Holiday season is known—in the abundant countries at least—as a season of excess eating. There are the countless office parties with their vegetable-and-dip/cheese-and-cracker crudité tables and heaping buffets. There are the more intimate family celebrations, with traditional dishes such as the Christmas goose, Christmas ham, the Hanukkah brisket or, in my crowd, the Tofurkey. All of these things (excepting the latter) are very appealing to a dog.
So should a dog be invited to the holiday party? This was an issue I faced when I first adopted Chloe, because she was a very, shall we say, festive eater.
When Chloe first came to live with me, she always seemed hungry. I mean hungry in a neurotic, desperate way. I fed her very well of course: she got bones and raw food at home, homemade cooked meat mixtures when we were visiting other folks. But in the beginning, Chloe could never seem to get enough to eat. She always wanted more. After she scarfed each meal down (in two seconds) she’d lick and lick her bowl, using her paw to steady the dish. Then she would scour the floor for every last drib of meat juice, grain of rice or drop of salmon oil. Then for the rest of the day, she would follow me everywhere, hoping perhaps that at any moment I would reach into the closet and pull out a rack of beef.
Chloe, thank goodness, was never the kind of indoor scarfer who counter-hopped or stole roast chickens from the dining table. I clicker-trained her very early on not to do these things. But I can’t tell you how many times — when I first adopted her — I tripped over her in the tiny kitchen in our New York City apartment. If I dropped something on the floor — say, a piece of toast — she would dive in and grab it. When I tried to load the dishwasher, she’d rush in to lick the dishes. When I tried to open the oven, she’d try to stick her head inside and lick the racks. The refrigerator, to her, was a dream come true — especially the lower rack, where I kept her meat. She would stare at that rack with her tail wagging, hoping I’d give in and throw her a pound of turkey giblets. Sometimes, it was cute. I loved the look on her face as she waited, joyfully, for more food! But quite often, the trippingover- her part was a pain.
I don’t know my dog’s history, but it’s possible she was a stray. And former strays can be insatiable when it comes to hunger. Many of these dogs have experienced extreme hunger, even starvation, so their brains become wired to constantly seek what they lack — food. Some rescued strays, I’m told, because of this re-wiring, will continue to scarf until their dying day, even if they enjoy abundant, consistent meals in their new homes.
My vet used the term “incurable” when it came to Chloe’s relentless food-drive. He said she was just being a dog. I could accept this to a point. But not if her food-drive put her in danger (see below).
My dog is probably part Labrador Retriever, and it is said that Labs will eat and eat until they explode. I cannot prove this, having never seen a dog explode. But once, when I was staying at a friend’s house, we came home late from a music gig and found Chloe lying on her side on the fl oor. She seemed stiff and uncomfortable, and didn’t get up to greet us when we walked in the door. This was unusual behavior for Chloe, who always regards the occasion of a human entering a room as a cause to celebrate. Alarmed, I rushed over and knelt in front of her, checking her breathing and heart rate. I even checked for blood and felt for broken bones. “What’s wrong?” I said to the dog. She farted in response.
“I think I found the answer,” my friend called from the kitchen. She led me into the pantry, where we beheld a tippedover bag of kibble (our host-dog’s private batch), more than half of it gone.
“Chloe, how could you?” I said to the dog. But Chloe didn’t acknowledge me. She was practically passed out on the rug, sleeping off her kibble-induced stupor like a drunk.
So here was proof that, while some dogs might try to eat until they explode, they will not actually explode. Chloe did, however, pass gas for the next few days. My friend and I joked that there should be an Overeaters Anonymous group for dogs.
But all kidding aside, we were lucky that this incident passed without terrible repercussions — no stomach pumping or intestinal twisting. As we know, overeating and scarfing can be dangerous for dogs.
Especially in New York. There, the discarded food that litters the streets can be hazardous. On the sidewalks, Chloe found such benign appetizers as pizza crusts and discarded bagels, but there was also rat poison, radiator fluid and chicken bones to worry about. Eating a cooked chicken bone, as we know, can be a life-threatening issue for a dog, so I spent many a morning having to pry Chloe’s jaws apart grabbing the bone before she swallowed. It’s a gross feeling to have to stick one’s fi ngers down a dog’s gullet.
I should point out here that Chloe’s on-leash behavior is exemplary. We know how to navigate the sidewalks of New York City quite well. In fact, she knows such commands as “right” and “left,” “halt,” and “reverse,” which are all essential things to know when trying to weave one’s way through the crowds. When I hold Chloe’s leash and call out the navigational cues, it’s like controlling the lever on a video game. I always score high points.
But I am also told that even service dogs will scarf from time to time. It’s in dogs’ natures. Even after Chloe got to the point in her training where she would leave food alone if I said “No,” she still sometimes managed to snatch up those pizza crusts before I issued the command. (Thus somehow scoring her own point by getting around the rules.) I ultimately left New York.
