Most dogs love food, and are highly motivated by treats, but some are more food-obsessed than others.
Matilda, for instance, has a one-track mind. She’ll do anything for a crumb, and between meals she’s scouting every inch of the kitchen floor, looking for the tiniest morsel.
She sits under the table at mealtimes, a behavior I allow as long as she does not demand-bark during dinner, and she starts badgering me 30 minutes before her own scheduled meals.
Lately I’ve been wondering if this is anything other than part of her personality. I’d think it was normal if I didn’t have Cow, who loves food but doesn’t obsess over it.
I really noticed the divide between them when Matilda stayed at my mom’s for a few weeks while our cat was settling in. During that time, I was over an hour late to give Cow dinner at least five times because I was so used to Matilda’s reminders. Sorry Cow!
At some point, excessive hunger is a symptom of a health problem. Our bodies send us signals when we need nourishment and when we need food, and when those signals are out of whack, it can be a sign of a hormonal imbalance, low blood sugar, or a mental health issue.
But when does it become a problem? This is something I’ve been wondering lately.
Training, Treats, and Food Obsession
I started positive reinforcement training with Matilda the day I got her, when she was about three months old. She loves to learn new skills, and part of the reason she loves learning is because it’s an opportunity to earn treats.
When she was tiny, I encouraged her to signal when she needed to eat, because I was worried that I would forget to feed her. I encouraged her to tap her bowl before meals. It didn’t take long for her to learn that if she bangs up bowl, she’ll get my attention. And if it’s time, or even just nearly time for a meal, I’ll feed her.
Matilda’s love of food has made her very easy to train. When you give your dog a treat, it’s not only tasty, but it also gives them a hit of dopamine. It creates a positive emotional reaction. That’s why we can use food not only to train dogs to do tricks, but also to change their reactions to triggers like scary strangers and loud noises.
That’s also why you don’t have depend on treats all the time. Dogs learn to associate doing the right thing with that happy dopamine feeling – though we never entirely phase out treats because they keep that association strong, and of course, they deserve to be rewarded for their hard work.
Dogs Bred To Be Hungry
Research has shown that Labrador Retrievers are genetically pre-diposed to have a strong appetite. Their natural love of food makes them easy to train. And it’s possible that we bred them that way because dogs that love to eat perform well and have a reliable temperament, so they tend to be chosen for breeding.
Matilda is not a mini Labrador, as far as I know. But her preoccupation with food has made it much easier to secure and keep her focus. Cow, on the other hand, is motivated by food but still loses focus easily.
Small Dog, Small Stomach
Another reason I think Matilda is always hungry is because she’s so small. I’ve never seen her full. Given the opportunity, she will eat until she’s woozy, or even throws up, and will ask for treats minutes later. Naturally I avoid letting her eat herself sick, but in her eight years of life it has happened a few times.
It seems to me that two meals a day is standard for dogs, though some large dogs eat just once a day. And some people believe in fasting for dogs, feeding every 24 hours or even skipping one day a week.
A small dog’s stomach may not fit enough food at one time to provide enough calories in just one or two meals. That could leave them hungry between mealtimes.
Plus, small dogs are prone to hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Dogs with hypoglycemia can faint, collapse, or even have a seizure.
While Matilda hasn’t had any obvious signs of low blood sugar between meals, I know how it feels to be super hungry, weak, and irritable. But she can’t tell me when she’s feeling that way.
How Many Meals Does My Dog Need?
Matilda awaits a morning snack of Raw Goat’s Milk and Bone Broth bites
For Matilda, I’ve decided to add a small lunch to her schedule, which she is ecstatic about.
Also, if I go to the gym early in the morning, I might also give her a snack to hold her over. I know when I’m awake early, I’m going to feel hungry before breakfast.
Sometimes I also give a small snack before bedtime.
Along with her usual two full meals, this adds up to five feedings on some days. Realistically it’s more like 3-4.
What’s right for you dog will depend on their breed, size, body condition, and symptoms.
I do notice that Matilda is more relaxed when she gets her snacks. She’s still obsessed with food, but she seems happier, less fixated on crumbs.
Is More Food Always The Answer?
For now, giving Matilda more food is making sense for us. I take into account her snacks and reduce her meal portions as needed, and she’s at a healthy weight.
If your dog is overweight, or at risk of gaining too much weight, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get snacks. Consider low-fat, high-fiber options like fruits and veggies, as well as high-protein options. We love freeze-dried chicken hearts and minnows.
But keep in mind that excessive hunger might not mean your dog just needs more food. An endocrine issue like Cushing’s will give your dog a big appetite due to excessive cortisol production. Dogs with diabetes are not able to utilize sugars in their food for energy, so they will feel hungry despite having enough to eat.
If it’s been a while, take your dog for a blood panel to rule out anything serious. And if they’re overweight, talk to your vet about how much to feed, what to feed, and what changes you can make.
For those of us with always-hungry dogs, I know you wouldn’t want it any other way. And by staying on top of any potential underlying issues, we can keep them happy, hungry, and healthy for as long as possible.