Well, I’m back home now. I drove back this afternoon, arriving in time to unpack my stuff and the animals, toss the dogs some food, then head straight to work. The dogs didn’t get to do much today, but they were allowed to frolic in the yard for a couple of hours this morning, which at least got them some fresh air. And Kestrel and Mira chased each other around and wrestled for nearly the whole time. They both sure have a lot of energy, that’s for sure.
Regarding Kess, I am somewhat torn about just letting her run like that. She definitely needs some focus work, but she also needs to learn to be confident in who she is: a brilliant border collie. She arrived behaving as if she really didn’t know how to be a dog, and with absolutely zero self-confidence. She was compensating for this with some aggressive behaviour that I initally thought might be dominance issues. But they have subsided now and so I am reconsidering and believe her behaviour to have been the result of fear.
Specifically, she was a ferocious food guarder, against me and the other dogs. This can be very problematic for many people, and was one of the things I wanted to work on before placing her. For example, when I’d feed her, I’d put the bowl down and she’d stand over it, hunched, and give me a very hard eye. If I made any movement towards her, she’d snarl and lunge at the food (never at me), grabbing it and wolfing it down.
I was never afraid that she would bite me, but I definitely wanted this behaviour to go away. Punshing her for it would have made it worse. Instead, I did three things: 1) I made her work for her food; 2) I made a point of always giving her more food every time I approached her dish; and 3) I did not react at all to her show of aggression. Well, except the first time as it really caught me off guard. When this sweet little puppy turned into Cujo and lunged in my direction (actually at the dish), you better believe I pulled back in a hurry. But now that I expect it, I get her to do something for her dinner (sit, eye contact, wait until released to eat), then I stand still and let her eat. As soon as she starts eating, I tell her “good girl!” and walk away. I can now even pet her while she eats, and all she does is wag her tail. This is a big change over just a few weeks.
Not long ago, someone with a lot of rescue experience told me that she had been informed by behaviourist that dogs who guard their food nearly always start guarding everything else, and often end up biting. For this reason, they don’t accept food guarders into their program. I can understand why, as they certainly don’t want to adopt out dogs who are likely to bite people and get returned or destroyed. But in my experience, food guarding can quite often be worked with.
Every one of my dogs has guarded food from me, and from the other dogs, at one point or another. This offers an opportunity to respond in a way that will either increase or decrease the chance of the dog doing it again. Most people’s reactions (to jump back, to get angry, to take the food away etc.) tend to all make this worse.
Ross, for example, is a serious food guarder. He will attack the cats if they come near his dish, and the other dogs don’t even think about it. I can walk up and be near him, and even pet him, although he might give a little growl if I do. I don’t know if I could forcibly take food away from him – I have never tried. Ross had to fight to get food (and for his life) while living on the streets, and I don’t think he’s ever going to let go of some of his behaviours. This is why he came to live with me – his last several homes were not able to work with this. The last thing I’d ever do with him is force food away from him.
I have never challenged Ross, or tried to dominate him. Instead, I have done a lot of work with him around food, where I am in control but am fair. He had to work for his food for a long time, sometimes for every bite. By this I mean doing obedience and tricks. We have fun with it and I don’t think he sees it as “work.” It’s a game, but a game in which I control the food, and he does something for me to give it to him. That helps build in his mind the idea that I am in control of this resource, but also that I will allow him to have it if he listens and does as I request.
I also do a lot of “it’s your choice” training, which basically involves having the dog learning impulse control around food. I have always done this with my dogs, long before I’d ever heard of Susan Garrett, but she gave it a name and highlighted how it can be used as a foundation building block for other training. Briefly, you hold some treats in your hand and offer them to the dog. Say nothing. If the dog tries to grab them, you close your hand around the food so the dog can’t get it. Repeat this until the dog actually sits back, even for a second, and stops trying to get the food. Instantly reward him (I give him food from my other hand, which I keep hidden until that moment). Repeat this and soon you will have a dog who offers to back off of food in anticipation of getting more food! My dogs can all lie quietly while I put treats all around them, and even up their legs and on their noses. While that may seem like overkill, it comes in very handy when I drop something tasty on the floor. Instead of a dog fight, I have dogs sitting quietly, looking at me expectantly (they get a treat for this, either what I dropped dived among them, or something else if I don’t want to give it up).
Another thing I do is teach a very solid “out.” This must usually be started with lower value items, such as toys or something the dog likes, but is not going to try and guard. You build from there until the dog will drop even high value food. I always trade for an out – that is, the dog always gets something in return, typically of higher value. I have done enough of this with Ross that he has actually brought me a whole ham – that my cat knocked onto the floor – to see what I would trade him for it. (he got part of the ham as I didn’t have anything of higher value to offer, plus I was so impressed with him that I wanted to really reinforce it!)
Finally, I never leave my dogs unattended while they are eating – it’s too easy for one to steal someone else’s food, and that can lead to problems. I feed my guys in crates most of the time (even the cats) so that they feel safe when they eat. At least until their behaviour around food is very well established. They all learn to hold a sit and give me eye contact with their bowls in their crates between their feet. I can have all three sitting and watching me, waiting to be released. Now, even if I don’t have crates, I can set the food down on the ground in front of each dog, and they will do the same. No one will touch anyone else’s food, and as soon as they’re done, I remove the bowls.
In sum, to deal with food guarding I make a point of teaching my dogs that 1) I am in control of the food in our house; 2) however, it is their choice to behave properly around it; and 3) if they do, they will always be rewarded with more food than they would get if they didn’t behave. I do everything I can to get them to feel safe and secure while eating, and to convince them that guarding food is neither necessary, nor advantageous.
Both Mira and Hannah food guarded as puppies, and I think a degree of food guarding is pretty normal for puppies. After all, most puppies are fed as a group and if they don’t learn to hang on to what they have, they would starve to death in the wild. The trick is to teach them that there is no need to guard. Hannah and Mira now will easily out a chicken leg or anything else I give them. Ross, traumatized as a youngster, will do so reluctantly but I never push it with him. I have no idea what Kess’s background is, but she’s already improved dramatically. I expect her guarding issues will go away completely, provided she stays in an environment where she feels there is no need to defend her supper.