Last week I wrote about how common it is for people to actually create food aggressive dogs by trying to get the dog used to people taking the food bowl away. What people thought was proper socialization, was actually causing their dog’s aggressive behavior. That post may have left a giant question, “so if not that, then what?” What should people do to help build confidence/security with food to prevent food aggression?
Well, first off, my end goal is not necessarily a dog who will share everything or who will back off their food at the mere presence of a human or who is so relaxed they will let other dogs take their food–but I do work toward a dog who is tolerant of people walking near, tolerant of other animals in the household casually being around, and tolerant of human hand being near the bowl (so if the human drops something near the bowl and needs to pick the object up, that the dog will not lash out).
Now, how I approach this with puppies is a little different than dogs who already have issues around food guarding–even though exercises are the same. With dogs who are already food aggressive, I go much slower, spend more time on each exercise, and only move on when there is a level of relaxation or comfort. With them, it’s about fixing past problems, not just building a solid foundation. Since puppies often are already pretty comfortable, I can mix it up and just practice the different exercises.
My general protocol is to build up security about resources and to teach tolerance of activity nearby while they have a resource. I use a variety of “exercises” to create a high level of tolerance. One of the guiding principles is that once the puppy has his food, it’s his and I won’t try to take it. There is a difference between “getting a dog used to having their bowl taken” and being able to take the bowl safely if there is an emergency.
These are some of the exercises I suggest (I encourage all family members to practice these and employ friends to help)… if the pups shows stress during any of the exercises, take a step back, add space or go back to hand feeding to prevent the stress from increasing.
Hand Feed–I like to hand feed pups for a few weeks to help build up lots of positive associations between humans and their food. The pups will start to see me not as a threat to their food but the provider of that food!
Feed From Hand in Food Bowl–Again, this is more work toward building a positive association between people hands and the pup’s food bowl. I don’t pick up the bowl or take it away ever. I may nudge it around with my hand in the bowl (so it makes the sound of the bowl being moved) but never taking it away. I then move to dropping kibble in the bowl–deliberately letting my hand get pretty close to the bowl to put the food in.
Sit Near and be a PEZ Dispense–While the pup is snacking on a handful of their kibble, I’ll sit near and drop extra special food near the bowl (in between dropping handfuls of kibble in the bowl). I start kneeling and standing around to toss extra special treats near the bowl. I want the pup to get used to food raining from the sky with me being near in a variety of distances and heights. I work towards leaning down and putting my hand pretty close to the bowl and dropping treats. You want to be careful not to be staring or looming…just casually standing around. I use this same technique to stand by and drop food when another animal in the house may wander nearby.
Walk by and drop food–Like many people, my pups are not fed in isolation, when they are eating, I frequently walk near them or by them as I move around the house. I don’t want to walk by the pup and have him lash out at me for being too close… so I condition them to see people walking near them as a really awesome thing. Much the same as the stationary work, I have people walk by and drop food near the pup’s bowl when they are eating. No-looming or staring, just passively dropping food as they walk passed. Depending on the puppy and the household, I do like to work up to “bumping” into the pup and dropping a jackpot amount of treats on the ground. I know in my house, occasionally while walking around the dogs eating, they’ll get bumped into and again, I want there to be a positive association to this type of interaction.
Through these types of non-confrontational exercises, owners can create dogs who are extremely confident that people near their food bowls mean nothing but good things. These are pups who are not going to lash out if a person walks near them while they eat or if a human puts their hand near the bowl. This sets up a safe environment if a human MUST pick up the food bowl for an emergency reason–though I always suggest, if you HAVE TO pick up the bowl, you should drop some extra good rewards in its place if it’s safe to do so.