Life with dogs in our homes is safer when dogs do not guard their food. A confrontational attitude toward training has long maintained that people should force dogs to give up their food to humans, and punish a dog in various ways for not doing so. The sad result of this is to push the dog to guard food more and more ferociously. Happily, we have a wonderful alternative that works extremely well. We simply condition the dog to expect and to fully believe that humans are the givers of food, not the takers.
When you first get a dog of any age, hopefully the dog will not have a strong tendency to guard food. Organizations with the responsibility of finding adoptive homes for dogs avoid placing dogs with this problem, unless the new home is informed of the problem and capable of dealing with it. If that's the case with your new dog, you'll want to move on to the rehabilitation instructions. For the dog who doesn't yet guard food, your task is to keep this problem from starting. Here's how.
1. Whenever you feed the dog, ensure adequate privacy from other animals (including cats), so the dog does not have to fret about others approaching the food. Instill in your dog the confidence that mealtimes are reliable and that you will provide the necessary structure. Control the environment around the dog's mealtimes so that the dog's instincts to protect food don't get triggered in the first place. This applies to puppies, too. Feed the dog regular meals instead of leaving a food dish out with food in it.
2. Walk by your dog during a few meals, and see how the dog reacts. Any tension in the dog's body is cause for concern. If you see this, be sure to do the prevention exercises thoroughly, and frequently for the life of the dog. Also stay alert to changes in the household that might result in other animals or little kids disturbing the dog during meals. Remember to maintain the dog's trust that meals are provided without the need to defend them!
3. Walk by your dog while the dog is eating and drop something a little smellier and tastier than the regular food into the dish. Do this many, many times. Add the treats in small amounts. The idea is that each time a person approaches the dish, a good thing happens. That good thing does NOT need to be a jackpot amount of food.
4. When you feel comfortable trying it (not too soon with an adult dog), touch the dog affectionately while the dog is eating. Add a treat to the dish at the same time. If the dog accepts this easily, continue to do it when you approach the eating dog, and start letting a second, two seconds, three seconds, four seconds, and finally five seconds, pass before you add the treat to the dish.
5. Include your children in the activity of walking by the dish and adding a treat, but only AFTER you are confident the dog will not react aggressively. It is extremely important that a dog in a home with children is approachable during meals, but rushing the program could get a child hurt, and we certainly don't want that.
For safety's sake, teach young children to leave dogs alone during meals, except when they are doing this exercise with your help. Kids don't fully understand consequences, and certainly don't understand that a dog is much more the victim of instinct than a human is. A dog will instinctively react to what a child might think is a fun teasing game around the food dish.
There are certain situations in which a dog can't intellectually understand to play nice, and this is certainly one. Condition your dog to accept the approach of kids during eating for safety's sake-but also for safety's sake, teach your kids not to do it! In case a child does occasionally error an adult errs by not supervising the child-the conditioning you've done can save the day.
6. Feed the dog occasionally at various places in the house, outside the house, and on outings. The idea is to keep the dog from thinking of one place as being the inner sanctum of meals. The result in some cases is a dog guarding that special meal-place. It's also better for the dog to feel comfortable eating in different places so that the dog will eat on trips, when boarded, or in other situations outside the daily routine.
7. Do the prevention exercises with your dog's toys, too. Have an adult ask the dog for the toy, gently take it, look at it, give the dog a treat, and then return the toy. Eventually include the children, but maintain a high level of adult supervision when you do this, and teach the kids not to take the dog's toys at other times. If a dog shows a strong tendency to guard any particular toy, that toy must be removed. Better the dog lose the enjoyment of a toy than to lose the dog's life when the dog becomes too dangerous. You may be able to allow the dog to enjoy it strictly in a private place such as the dog's crate.
8. Never chase a dog down to get something the dog has stolen. This triggers the same instincts as food guarding, and also teaches your dog to run from you. Condition your dog instead to bring things to you for great trades, plus praise and other rewards.
9. When humans eat, develop a sensible plan for the dog, depending on how the particular dog responds-and how family members behave. When people give dogs some of the humans' food, not only does it teach the dogs to beg, but also it can trigger food-guarding instincts. Some dogs will develop the attitude that ALL food should be dog food! If you cannot prevent your family members from feeding the dog at the human dinner table, place the dog in another area when humans eat. Watch out for human behavior around picnics, backyard barbecues, parties, and TV snacking, too. If the people can't behave, they don't get to enjoy the company of the dog! Place the dog in a safe confined area with a nice treat to enjoy.
10. Teach your dog to "sit" and also to "down," and from time to time have the dog perform one of these actions prior to your setting the food dish down for the dog to eat. This is an especially great way to help the dog enjoy learning the "down" cue.
If your dog already has a problem with food guarding, you will certainly need to continue the prevention exercises and management for the life of the dog. Initially, it may be too dangerous to walk up to the dog's dish at all while the dog is eating, and we certainly don't want you hurt. In such cases, enlist the help of a behavior specialist in person, to evaluate the dog and the situation and to add an extra measure of safety for the people involved.
