The Cookie Monster. Who of you can remember this sweet-toothed-gluttonous blue puppet who lived his life to eat sweets, cakes, and most important of all COOKIES!
As entertaining and heart-warming as it is to see the Cookie Monster in action, it’s a little bit disconcerting to see him materialise in the form of Cooper. Cooper has an appetite and a ferocity to his eating that would outright shame the Cookie Monster! It really is a big concern. We need to address his binge eating, counter surfing and garbage bin raiding that has led to wild and crazy acts in his perpetual search for scraps of food.
This is also a problem because he gobbles up all his food so quickly, and no matter how we try to “hide” Phoebe and her food bowl he rushes out to her bowl within seconds and inhales her food in record time as well. Phoebe doesn’t react to this (hooray for no resource guarding issues! Always take time to celebrate the “wins”! 🙂 ), but it’s gotten so bad that she’s now losing weight, and isn’t getting the nutrition she needs.
Cooper is a living, breathing vacuum that inhales all food without a thought of chewing, tasting or swallowing. This is not only a worry for us as he will likely eat until he pops if unsupervised, but also because I worry that all manner of things could be large and get stuck in his intestines causing a serious healthcare scare.
When it comes to changing behaviour I am obviously interested in the how of changing it, but more important to me is the why. I need to understand the motivation before I can decide how to act. I’ve heard that this is a common problem with Labrador’s, and he clearly has Lab in him. Could it all just be genetics? If he’s already 3 years old, will he still “grow out of it”? I also suspect it has something to do with being a rescue dog who, from what I understand of the set up at his last place, he was the only dog in a lock up kennel on the property with a groundsman who treated him well but had unpredictable movements, often going away for 2-3 days at a time. I think Cooper is programmed to “panic eat” whenever he can.
There are a number of interventions and preventions I’ve heard or read about that we’ll be trying. Here’s a list of everything I’ve considered, and hopefully with a combination of these we might start to see some success:
1) Out of Sight, Out of Stealing Reach: This is the most simple way to curb this problem, though not always 100% practical. As I’ve always had cats who roam counter tops and large breed dogs who haven’t always been immune to the smell of tasty leftovers I’m very good with keeping countertops clear. I’ve tried to be even more diligent with this, but Cooper still manages to knock off sealed containers with dog and/or human food that I’ve had to remove from floor level. He will often be found knocking these to the ground and gorging on the food that falls forth. Garbage cans are usually out of the way and closed tight, but he has also seemed to figure out how to knock these over and open them up.
2) Specially Designed Bowl to Slow Eating: These bowls are specially designed to slow down the eating process as the food moves around the “barriers”. This is to slightly slow the eating of food given in mornings and afternoons so that he is forced to take smaller bites as the food moves around.
I bought one of these a few days ago, and I can already report that this has made a difference in his eating speed. Only by a few seconds, but a slow down none the less!
4) The Treasure Hunt – Dispense Food in a Different Way: When I was looking for advice on small interventions for Phoebe and her Separation Anxiety issues a very clever suggestion by the Behaviourist was to use empty water bottles. This works to stimulate the brain for puzzle solving, as well as keeping busy for a while. (A how-to blog post will be up on this soon. Watch this space!)
I used to dispense her food into these and scatter all over the yard as I left so that Phoebe could be occupied while using her nose, brains and taste buds to distract from me leaving. I’ve tried this a few times with Cooper, but he’s too impatient and ends up squashing the bottles to unrecognisable forms with the food stuck inside. I think though that I must revisit this and try again as it’s a simple and affordable strategy. Using the Kong is much the same, and I think I should also bring this out more regularly, and not just for those special treats.
5) Rule Out Medical Problems: Cooper has been fully vaccinated and dewormed. His weight over the past few months has also been regularly monitored at the Vet, where we’ve been told he’s parasite free, and in no way malnourished. It’s always important to rule out medical problems, and luckily he is in tip-top shape!
6) Feed Enough, at Regular Intervals: Also an obvious intervention, but one that is often overlooked. Some dogs are more active, and will need more food to stay healthy. Or, your dog may be gobbling food purely because he really is hungry as you aren’t feeding the right portions. It’s important to gauge activity levels and food qualities when measuring out food quantities.
Though I would prefer to give the dogs properly balanced, home cooked meals, they are still on store-bought kibble and get extra “wet food” such as chicken, rice, veggies etc for extra flavour and nutritional value. The dogs now get two meals per day at regular times. This has greatly improved their routines.
7) Prevent Boredom: A universal truth is that a bored dog is an unhappy dog. If there isn’t enough physical and psychological stimulation, you can betcha that your dog is going to act out in some way that us humans would label as “naughty” or “inappropriate”. I try to give the dogs enough play time and regular walks to stimulate them, but as with anyone who works 9-5, I’m sure that this could be increased for more stimulation. I do my best to leave them access to toys and puzzles that will keep them occupied, but am always looking out for more ideas.
8) Mission Impossible – The K9 Home Edition: A regular theme in the blog and article posts that I’ve found is to booby trap the kitchen and other areas so that even if you aren’t there, the dog will receive the negative stimulus it needs to start avoiding the behaviour. Some of these I dismissed immediately for being either plain ridiculous, or potentially harmful (mousetraps?! I mean really!), but there is a recurring tactic where people recommend stacking empty cans and placing it near the counter top so that when he jumps up the cans fall down with a big racket – enough to hopefully startle him, but won’t hurt him. To be honest, he doesn’t usually seem phased by loud noises, but maybe it’s worth a try? Then again, as the owner of rescue dogs I know how easy it is for a dog to develop new fears and negative associations and the scars they can leave. I worry this may create some unforeseen issue in the future for him or Phoebe, so I’m nervous to try it out.
9) Teach the “Leave It!” Command: This command is especially helpful when out on walks where people discard all kinds of food waste, and local garbage cans get knocked over etc. We learned this in class and for the Canine Good Citizen Tests as it can stop your dog from eating any food that has spoiled or could potentially be poisoned (unfortunately a very real criminal concern in our area). Cooper will generally listen to this command when on walks, but at home he goes selectively deaf. Very frustrating. This is a great command that everyone should teach their dogs, but it’s effectiveness is limited, as it only works if you are in close proximity and won’t help for the ninja stealth food theft in kitchens or rooms you’re not in!
10) Hand Feeding: This is a last resort, and is honestly not in any way practical. Some of Cooper’s food is given by hand when we play or do training, but beyond that, feeding a cup of kibble roughly 2 x per day by hand will never be possible.
Phoebe & Cooper’s Effectiveness Summary:
Issue Addressed: Health, Eating, Gluttony
Tool(s) Used: Various. Puzzles, Physical Barriers, Brain Games
Ease of Implementation: Moderate
Effectiveness Rating: 3/5: It’s hard to give a rating at this stage as I’m still only moving from the research to the implementation, but so far, the limited tactics I’ve tried have already made a huge difference – especially the slow feeder bowl and the ‘treasure hunt’.
Do you have any other ideas or tried and trusted ways to slow down a Cookie Monster Food Gobbler? Any advice will be appreciated!