A very interesting and important discussion has arisen in the comments section of my post on Alpha Dogs and Bullies.  So that this does not get buried, I am going to put my two cents in here rather than in the comment section.  The issue is dogs who growl at their person over food, as Ross and Kess are both inclined to do.  The question is: how should we deal with it?  

First, having worked with quite a few dogs with aggression issues and, more importantly, quite a few different experienced trainers, I have come to agree with the idea that a growl is a useful tool for a dog to have.  Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t like it when my dogs growl at me.  But I’d much rather that they growl and let me know they are uncomfortable than for them not to give me this information.  

A growl tells me that the dog is stressed and anxious – whatever the cause may be. The growl lets me know what the dog is thinking and how he is feeling.  It says “I’m getting stressed out here – push any further and I might need to defend myself.”

Many people – and I have been guilty of this myself – will get angry with their dogs for growling.  They may yell at the dog or hit it or take away the food or toy in question and so on, all forms of punishment to get the dog to stop growling.  This can have (at least) two effects, neither of which is positive.  First, the dog can learn not to express his discomfort and stop growling.  This may seem to the person that they have “fixed” the problem – I’ve heard many trainers brag about how they “fixed that!” with respect to their dogs growling over food, or at children or strangers and so on.  But what they really taught the dog is that they will be punished for growling so the dog stops doing it.  It does not teach the dog to be less worried or stressed by the situation, nor does it teach the dog an alternative behaviour into which it can direct its nervous energy.  If you suppress the growl, you suppress this very crucial information and put the dog in the position of not being able to tell you that he’s stressed. The result is a dog who doesn’t growl, but when he gets stressed enough, goes straight to biting.  How often have you heard of a dog who lashes out and bites “out of the blue” with “no warning?”  Having been hospitalized by a dog who never growled at me – and went straight into attack mode – I’ll take a growl any day.  

 The other thing that suppressing the growl through any form of punishment or corrective action can do is teach the dog to be even more stressed in the situation.  The dog is growling because he’s worried something bad is going to happen: that you are going to steal his food, that the small child is some evil alien, or whatever.  If the dog then has a negative experience, these fears are reinforced.  

Ok, so for the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that you’ll grant me this conclusion.  i.e. that we don’t want to suppress a growl (as I’ve said before, you should never suppress anything – be it a behaviour or a health condition).  So, what do we do about our dogs who growl over their food dish (or at approaching children or other socially unacceptable situations)?

Pamela Dennison has written extensively on this, and if you are dealing with any kind of food or other aggression in your dog, I strongly encourage you to read her books.  But I’ll try and give a brief snapshot of training methodology here.  There are three steps to dealing with aggression issues: 

1) Avoid what causes the aggression. If the dog is growling, he is in a situation that is over his head.  Back off and set things up to be less stressful for him.  Practice makes perfect, and you don’t want him practicing this behaviour.  By preventing the dog from rehersing this response, you help eliminating it as the default behaviour.

2) Train your dog in alternative behaviours so that he has some other response he can offer

3) Gradually work at desensitizing him to the frightening stimulus.

When it comes to dealing with food guarding, both Barry and Joe describe the concept of “trading up”, i.e. offering the dog something of higher value.  (Thanks to both of you for your comments – please keep your thoughts and ideas coming!!)  This is definitely important when it comes to being able to take something away from your dog that might be harmful to him (or that you don’t want wrecked).  But I think this is actually skipping ahead several steps.  Before getting to the point of trading, you need to: 

1) Avoid the situation where the dog may growl at you over food in the first place.  Since you can’t avoid feeding your dog, you can do this by:

2) Training alternative behaviours: 

a) Hand feed, and make the dog work for every bite of food.  If you feed kibble, this is pretty easy.  Use feeding time as training time, and feed his kibble as his training treats.  Hand feed every bite, after making the dog do something for it.  Look at the end of my “shaping 101” page for ideas if you need more things to train, or google training ideas etc. (Susan Garrett has a great list of shaping ideas in this blog entry)

In this way, you control the resource and make the dog work for it.  The food is YOURS, and you share it when the dog has done something to earn it.  Use shaping, not luring, so that his actions are not about following food.

If you feed raw, this can be more difficult and end up being quite messy.  I’ve done this myself, and it’s no treat, but it works.  I typically train on a hard floor for easy cleanup.  

b) If you are in a rush for the occasional meal, feed the dog in a crate so that he feels safe and also that he is contained.  If need be, have the crate somewhere out of the way so that no one is walking past him while he eats, thus eliminating his perceived need to guard.  Throw a blanket over the crate if necessary.  Let the dog out and take him away before trying to remove the bowl from the crate.  

Ideally teach the dog crate games, and at least have him driving in and out of his crate a few times, then sitting, holding and giving eye contact before you let him eat.  This must all be trained in small steps.  Make the control over food a positive thing and a great training tool.

This is where you can put the foundation for “trading” in.  One alternative behaviour to teach in a dog who guards food is the “out,” using initially something other than food.  I train an out while playing fetch, as I’ve described near the end of this post about training Kess.  Once the dog has a solid “out” with a toy (you can reward with food) you can start trading food for food.  But don’t lure.  Shape: i.e. have the dog “out” then reward with something of higher value.  

Something to important to note is that, unless it is going to kill him if he eats it, never take something out of your dogs mouth by force.  Always ask him to drop it and then reward for the drop.  Even if you have nothing to trade, do this and reward with praise and play (which is why it’s handy to teach your dog that “anything is a toy” – getting him to play tug or fetch with random objects etc.).  In dog etiquette, taking something from another dog is extremely rude and you will rarely see a properly socialized dog try and do this.  The only time my dogs do that is if they want to initiate a game of tug.  Otherwise, they will never forcibly take an item from each other.  Even Ross will not take something from the mouth of another dog.  He may try and intimidate them into dropping it, but if they refuse, he gives up and goes away.  

Because of this, I never take something directly from my dogs’ mouths but rather teach a solid out and ask them to drop on command.  This is faster anyway, if you are across the room, for example, or at a park and the dog picks up something you don’t want him to have. 

3) Desensitize the dog to the scary stimulus.

This is done via “counter-conditioning,” using classical conditioning rather than operant conditioning.  (If you are not familiar with these concepts, here’s a good summary.  Or read Pam Dennison, Susan Garrett or Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor) Once you have your dog working well for every bite of food, you can start desensitizing his fear of you taking it from him.  I don’t use trading for this, but rather make a point of giving the dog MORE food every time I come near.  I never take any away.  Instead, every time I walk near the dog I toss more food into the dish.  Soon he learns that you coming near means MORE food, not a fear of loosing his supper.  

Kess has very quickly diminished her food guarding to the point that she has not growled at me in some time now.  Despite the fact that she was quite overweight when I got her, she was most likely effectively starving from malnutrition caused by eating really poor quality food.  Also, it’s possible that she had somehow learned that people coming near her food would mean losing her supper.  When I first started giving her raw food to eat, she used to hunch over it and act as if she wasn’t allowed to have it and that she expected me to take it from her.  Now she gives a polite wag and dives in and eats.  No growling, even if I pet her. 

Ross is pretty much the same these days.  But he will still occasionally give me a little growl if I pet him while he’s eating when he’s really hungry.  Do I care?  Well, I don’t love it, but I thank him for letting me know that he has not totally let go of his fears around food.  Am I ok with this?  Sure.  Why?  Because he growls to let me know that he’s stressed, and that tells me that I am not finished helping him get over this fear.  And that is information that I really appreciate having.