If you come close to your dog’s food while it is eating, does its body get stiff, or freeze up – does your dog start to growl or snarl? Has she ever snapped or tried to bite? This is what is known as food guarding.
In episode 28 of raising your paws, I talked about what to do to prevent a puppy or a non-guarding adult from starting to do this in the first place.
But what do you do if your dog already has a food guarding problem?
In this blog, I’ll explain how to start practicing some food bowl exercises, that can change your dog’s response from feeling threatened when you are near their dinner, to acceptance and even happiness that you are there. I’ll also offer some resources for where to go to get further instructions and how to find professional help if you’re dealing with a serious guarding issue.
If you have a dog who food guards around you, the food bowl exercises are different than the ones you would use to prevent the protective behaviors from starting – like in the case of a puppy or non-guarding dog.
If your dog shows any of the behaviors I described in the first paragraph, when you get close to its food, in order to change your dog’s feelings about you being there, keep in mind that you will be practicing the steps listed below, SLOWLY and with CAUTION.
One way to know if you should be trying to work on this yourself (without the help of a dog trainer or professional animal behavior consultant) is to answer this question. Does your dog have a soft mouth? This means that they take treats from you gently and when mouthing you, they do it softly. A soft or hard mouth has to do with bite inhibition – which is something that all dogs learned when they were very young pups – it was part of the socialization process. Good bite inhibition means they will have a soft mouth. This is not easily changed once the dog is an adult.
If your dog does have a hard mouth – taking treats roughly and tends to bite and mouth too hard, or is an unpredictable or explosive guarder or has a history of being a dangerous biter, you will need to use other strategies and will want to consult a professional trainer or animal behavior consultant to help you plan out a course of action. Here is a link to locate a an animal behavior consultant near you.
To begin to teach your dog you are not a threat to its food, here are the three first steps for a dog that DOES NOT have a serious, advanced (biting) guarding problem.
1. Place your dog’s EMPTY food bowl down where you normally feed your dog. When the dog goes over to its bowl to investigate, approach your dog and the bowl. Put a small handful of food in the bowl and back away a number of feet. Wait until the dog finishes eating it and then approach again with the next handful. Repeat this until all that meal is finished. Continue to feed your dog every meal this way until your dog clearly is happy to have you approaching – it could take a number of days or weeks. Then, go on to the next step.
Step 2. Approach your dog and its empty bowl. This time, pick up the bowl, then put a handful of food in it, and put the bowl back down, move away, wait until the dog finishes the food and then repeat this. Approach, pick up bowl, handful of food in, bowl back down, you retreat, dog eats, repeat. You got it. You’ll do this over and over again, feeding your dog this way until again, your dog is happy to have you approach and is fine with you removing the bowl.
Step 3. This will be a combination of the two previous exercises, – approaching and adding food while the bowl is on the ground and then switch it up and alternate with the second step, removing the bowl to add the handfuls one at a time. But now in this step, you’re going to add the next handful of food BEFORE the dog has completely finished the previous portion. This gets your dog used to your hand being close by and bringing more helping while she is actually still eating. Just like the other two steps, keep repeating this until your dog is totally comfortable with you doing this.
If at any time, during the steps, your dog demonstrates any guarding, such as growling, stiffness or freezing up, then slow down, and go back to the previous exercise and proceed more gradually to the one that resulted in you seeing the guarding behaviors.
And, if your dog growls as you approach the bowl in the beginning while he is eating, only go up a certain distance like 3 feet away and while the dog continues to eat, toss a small handful of canned food (stays together) into the dish, then back away, and repeat, gradually closing the distance until you are able to touch the bowl.
For teaching food bowl exercises, DO NOT LET YOUR CHILDREN do this. For all these steps you are only going to have the adult family members doing these exercises. There does come a time when all family members can be brought into the work, but not in the beginning and with some dogs, children are NEVER a good idea for teaching the dog not to guard.
The next steps to reversing food guarding issues and getting your dog comfortable with your presence involves you being able to place your hand on your dog’s bowl the whole time he is eating and then being able to move your hand off of the bowl, in order to add another helping and then replacing your hand on the bowl. BUT this is more challenging for your dog and you’ll want to consult the more detailed descriptions of how to do this in the books below.
The resource for this material is Jean Donaldson’s book, The Culture Clash that writes out in great detail how to work with a food guarding dog. I highly recommend you consult this book for the specific details of all the remaining steps.
Another one of Jean’s books that goes into more detail about what to do with guarding dogs:
Be honest about your feelings about doing this sort of training and your abilities about working with your dog and with the seriousness of your dog’s guarding habits. Caution must be taken – food guarding can be a dangerous habit to break – for you – you don’t want to get bit.
Please consider if it would be best to call in a qualified dog trainer or animal behaviorist. There is no shame in wanting to do the wisest thing for you and your dog by getting additional help to solve the problem. The good news is that there is hope and things to do to remedy the problem. Write me to let me know how its going. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show Notes for Raising Your Paws Podcast episode 28.
Source for material on food guarding:
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Here’s what is coming up in the next episode.
November, 20, 2018 – Have you wondered why your dog wants to eat cat poop every chance they get? And how do you stop a dog and cat fight anyway? Certified animal behavior consultant, Amy Shojai, author of ComPETability, Solving Behavior Problems in your CAT-Dog Household, will tell you this and more, when she returns for the rest of our conversation.
Also, if your dog starts to growl at you and resource guard when you want to take something away from him like that half eaten bone, or your shoe or even a paper tissue, there’s a technique to use you’ll want to hear about.