For the food-guarding dog, remove the dog dish from the floor between meals. Leaving the dish out gives the dog something to guard, and our goal is to lull the whole food-guarding instinct to sleep. If this is a fairly moderate problem, start by putting the food dish on the floor at mealtime-with nothing in it! Walk several feet away, and have the dog's food with you.
Also have some means of giving the food to the dog in small bits. For a dog who reacts to a hand reaching toward the dish, get the help of a behavior specialist. But one way to work it would be to use something long to put the food into the dish, rather than your hand. A reaching tool for people with disabilities may be an option, depending on the food you're using. These tools are not expensive.
When the dog realizes there is no food in the dish and looks at you, walk up to the dish and put a small amount of food in it before walking away again. When the dog finishes that bit and looks at you again, walk up and place another bit in the bowl and go back to your position several feet away from the dish. You're conditioning the dog to accept having a person approaching the dish and putting a hand down to the dish. You don't want to just stand next to the dish dispensing food. You want to include an approach to the dish each time, in order to turn the approach of a person at mealtime into a positive event in the dog's mind.
Treat Your Best Friend To Something Really Special
A good way to end the meal would be to give the dog an especially tasty treat as you pick the bowl up off the floor. This is to condition the dog that having the bowl removed is a good thing, too, and also to let the dog know the meal is finished. If your dog is extra-touchy about the person's approach or some other aspect of the exercise, you can start by taking a step back from doing it as described above, or more than one step back. Here are some ideas for "back up steps":
1. For the dog who has become defensive about the dish itself, you could start with no dog dish, and feed the dog from your hand. In order to switch the dog to safely eating from a dish, you would gradually include the dish. After the dog gets used to eating from your hand, you could place the dish on a surface nearby and gradually move the hand with the food closer to the dish for successive bits of food.
Start holding the dish in your other hand, and gradually move the dish to the floor level. Eventually set the dog dish on the floor, and continue gradual steps until the dog is ready for you to start setting the empty dish on the floor and moving several steps away.
Take these steps slowly. You want to do the whole process over as long as period of time as it takes, as slowly as necessary, to avoid triggering the dog into a food-guarding or dish-guarding reaction. Such a reaction is a big setback to training. Slower is faster in this case, because taking the steps slowly will achieve the desired effects much more quickly than if you rush things.
2. You could hold the dog dish in your hand rather than setting it on the floor, and have the dog come to you for food rather than you walking up to the dog. You may want to move around, stepping away from the dog, having the dog come with you to a new spot for each bite. A next step would be to teach the dog a simple "stay" and have the dog hold the "stay" while you walk up with the dish and still hold it for the dog to eat. Now you're introducing the approach, but the dog has nothing to guard as you approach, because you still have the dish and the food with you.
Gradually you would put the dish closer to the floor, and then eventually on the floor. When using a "stay" with training on food guarding, avoid creating a situation that rewards the dog at the release from the "stay.This can make a dog somewhat explosive, exactly what you do not want. Always bring your dog out of a "stay" command calmly. Do the same whenever you bring a dog out of a crate or other confinement. Exploding dogs can be dangerous, and we sometimes unknowingly condition this reaction by making the release too rewarding. Give the dog something calm to do immediately on release from the "stay" or the confined area.
3. It could enhance an adult's safety to place the dish on a raised surface for early training, so that you're not bending down and putting your face near dog teeth, and so that you're less physically off balance when you deposit food into the dish. A raised dish and a reaching tool to add the food would be additional safety. Note that raising the dish could put it closer to a child's face, and therefore not be a good idea. You wouldn't be including the child in the conditioning process at the early stages anyway, though. The child should not be brought into the exercises until the dog is completely steady with adults.
4. You could tether the dog before putting down the dish, so that the dog cannot nail you with teeth as long as you stay out of reach. Again, if you feel this is necessary, get a behavior specialist to help you with the dog rather than going it alone.
5. For extra safety, you could use a head halter or muzzle that allows the dog to eat but prevents the dog from biting you. If you want to try this option, work with a behavior specialist-and have that person help you fit the mouth-controlling device so that you don't get a nasty surprise if it accidentally comes off at the worst possible moment.
Remember, too, that conditioning might quickly seem complete with the mouth-controlling device on, and fall apart appallingly quickly when the device is removed. Don't try to take short cuts on the conditioning. If a dog has this big a problem with food-guarding, it's going to be a long process to make that dog safer.
6. Keep confrontation and punishment strictly out of this process. No matter how difficult the dog or how serious you might consider a particular transgression the dog has committed, human aggression toward the dog over food or toys is virtually guaranteed to make the problem worse. It is quite often what causes the problem in the first place.
Happy Dog, Happy Family
With a little effort-most of it quite enjoyable, since dogs love to eat and people love to see dogs happy-food-guarding can be prevented in the first place. Where it has emerged, it may not be completely curable-instincts are POWERFUL-but it can be made safer.
Once a dog is calm about people approaching the dish during meals, continue to practice good management, including whenever you have guests, the household is rearranged for any reason, you get another animal, or someone new joins the family. For the life of the dog, continue at least occasionally to walk up to the dish and add something nice. Keep it uppermost in your dog's mind that the approach of a person during meals always carries the possibility of a bonus.
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