Who owns the kibble in your house, once it hits the dog bowl? Does Rover run you out of the kitchen when he is eating dinner? What happens if you need to take away a tasty rawhide?
If food, bones or chewies turn your sweetie into a growling, snarling monster, then your dog has an issue with resource guarding, or CPA (canine possession aggression). An aggressive display over food is the most common form of CPA.
Does your dog eat alone or intrai good company?
We tend to teach our children to “leave the dog alone while he eats.” This is for good reason, as most dogs view small children no differently than they view other dogs. However, if the adults in the family must also tip-toe around the dog when he is eating, the dog may perceive himself as the true “owner” of the food. In the wild, alpha dogs claim the valued resources, and will eat first, with the underlings being allowed to eat only after the “big dog” is full and walks away.
Our family dogs should allow us to reach down and pick up their bowl, even when they are in the middle of eating. Our pups must learn to tolerate the presence of people being close to them while eating, and also to tolerate having a bone or toy taken away.
Early training is optimal
Ideally, we start convincing pups that we are the boss, and therefore the true owner of the food and the bones, at an early age. Many training books advise owners to “trade” if a pup grabs one of our shoes or any forbidden object, by exchanging a treat for the object. The biggest problem with this approach is that often the forbidden object is more valuable to the dog than the treat.
One very helpful training exercise consists of teaching pups to allow us to open their mouths, so that either something can be removed, or something can be added (if you need to give the dog a pill, for example). We call this the “Give Me That” exercise.
Start by putting a tiny dab of plain cream cheese or peanut butter on the end of your index finger. Go over to your pup and say, “give me that,” in the same tone that you would use if he had something you did not wish for him to have, while at the same time opening his mouth, then quickly placing the cream cheese on his tongue. Turn and walk calmly away afterwards, just as you would if you had taken something from him. If the pup gets used to hearing “give me that” with the positive of adding a wonderful taste to his mouth, then it will be less difficult when you need to say this and open his mouth to take something from him. If he does not resent having his mouth opened, it will also be easier to administer medication, brush the dog’s teeth, or have the veterinarian examine his mouth. After a week or so of opening the mouth and giving the dab of cream cheese or peanut butter, progress to opening his mouth and rubbing a finger over his teeth – eventually move on to using flavored doggie toothpaste and a finger brush specifically made for dogs to clean his teeth daily.
Teach your dog that you own the rights to the food, and that he must exhibit impulse control at the dinner table, by fixing the dog’s food and leaving it on the kitchen counter. Then sit down at the table yourself (with any type of food, you can even eat a couple of crackers) and eat FIRST, before your dog is given his bowl. The dog should sit and wait patiently until you are finished, and then his bowl is put down. If he is too impulsive to wait, then bring his crate into the kitchen and pull it up beside you, and crate him while you are eating. Before giving him his dinner, let him out of the crate, and have him sit before you put down the bowl.
Have the full ration of kibble in another bowl, and put only a small handful into his dish. As he is eating, reach down and add another handful, so that he gets used to having your hands in or near his bowl. Occasionally reach down and pick up the bowl while he is eating, wait a few seconds, ask him to sit, then put it back down.
Always give your dog an adequate amount of food at each meal, so that he does not feel deprived or hungry. A hungry dog will nearly always have impulse control issues around food. If he is overweight, your veterinarian can recommend a food for weight control or you can add roughage like canned green beans or fresh grated carrots. This helps him feel fuller without having consumed extra calories.
Working with the dog who already has a problem
Occasionally we adopt a dog who has already had many years of controlling his food bowl and bones. Sometimes dogs who have been rescued from a puppy mill or neglectful environment actually did have to fight for their food. In either case, doing the puppy exercises listed above may not be a safe option.
Realize that it is not all about the food – rather, it’s about the relationship. Your dog must learn to trust that you are a competent, capable leader who is in charge of everything, including the territory and the valued resources. He must trust that you have his best interests at heart. Work with a qualified behaviorist or an experienced trainer who can help you convey leadership to your dog in a kind but firm manner. Dogs are genetically programmed to defer leadership to the individual in their environment whom they consider the most capable of making the decisions, controlling the territory,and taking charge of the resources. Becoming that type of leader will help your dog feel safer and more secure.
Start by taking up all bones and toys and putting them in a basket or box where your dog cannot reach them. He can only chew on one thing at a time, so no more than one item should be on the floor, or in his crate, at any one time. If you come into a room and see the toy or bone just lying there, the dog ignoring it, simply pick it up and put it back in the basket. If your dog needs something to play with, then call him to you, have him sit, then reach in and get something and give it to him. This conveys to him that the toys and bones are yours, and you are allowing him to play with them, instead of vice-versa.
In relationship to his food bowl, start simply. Have your dog sit before the food is put down. Once he can do this, progress to standing near him as he eats, ignoring any displays of growling or guarding. After a few days, if you have not tried to take it away, he should accept your closeness to the food. Once he does this, then start using your foot (with shoes on, please) to push the bowl a bit while he is eating. Start by doing it just once during his dinner, but progress to the point where you can actually push the bowl totally away from him, and stand between him and the bowl.
If you think he is likely to have a temper tantrum, then have him attached to his leash, so you can pick up the leash and pull him away if needed. Dogs do understand that leaders can make them move, even away from valued items, so the use of a leash, or your body blocking him, or your foot pushing, are all leadership exercises. For best results, do all of these things without talking at all.
Be patient and persistent, yet calm and collected
Are pack leaders the ones who engage in the most posturing and aggressive displays to make their point? No! It is the “leader wanna-bes” who make the biggest fuss. The actual leader simply walks into the pack and takes what he wishes, with very little fanfare.
When starting leadership exercises of any kind, including those that revolve around the food bowl, do so with confidence, yet quietly and calmly. Cesar Milan of The Dog Whisperer TV show on National Geographic speaks often of calm, assertive energy. This is exactly what we wish to project when working with dogs with food and guarding issues. If we yell loudly, or even chatter incessantly, we are marking ourselves as “leader wanna-bes,” not powerful pack leaders. Remember, you are the one who paid for the food and the toys, and you are the one responsible for making sure your dog is not a danger to anyone – so you have not only the right, but the responsibility, to step into the role of pack leader. Be persistent, don’t give up. Almost every dog can accept that adult human beings have control over the food, bones and toys. Keep in mind, however, that dogs view smaller children more like other dogs, pack members equal to themselves, so do not do any of these exercises with your children present, and never allow your children to do anything that might put them at risk.
If implementing these suggestions does not cause a significant improvement in your dog’s behavior within three weeks, then consider contacting an experienced canine behavior specialist. They can help by evaluating your dog and making sure that there are not other issues which need to be addressed.
Source: Adapted from the ASPCA