Author and canine expert Stanley Coren on dogs and food

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First aired on North by Northwest (05/07/12)

Psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren, author of a number of bestselling books about dog behaviour, including The Intelligence of Dogs, recently dropped by North by Northwest to talk to host Sheryl MacKay about dogs and their sense of taste.

Although ads for dog food suggest that taste is as important for canines as it is for human beings, Coren said that's not the case. "Dogs are as far behind humans when it comes to taste as humans are behind dogs when it comes to the sense of smell."

He went on to explain that while we have 9,000 taste buds, a dog has only 1,700. "As animals go, it's not too bad. The cat only has 470. The reason that we think that cats are such finicky eaters is that all the cat's taste buds are tuned to flesh. And the cat refuses anything that doesn't trigger those sort of fleshy taste buds."

Dogs may have fewer taste buds than us, but theirs are more varied. Our five basic tastes are "sweet, sour, salty and bitter, and then there's something called umami -- just think of it as meat, " Coren explained. In addition to the salty, bitter, sweet and sour, "dogs have two different taste buds for two different kinds of meat. One is fat, and the other is just flesh. They also have, right at the tip of their tongue, they've got a set of taste buds for water."

Coren noted that dogs "tend to shy away from the bitter tastes, and some of the sour tastes," which has led some people to believe that you can control dogs' behaviour by spraying bitter substances on things you don't want them chewing on.

According to Coren, these substances work eventually, but "not quickly and not easily. The reason for that is that the bitter and sour taste buds are way back on the tongue. And dogs are not gentle nibblers at their food. So they can just wolf this stuff down, and it's gone, it's already down their throat before those taste buds are stimulated."

Coren went on to describe appearing on a TV show with a cocker spaniel that was renowned for jumping up on the kitchen counter and snatching food, a habit his owners wanted to break him of. At first they tried a commercial product, made of alum, but that didn't deter the dog.

Coren emphasized that smell matters more to dogs than taste, and he offered advice to anyone whose dog is a finicky eater. "The easiest way to get him to eat his kibble is you take that same kibble that he's been refusing, and you pour on it some warm water, and you let it sit for 30 seconds. Now the moisture is going to release more of the taste anyway, but much more important, the warmth and the moisture is going to give it a smell. And the smell is much more important to the dog."

As for retraining the cocker spaniel, Coren described making a mixture of lemon juice and hot sauce, and wetting pieces of toast with it. "Then what we did was rub the outside of the plate with a little bit of lemon peel." The dog learned to associate the smell of lemon with "something that tastes bad. So that all the people had to do, when they cleaned the counter, was to use a lemon-centred kind of cleaner."

Asked about choosing dog food, Coren suggested that people were often overly fussy about what they feed their pets. He added that it's important to remember how canines evolved over time. "They built their association with human beings by hanging out on the outside of primitive villages and eating the garbage," he explained. "There's an Australian anthropologist who claims that in fact the existence of permanent cities only came about when we domesticated dogs. Because otherwise, if you don't have a dog, then the stuff outside the village becomes such a big pile of garbage that it becomes unlivable...So they were designed to be garbage eaters, and that basically means that they'll eat just about anything."

Coren offered a final tip for dealing with a dog that's a finicky eater. "You give them the food from your hand. That makes everything taste wonderful to the dog."

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