Even after we left the city, Chloe still found both dangerous and/or merely gross things to scarf. At the beach, she’d snuff around for crab claws, seagull poop, and the carcasses of dead fish. (To roll in and then scarf). Upstate, she liked to hunt for dead deer parts and bear scat. Mostly the repercussions were having to give lots of baths, and having to endure the odor of passed gas, but I knew I had to do something about the food obsession and scarfing. It was too risky.
The vet whom I consulted suggested that I limit Chloe’s walks (huh?). Another suggestion was to put Chloe on an appetite suppressant. I was suspicious of this advice, primarily because his was one of those veterinary practices that really pushed pharmaceutical products. In the waiting room, there were pamphlets for anti-anxiety pills, anti-depressants, anti-shedding, anti-flea, and even those horrible anti-bark sprays on every table and windowsill. To me this suggested a symptom-not-cause approach, and I eventually switched to a holistic vet. I decided I would not use appetite suppressants for Chloe. (Turns out they’re toxic for the kidneys anyway.)
This vet also suggested a basket muzzle, and I did look into this option — for about two minutes. At the pet store, a clerk helped me try to find one that would fit Chloe’s wide head and thin snout. The fitting was not a pleasant experience for either me or the dog. Chloe tried to paw the muzzle off and scraped her head against the shelves and floors. She looked so distressed—and Hannibal Lector-ish—that I couldn’t bring myself to buy it.
So no drugs, no restraining devices: I decided to do the smartest thing and sign up for more intensive clicker training sessions. For the indoor “following-me-around-obsessivelyin- the-kitchen” behavior, I clicker-trained Chloe to stay in one particular place while I free-ranged though the kitchen. It was actually quite easy. I purchased a rubber-backed bath mat — black, so that it wouldn’t soil so obviously, and situated the mat in an out-of-the-way section of the kitchen. Then I clicker-trained her to lie down on that mat whenever she entered the kitchen. She could look but not touch, in other words. Chloe’s reward for following this new stay-on-the-mat rule were simple. She got the pleasure of watching me prepare food while I bustled about the kitchen, and she got to enjoy the delicious suspense of knowing that she would get some of this food as a result of her own good behavior. The standard click-and-treat method. It was brilliant.
My friends are particularly impressed that, even during parties, when there are platters of cheeses and crackers and cured meats placed low on coffee tables, Chloe remains on her mat, poised alert and as complacent as a Sphinx. She stays there because she enjoys being a good dog, and because she always knows — because of operant conditioning — that, once I stop preparing for the party and sit down to relax, she will be allowed to get up and receive a treat. The rind of a Spanish drunken goat cheese, perhaps. A nibble of pepperoni. A piece of chicken.
For outdoor scarfing issues, we worked on new commands and hand signals and/or modifying the times of our walks so that we weren’t at the beach, for example, at low tide when there were more shells and dead things exposed. Plus, as the months passed, Chloe seemed to realize that she would never starve again in this lifetime. Her rather frantic need to eat seemed to wane, replaced by a sort of excited gratitude each time I placed her food dish before her. Her behavior no longer suggested “This might be my last meal” but more “Ah yes, ground turkey and salmon oil with a dash of kelp again. My compliments to the chef. But a little less kelp next time, s’il vous plaît.”
Chloe still hasn’t lost her taste for scat, however, and at this time of year we have at least two dozen wild turkeys wandering around our property. Chloe, my non-birdy bird dog, will follow the turkeys around—not chase them, mind you—and happily eat their poop, acting as if she is doing us all a favor. She never overeats, however. Just enough for, as the French would say, an amuse-bouche before her proper meal.
I am proud of her, in a way only dog people can understand. Proud of her progress from chemically imbalanced rescue dog to happily settled old gal.
At my last holiday party, I must say that Chloe was the best-behaved guest of the lot. My friends are artists, writers, musicians, theater-types and drag queens, and while we respect our brain cells enough not to do drugs, the wine did pour freely, and the eggnog and the grog and the wassail, the latter of which prompted a lot of impromptu carols about wassailing, (sung completely on key despite the alcohol, with a soaring finale and a kick-ass bass solo to boot). And all the while, Chloe stayed on her mat, observing curiously, occasionally getting up to snuggle next to people and/or greet new guests at the door. I noticed that she completely ignored the cheese trays and the glazed duck, choosing instead to wander into the center of our song circle and feed off our admiration of her.
During the choral finale, Chloe threw herself onto her back and shimmied around on the fl oor, wagging her tail and waving her legs in the air. She howled a few times in joy. “Hark the herald angel sings,” the drag queen shouted, and we began all over again.