By Lisa Benshoff, CPDT-KA, Talbot TTouch llc, Easton
Does Baxter or Daisy growl (or worse) when you walk by at mealtime? Food guarding is not uncommon, so there’s a lot of advice on the Internet. Unfortunately, too many people regard this behavior as a leadership issue and give misguided advice. These so-called experts, including the one on TV, say that you’ve got to assert yourself as the “pack leader,” “show the dog who is boss.”
This attitude is based on the very outdated and disproven theory that our dogs see us as pack members and would take over the household (maybe even the world) unless we establish ourselves as the “alpha” and make sure they never “win.” Their silly and dangerous advice includes that you should always eat before your dog, pet and stroke him as he eats, stick your hand in the bowl, and even take it away to prove that it belongs to you. Perhaps they think a Tarzan call would underline that point.
I could (but won’t) spend this whole post explaining why the dominance theory is a complete misinterpretation of what really motivates dogs. That theory is wrong on so many levels. If you’d like a valid and complete explanation, please see the position statement of the veterinary behaviorists society: http://avsabonline.org/uploads/position_statements/Dominance_Position_Statement_download-10-3-14.pdf
If you have a guarding problem, first understand that following such advice can easily make the situation much worse. Dogs who are worried about the approach of humans (or other dogs) while they are eating need to be left alone. How would you react if your spouse marched up and stuck their hand in your food or snatched your plate away before you were finished?
It’s completely unfair and illogical to expect any dog, even a non-guarder, to tolerate any messing about with their most valuable resource! Instead of teaching him that you’re the leader, it would actually confirm that you can’t be trusted around his food. Hands should be for giving, not taking. Taking away a valued item only breeds resentment, not respect.
The first step in teaching that we’re not a threat is to manage this behavior—even if there has never been a bite—to make sure no one can get hurt, and to prevent Baxter from practicing this unwanted behavior. Contain him in another room, in a crate, behind a gate, or on a tether, especially if there are kids around. Give him plenty of space while he’s eating. Wait for him to walk away before picking up the bowl.
The next step is behavior modification. We want to change the behavior (stiffening, freezing, growling, snarling, or lunging) by helping Baxter or Daisy to feel relaxed instead of wary at mealtime. This requires safely and incrementally showing that anyone’s approach is actually a very good thing. This can mean tossing or dropping better tidbits, before the guarding behavior occurs, and then walking away—a bonus, from your dog’s point of view.
Another technique, suggested by Jean Donaldson in her book MINE! A Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs, is to divide the meal among several bowls and to put another down as soon as he finishes each one.
Many dogs also, or instead, guard other valuable resources: favorite toys, chews, their comfy spot on the couch or bed, or a certain person. What it really comes down to is lack of trust and (with regard to non-food items) an unwillingness to share.
Trying to be “alpha” (a status that doesn’t apply to either dog-human or dog-dog relationships) can make your dog fear you, not trust you. That’s certainly not the way I want my dogs to feel about me or my husband.
To me, trust means practicing a cooperative, mutually respectful, non-confrontational approach to living with our dogs. Think of your relationship as a trust account. Making many deposits and few withdrawals really pays off, in so many ways!
For excellent advice on how to deal with guarding, fabulous trainer Grisha Stewart recommends initiating the Say Please protocol, teaching the cue Give or Trade (also known as Drop It), and for space guarders, teaching Off. (Please note that there is no need to use a harsh tone of voice; that can in fact be counter-productive.)
Guarding is not a behavior to “correct.” We need to change the emotion that causes it. The worst and most risky response would be to misinterpret it as “dominance” and go all “alpha” on your dog.
Here are some excellent resources to check out, for a positive and effective approach:
Lisa serves on our Board and is instrumental in helping keep our animals happy!