We all love to spoil our canine friends, and one of the cutest sights is a puppy or dog getting excited over their favourite food. But this excitement can sometimes turn to possessive guarding. Dogs have a natural instinct to ‘guard’ their food from being taken away by humans or other dogs. Food guarding can range from mild behaviours such as gobbling, hiding, or running away with food, to glaring, muscle tension, a warning growl.
Although many owners find ways to manage this behaviour, such as by leaving their dog alone to eat, it’s important for a number of reasons to train dogs to be non-possessive around food. This training will help your dog become well adjusted, and will allow you to approach them with confidence whenever they have a valued possession such as food. It’s also good for their welfare and may even save their life, should you have to stop them from eating something dangerous.
If your dog shows no sign of food guarding, you can still take steps to prevent them from developing this tendency down the track. One tip is to avoid feeding your dog during your own mealtime, as this has been found to increase food guarding behaviour. For new dogs or puppies, introduce them to hand feeding when they first arrive by feeding them with one hand and stroking them with the other, then progressing to holding their food bowl while they eat and eventually placing the food bowl on the floor and dropping small treats into their dinner. Keeping this up for the first few months will teach your dog to feel relaxed while eating in your presence.
Even if your dog is already food-possessive, it’s not too late to set them on the right track! Try the following training tips for both preventing and dealing with mild food guarding behaviour.
Considerations to make
Before you begin, remember that sound training methods are based on rewarding dogs for performing desirable behaviour, rather than punishing them for unwanted behaviours. Punishing them will only make any aggressive behaviour worse. Ignore outdated advice, such as to repeatedly remove your dog’s food bowl while they are eating. Taking food away from a food-possessive dog is dangerous and is also damaging to your relationship with your dog.
Safety comes first, so observe your dog’s body language and if you have any reasons to fear your dog could bite you or if your dog has already attempted to bite, don’t attempt to solve the problem alone. For more serious food guarding issues, consult your veterinarian for advice and discuss options such as a referral to a professional dog trainer or veterinary animal behaviourist. And always supervise your dog around children.
Teach your dog to sit for their dinner
Teaching your dog to sit before eating is a great place to start because this will become their way of saying ‘please’ before being fed. Start by asking them to sit, then produce an empty bowl and gradually fill this with small amounts of food, one handful at a time. Your dog will learn to associate someone approaching their food bowl with the arrival of more food!
Desensitisation and counterconditioning
The aim of this technique is to gradually expose your dog to being approached by you when eating so they feel comfortable and learn to associate this with something good happening – in this case yummy treats! The steps will involve filing your dog’s food bowl with three quarters of the normal amount, placing it down and slowly introducing the remaining quarter in the form of high-value treats which they don’t normally get. Start by approaching the bowl, tossing the treats in and walking away. Once your dog accepts this, progress towards waiting longer before walking away, then bending down and placing the food into the bowl, tapping the bowl and finally picking it up to place the treats in before returning it to your dog. This training must be done slowly, only moving to the next step when your dog appears calm and relaxed, and preferably even wagging their tail in expectation of a treat.
Besides training, you can reduce food guarding behaviour by presenting your dog’s food in a variety of ways. This may include treat toys such as Kongs, scattering or hiding food around the yard or changing the location of where they are fed. Feeding enrichment also reduces stress-related (stereotypical) behaviours such as repetitive pacing or barking.
Food guarding between dogs
If you share your home with more than one dog, the first step to manage food guarding is to always feed them separately when you are unable to supervise them around food. You can also train them to share by calling each dog by name as you feed the other dog a treat. This teaches them that ‘good things’ happen when they are together around food. In the case of aggression between dogs, be sure to seek professional assistance first.
Feeding our dogs should be enjoyable for everyone, but having food possessive dogs can become stressful and even dangerous. The good news is that you can train your dog to be calm and non-possessive around food, but it’s important to read their body language and to know when the problem needs veterinary advice.
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6 Aug 2019