Dear AKC: I brought home a 7-year-old spayed Whippet/Pit Bull mix. She is a beauty and very strong willed. Her biggest problem that my vet and trainer haven't been able to help me with is eating. She doesn't like to eat. I can't use food to train, etc. I haven't been able to find a food she really likes and will continue to eat. I've tried leaving the food down for 10 minutes thinking that by the end of the day she'll be starving and will eat; and at the end of the day she won't eat. She can go for four days without food but she will drink. HELP! -- Picky Pit Bull
Dear Picky: Congratulations on your new pet. It's always exciting when a new member of the family joins you. Unfortunately, sometimes it can be stressful for the pet to acclimate to a new home. Sometimes when pets are stressed they will go off their food. I'm glad she is still drinking since water is more critical than food and while they can go up to a week without food they can't go much longer than 4 days without water.
The secret to getting her to eat might not be in what you are feeding her but in reducing possible stressful situations in her new life. For the next week keep a journal of her activities to see if there are situations that appear to be stressful to her. Is there another dog in your family that might be intimidating her? Do you take her on walks that seem to overly excite her? Does she shy away from certain people or activities? By keeping track of her reactions it will help you develop an action plan to reduce these situations and build her confidence up through positive reinforcement exercises, such as obedience training or teaching her new tricks like "give paw" or "rollover." Once she is more relaxed and her confidence grows she will want to eat her food with gusto.
Sometimes with an adopted dog there is no way of knowing what her background has been or if there are any issues which might be causing her stress. Once you start to identify activities she does like and responds well to practice these before feeding time. In the meantime, you can try to feed her baby food such as strained beef from a teaspoon to see if she will eat it. Sometimes when dogs travel they also go off their food and using baby food, which is packed with nutrients and calories help keeps the dogs blood sugar stabilized. If she likes it then gradually mix it with little bits of regular food mixed with warm water to entice her to eat.
As for training without food, make sure you have tried all sorts of really tasty treats like cooked liver, hot dogs or steak. Some dogs turn their nose up at dry biscuits during training but others will literally jump through hoops for cheese and meats. Other dogs love to play with a toy as their reward for training. Again, in your journal make a note of what she likes to play with or if she responds to a simple "good girl" with a wag of her tail. Finding out what her favorite toy, tone of voice or eventually food treat motivates her will be your choice to reward her in training.