Why Does My Dog Only Eat If I’m In The Room?

Some dogs need an audience for everything 👏

Dogs will do anything for food — beg, plead, look at you with the saddest eyes known to man, but when mealtime finally arrives, some pups can be persnickety.

For picky eaters, it’s not what’s on the menu, but the atmosphere surrounding feeding time that affects their appetites, leaving pet owners to ask, “Why won’t my dog eat without me?” If your dog is happy to chow down when you’re in the room, but the second you leave he goes on a food strike, you’re not alone.

This behavior is actually quite common. Here’s why your pup may be losing his appetite, and how to help him learn to dine alone.

Your dog wants some company

Though our floppy-eared pets are far removed from their wild ancestors, some wolf-like behaviors still lurk within our domesticated dogs. Wolves hunt and eat in a pack, and your pup may be hungering for the same communal experience — even if it's only dry kibble in his bowl, according to Shelby Semel, founder of Shelby Semel Dog Training in New York City.

“Dogs find that meals are more fun with others,” Semel tells The Dodo. “By nature, dogs are social creatures and the company can motivate them to eat.” If you don't mind hanging out while he eats, there's no harm in being in the room during mealtime.

The close bond you have with your pet can come into play at mealtime, notes Dr. Liz Stelow, animal behaviorist and chief of service at UC Davis, especially if your dog has come to expect an emotional reward for eating.

“Some owners create a relationship with the dog around food, especially if he has a history of being a picky eater or has experienced reduced interest in food due to a major gastrointestinal upset,” Stelow tells The Dodo. “In those cases, owners will play with food choices, use verbal encouragement, sometimes fret and otherwise sink a lot of emotion into getting their dog's eating on track.”

This can create a situation in which the dog feels more rewarded by eating in the owner's presence than alone, Stelow explains, even if the food itself is not very rewarding.

If your dog won’t eat without you, try holding back on the verbal praise during the next mealtime, and see if he begins to eat independently.

Your dog’s just too busy to eat

Like skipping lunch during a busy day at the office, sometimes a dog won’t eat simply because he has better things to do with his time. If an owner is not present, some pups will go into "guard dog" mode — and won't relax until you return. 

“In some cases, they might be busy protecting the home until you return so they might be too busy to eat,” Stelow says. “Another reason for this behavior may be because they’re tired and prefer to sleep rather than eat.”

If your guard pup waits by the door or watches out the window, and is always ready and waiting to battle an intruder, he may have no interest in the fact that breakfast time was three hours ago. When you return, he can finally feel safe in his environment, and do all the activities he put on hold while you were gone.

Your dog’s feeling anxious

If your dog gets overly nervous every time you leave, this can also kill his appetite, notes Stelow. In addition to food avoidance, a dog suffering from separation anxiety may display destructive behaviors when his owner leaves, such as barking, chewing, having accidents in the house or making escape attempts, as well as displaying other signs of anxiety, such as pacing and drooling. Some dogs won’t even snack on treats or chew bones, let alone eat kibble, notes Semel, if they suffer from separation anxiety.

Any fear or stressor that may pop up while you’re away can affect your dog’s eating behavior — even if these concerns don’t seem that disturbing to you. “Like with separation anxiety, other causes of fear or stress can lead to a dog eating only when in the safe presence of an owner,” Stelow explains. “These may include loud noises (perhaps a neighbor started construction), unfamiliar people in the home, a new setting and countless others.”

How to break the habit

Just because your dog isn’t eating doesn’t always indicate anxiety issues, but if this eating behavior is becoming a problem for you or your pup, going over the history of the issue with your local vet can help uncover the root of the problem.

To help teach your dog to eat by himself, Semel recommends taking baby steps to make your dog more comfortable. Make your pet’s meal extra delicious by adding in a favorite, hard-to-resist treat, such as a sprinkle of cheese or chopped chicken, along with his normal food, then feed your dog while you’re in another room. This will help your pup get accustomed to unsupervised eating and, over time, he can build up to eating even when you leave the house.