Can Your Dog Make You Stop Snacking?

02/03/2012 02:44 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2012

We were standing around in the dog park discussing the somewhat annoying dog habits of our various pets.

"My dog never comes when I call him," the owner of a rather pudgy lab said. "He pretends to be asleep or deaf. But as soon as I open the refrigerator or pantry door, there he is, standing there waiting for a handout." Her remarks were echoed by several of us. One woman who seemed to have lost weight ever since she got her puppy chimed in.

"Herman [her dog] looks so reproachful if I put something in my mouth without giving him a treat that I have stopped snacking. He makes me feel guilty at chomping on cookies or spooning ice cream into my mouth without stopping to give him a doggy biscuit. So my many evening trips into the kitchen have stopped. I think both of us have lost a little weight as a result. "

It is true, of course, that many of us do not like to be seen when we are eating foods that we know we should be avoiding. One of life's more embarrassing moments is when someone walks into the kitchen as you gobble up the last of the pie or spoon ice cream right out of the container. You thought you were so quiet and then your spouse, your kids or your dog is right there, looking at you.

I doubt if there will be a new category of service dog trained to appear and bark when it's owner, the dieter, is sneaking a snack. But would surveillance, by dog, human or a video camera, like the kind that catch you if you run a red light, inhibit the covert eater from plunging into a box of cookies or bag of chips? The so-called closet eater doesn't want to announce his snack intake to anyone and usually waits to eat until everyone is either asleep or out of the house. If the opportunity to eat is thwarted by the presence of someone else, the would-be snacker may put off eating entirely, or at least until the next day.

One of the dog owners mentioned that it was a relative, not a dog, who made her stop nibbling every evening. She lived alone and was in the habit of sitting in her kitchen, paying bills, watching television and eating. When a cousin, a law student, had to live with her for several months after there was fire in his apartment building, she lost five pounds. "He comes home late and goes into the kitchen to eat the dinner I leave for him. I don't want him to see me snacking and watching TV, so I watch my programs upstairs. He has saved me from eating hundreds of calories because I don't eat anywhere but in the kitchen."

There are devices that record what you are eating and instantly convert the food into calories so once the item is entered into the program, the dieter knows exactly how much caloric damage that jelly doughnut or slice of pizza caused. But I doubt if such devices can really modify snacking behavior when it occurs in a habitual and mindless fashion. Would my dog park acquaintance who nibbled every evening in her kitchen have stopped to record every quarter cup of potato chips on such a device? Would someone, quietly opening the refrigerator to eat a slice of cake, take the time to calculate its size before gulping it down, and then enter the amount into a recording device? No. If you know that you shouldn't be eating the frosting off of the chocolate cake on the counter, then why would you record doing so?

On the other hand, if we saw ourselves eating mindlessly would we stop? I suspect we would, based on my non-scientific dog park discussion. Everyone agreed that the silent witness to their attempt to nibble did inhibit them by making them confront their snacking patterns. "I never realized how many times I walk into the kitchen when I am editing my manuscripts." She is an author who went on to say, "until I noticed my dog appearing there as well. Poor dog, he never got to nap because he was constantly getting up from his bed to follow me. "

Clients who come to me for weight-loss consultation rarely reveal their actual pre-diet food intake. When I first started out, I used to ask them if they snacked but quickly learned to ask instead what they snacked on and when to obtain a somewhat better picture of their food habits. Even so, I knew, and so did they, that the answers were vague and inaccurate because who pays attention when nibbling is going on?

Tracking eating would be such an asset when a diet begins to fail. The common response of a dieter at this time is that, "The diet is not working anymore." This is like saying that the antibiotic is not working anymore when a patient stops taking it too soon. It would be so useful for the dieter to notice lapses in eating like drinking too much wine, ignoring portion sizes or extra fat ingredients creeping into a dish and uncontrolled snacking. Lapses always occur, and one of the missions of a weight-loss consultant is to identify weak points and work out strategies to prevent them in the future. But these lapses have to be recognized, and right now there is no easy and acceptable way of doing so.

So back to our dogs. What if we outfitted them with tiny video cameras attached to their dog tags? Or they could be trained as watch dogs, barking when the dieter deviated from the food plan? I fear, however, that not all dogs would be equal to the task. Mine wouldn't bark, instead he would appear to be saying, "As long as you are up, get me something, too."

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