, I have found myself numerous times since standing in front of the refrigerator on behalf of my dogs. And I know I am not alone in this struggle.
So here is my question simply put.
Is it possible to take what we know about Labrador retrievers like Burton, who welcome any and all food with utter euphoria, and use it to help improve common feeding challenges in other big dog breeds?
Labrador Retriever Versus Other Large Breed Dogs – A Facebook Owner Poll
I first set out to see just how real this problem is for both Labrador retriever owners as well as owners of Great Danes and Mastiffs (picking two other big dog breeds at random). Using a Facebook poll on three breed group pages, the results were striking.
My question to owners was how does your ____(breed) feel about food?
I gave them three options and they could only pick one.
88% of Labrador retriever owners reported that their dog was either a great eater or would not stop eating if given the opportunity. That is compared to 71% and 52% of Mastiffs and Great Danes respectively.
When I broke it down and just looked at dogs who were categorized as continuous eaters when given the opportunity, the results were 14% of Mastiffs, 19% of Great Danes and a whopping nearly 70% of Labrador retrievers!
The comments from Labrador retriever owners were hysterical!
There’s only one way this poll turns out.
My girl could clean out a Vegas buffet if I let her.
I didn’t even have to read choice 2 or 3, haha!
Be it top notch dog food or garbage. My guy is happy as can be if he’s eating.
New Labrador Retriever Study Finds Answers!
Labrador retriever owners worldwide substantiate my anecdotal experience with Burton and this Facebook poll. More so than any other breed, Labrador retrievers are voracious eaters. And despite owners’ efforts to tightly control their dog’s diet and exercise, Labrador retrievers have the highest rates of obesity of any other dog breed.
Could there be a biological reason for this?
In a May 2016 study published in Cell Metabolism, researchers identified a gene (POMC) deletion common in Labrador retrievers, yet absent in ALL other breeds of dogs except the closely related flat-coated retriever.
While they found that not all of the Labrador retrievers with the genetic mutation were obese (and some were obese without having the mutation), the deletion, in general, was strongly associated with greater weight and dogs who were more food-motivated, begged more for food, were more attentive at mealtime, and scavenged more often for scraps.
They tested 411 Labrador retrievers from the UK and the US, 81 of whom were breeding stock assistance dogs, and found that the POMC deletion occurs in approximately 23% of Labrador retrievers overall.
Of 38 other breeds they tested, the deletion only appeared in flat-coated retrievers. Most interesting to me, this POMC deletion was significantly more common in the 81 assistance Labrador retrievers included in the study, occurring in 76% of these dogs.
“Temperament and “trainability” are the main drivers for selection of assistance dogs, and “positive reinforcement” with food reward is a mainstay of puppy training. We therefore hypothesize that dogs carrying the POMC deletion may be more likely to be selected as assistance dogs.”
So What Can We Do About This?
The results of this study will not come as any surprise to Labrador retriever owners. I know, because I was one for nearly 16 years.
They will find both humor and solace that they are not alone; comforted by the biological answers to their dog’s battle against the proverbial bulge.
But what about other breeds?
Anecdotally, we know other breeds are plagued with picky eaters. And from this research, we know the genetic alteration associated with an increased interest in food is ONLY found in Labrador and flat-coated retrievers and with the highest prevalence in service and assistance dogs.
Those two facts beg the question: Is it possible to take what we now know about Labrador retrievers and use it to help improve common feeding challenges in other big dog breeds?
Breed Selection Standards
What would happen if, say, the Mastiff community or the Mastiff Club of America (MCOA) added a new line item to our Code of Ethics that stipulated that breeding stock must receive obedience, nose work, or trick dog title prior to being bred? In spite of the outcries of unfairness, would this new requirement not be indirectly selected for dogs who are more food motivated?
Simply put, the reason Labrador retrievers are not picky eaters is that the picky ones are generally left out of the breeding pool.
Positively trained dogs are most often rewarded with food. Training dogs that are not food motivated is significantly more challenging.
Using the same premise, large breed dog breeders should consider factoring in trainability and food motivation into their breeding decisions.
While holding breeding stock to this higher standard may not, in the end, change the eating habits in some breeds, it will over time select greater numbers of big dogs temperamentally fit for service and assistance roles and any number of dog sports.
Big Dog Mom Tips for Picky Eater Enablers
If you have ever found yourself on the enabling end of a picky eater, know that you are not alone. There is hope!
Because improving breeding selection standards is a long-term solution, here are 5 tips that you can implement today for an immediate improvement in your big dog’s appetite.
1. Consider a Raw Diet
Because a raw diet is the most species-appropriate, many notoriously picky dogs will devour raw food. With more cost-effective sourcing options for big dog owners, this should definitely be on your list of options if you are struggling with a picky eater.
For more information on raw feeding, go to:
- Raw Dog Food: The Myths, Facts, and Future of Raw Feeding for Dogs
- Raw Food: A Decision Every Big Dog Owner Should Weigh.
- Feeding Giant Breed Puppies for Dummies – The Protein Myth & More
- Raw Feeding Truth: Raw Pet Digest Spotlight on Health Interview with Big Dog Mom
2. Tough Love
I am not advocating starving your dog. But an otherwise healthy dog will eventually eat. Use that fact to your advantage to get your head out of the refrigerator and the cheese popcorn back in the hands of the humans who want it. Maya went a day and a half before she, for the first time in a year, ate a full bowl of goodie-free kibble.
Within a couple of weeks, I did go back to offering her healthy whole foods in addition to her kibble (once an addict, always an addict), but she never reverted back. An ounce of tough love is worth a pound of “normal.”
3. Try mixing in Primal Freeze-Dried Nuggets
Junior and Sulley love Primal Raw. I don’t use much, just a couple nuggets for each dog crumbled over their food and mixed with a little water. They are nutritious and delicious.
4. Get Your Dog Moving!
Dogs are no different than people. Exercise increases the need and desire for food. Try getting your dog involved in a dog sport. [READ: Nose Work Is Not Just For Bloodhounds And German Shepherds.
Toys and games are also a fantastic, inexpensive way to get your dog moving. Here are a few of Junior and Sulley’s favorites:
5. Share this Post with Your Friends!
If you know someone who is fighting with a finicky canine, let them know that there is hope. Share with them this research. And more importantly, ensure they share it with their dog’s breeder.
After all, we can all learn from the talented Labrador retriever and from the breeders who have so masterfully bred this gluttonous food machine.
Knowledge is power.