Changing the Attitude, Not Just the Behavior
While this article is titled “Food Aggression …” the concepts in the article can be applied to any sort of resource guarding. NOTE: dealing with aggression issues, especially if the dog has already bitten someone, is best done under the “hands on” guidance of a professional. Aggression issues can not, and should not, be diagnosed or dealt with over the internet.
Let’s start with a scenario, which puts you in the position of your dog.
You recently sat down to dinner, and have just started to enjoy your meal. It’s a meal you like, not your favorite foods but food that you enjoy on a regular basis. I walk in, take your plate, and walk off with it. You do one of the following:
- Nothing, you are happy to share and if I am hungry I am welcome to what you were eating (you are not like the dogs this article is intended for)
- You say nothing, but you are not happy about it, and you begin to stress me, or any person, coming anywhere near the dinner table while you are eating, even if I am just walking through the room on the way to the bathroom
- You say nothing, but you are not happy about it, and if I ever come near your dinner again, you will be prepared to protect it verbally and/or physically
- You begin yelling at me, demanding to know what I think I am doing, and try to grab your dinner plate back.
- You jump up, punch the thief (me) in the face, grab your dinner plate, and warn me not to try it again.
- You jump up and being to pummel me, the dinner plate is a thought in the back of your mind, but more importantly you are going to make sure I understand I will NEVER AGAIN touch anything of yours
In each of these scenarios, I may in turn yell back at you, or even punch you (to show you who is in charge), which may not only escalate the current scenario to potentially an all-out brawl, but will also set the stage for future scenarios. In the future, after going through the scenarios above a few times, you may allow me to take the plate because you don’t want another beat down, but you will deeply resent it and may try to grab your plate and go into another room anytime you hear someone coming, or be so stressed you can’t eat if people are around. Or you may become so hyper vigilant about ANYONE getting near your dinner plate that someone just walking in the room, minding their own business, may trigger you to try to protect your dinner. And the methods you use to protect your dinner may escalate from a single harsh word to a pre-emptive punch in the face. Either way, eating dinner has now become a stressful occurrence if there are other people anywhere in the vicinity.
Replace yelling with growling, punching with biting, and you have examples of the wide range of reactions our dogs may have when we walk up and take away, or attempt to take away, a bone, chew toy, food dish, etc. For many animals possession is 9/10s of the law of ownership, and in their mind once they have it, there is no legitimate reason for someone else, human or animal, to come try to take it.
So how do we address this issue, and change not just the behavior (protecting the food) but the attitude surrounding the behavior, so our dog wants us to come take what they have, not just tolerate it?
Let’s go back to the previous scenario. Once again you have sat down to dinner and began eating. I come into the room, walk over, pick up your plate, and before you can even react put a nice big piece of chocolate cake on it and put it back down in front of you. You are slightly confused about what just happened, but very happy to see that cake and now you are looking forward to digging in. The next day when you are eating dinner, I come in, pick up your plate, put a big piece of cheesecake on it, and put it back down in front of you again. Soon, every time I walk in the room your mouth starts to water and you are holding out your plate to me to see if I have something to add to it. Sometimes I just walk into the kitchen to get my own plate, or a glass of water, etc. At those times you feel a slight sense of disappointment that I didn’t take your plate, but you go back to enjoying your dinner. And this is how we change not just the behavior, but the attitude behind food aggression.
If your dog is willing to bite a person over food, it would be best for you to seek professional help from someone who is more skilled at reading the dog, who can coach you through this process while avoiding the need for medical care. Also, you will note that throughout this article I am addressing the dog/human relationship and food aggression. Since another dog is not capable of doing what I am going to recommend, different methods are needed for dog/dog food aggression. And frankly, in a scenario where a dog tries to take food/toys from another dog and is rebuffed for it, I have never understood why the dog with the food is considered the bad dog. The dog walking up and attempting to steal the food/toy is the one being rude, and displaying inappropriate behavior.
There are two main things that have to be taken into account when creating a plan to deal with food aggression. First, how protective/aggressive is your dog over food, bones, etc. And second, how much do they actually value their food, bones, etc. A dog, through genetics, environment, or a combination of both, can be highly aggressive over items that are actually of very low value. For example dogs who will attack someone for walking near them while they are eating a dry stale chunk of a cracker or chewing on an old, dried out bone. This dog is probably going to value a chunk of steak a lot more, but they are going to be highly aggressive over any food. Another dog may not care enough about a dog biscuit, kibble, etc. to be aggressive over it, but may be more than willing to threaten or bite over a nice meaty bone.
While working on modifying your dog’s attitude, it is best to avoid a negative situation. This means if you are going to give your dog a high value food/treat, and you either A) do not have the time to work with the dog or B) do not have anything of higher value to use, you should give the dog the food/treat in a location where it can enjoy it uninterrupted (crate, bedroom, outside, etc.) or simply don’t give it to the dog. Dogs learn best with black and white, shades of grey can simply confuse things, and one negative experience can wipe out days or even weeks of progress made through positive experiences.
So how can you “give your dog cake”, and change their attitude about their relationship with food and humans? Keep in mind that in each of these scenarios, you want to give the dog something of lower value, and then add something of much higher value. If you just add more of the same, it may not be worth it to from the dogs point of view to be a willing participant in this game. Also keep in mind once you have added the higher value food, the willingness to protect it may go up, so add a very small quantity, which will be gone quickly. Also small quantities allow you to repeat the exercise many times.
- Give your dog a small quantity of dinner; if they normally get 3 cups give them just ¼ of a cup. Once that is gone, pick up the bowl, add another ¼ cup, and put it back down. This is different than adding some food to a bowl that still has food in it, because the bowl is empty. As a food holding item the bowl may still have value to some dogs, but not nearly as much as if it actually still had food in it.
- Place your dog’s dinner (for example dry kibble) down, and after they have taken a few bites, add one or two pieces of cooked chicken to the dish. Depending on the dog’s level of aggression, you may need to just drop it into the dish from a safe distance, or you may be able to pick up the dish, add the food, and put it back down. The goal will be picking up the dish, but play it safe.
- Give the dog an old dry bone to chew on, then while they are enjoying it, walk over and hand feed them a few pieces of meat, cheese, etc. The goal will be to pick up the bone, feed them the reward, then hand the bone back, but once again play it safe and take baby steps if needed. In addition to an old dry bone you can do this with a kong with peanut butter, a kong stuffed with kibble soaked in water, a treat cube with biscuits in it, a rawhide bone, etc. On occasion do not give the item back after rewarding them, but this should be less than 25% of the time to condition them that the bulk of the time they are going to get the item and the reward.
- Give the dog an item of lower value, and then trade it for an item of higher value. For example, the dog is chewing on a nylabone. Take the nylabone away and give it a nice meaty bone.
Once your dog is comfortable with you walk over to it while it is eating or chewing on something, begin to encourage it to bring the item to you for the reward.
Be warned, you can create a “monster” using these techniques. I have taken multiple food possessive/aggressive dogs and turned them into dogs that will bring me things, over and over, in the hopes of a trade for something of higher value. In one case, the dog would go so far as to steal a food related item out of the trash, just so they could bring it to me to trade for a reward. But getting into the trash is an article for another day, and I’d rather have to fix that issue than have a dog trying to bite me because I walked past and it happened to have a bone.
© Kadi Thingvall – 2014
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