Growling. Snarling. Lunging. Snapping. Biting. Sounds pretty scary, doesn’t it? FEELS pretty scary when you are on the receiving end! But right now, while you are reading the paper and your dog is quietly sleeping at your feet, I want you to look at this a different way. All those scary behaviors are communication. Your dog is saying “this is mine, I want it and I plan to keep it”. If someone was trying to steal your wallet, you might yell, hit, kick and if you had a gun, possibly even shoot the thief. Now that you’ve had a look at the situation from the dog’s point of view, you are ready to change his point of view.
Resource guarding can take a number of different forms. Spike could guard his dinner bowl, his toys, his favorite person or his favorite chair. Any thing that your dog wants could be the object of his guarding – even an old tissue or cheeseburger wrapper. If you pay attention, you will know he is guarding long before he gets to the biting stage of communication. Often the first sign is Spike becoming very still, then he might put the object down and put his head over it, looking up at you from the top of his eyes. At this point, his ears will likely be swiveled so they are “listening” to his shoulders, then you might hear a low rumble in his chest. These are subtle communications to us, but to the dog – he’s sending a very clear message and can’t understand why we are ignoring him, so he escalates his communication to the levels that we can’t ignore.
Your job, as the astute pack leader/dog trainer, is to recognize the signs and intervene before things get out of hand and everyone has adrenaline racing around their systems. Due to space constraints (this could be the topic for a book), we’ll talk about the most common form of resource guarding – food bowl guarding.
Food is a Very Valuable Resource. Without it, your dog will die. He wants to have his food, and doesn’t want to share it. Your job is to convince him (to the point that he totally believes you) that not only do you have no intention of starving him, but that if he wants that Very Valuable Resource, you are his best source for obtaining it. The first step in this perception shift is to take his food bowl away. Really. He doesn’t get to eat out of his bowl for a while. He only gets to eat out of your hand, and only if his manners are reasonably good.
First thing in the morning, you are going to measure out Spike’s daily ration and put it in a cupboard where he can’t get it. Take a handful (put it in a bowl on the counter), ask Spike to “sit” (or any other behavior that he really knows well – make it easy for him at first), then when he complies reward him with 4 – 5 kibbles. Step away so he gets up and ask him to do it again. Again, reward him with a few bites of food. Repeat this though-out the day until he’s had all of his food. You don’t ever want him to get to the “ravenously hungry” stage so that he’ll try to get all the food you have without offering some behavior first.
Here’s an important point. If you are afraid of your dog, or your dog has already bitten you over the food issue, GET PROFESSIONAL HELP. Safety is always the first priority and if Spike has learned to get what he wants through intimidation he will try that first.
When he will comfortably offer the behaviors you ask for to eat out of your hand, you will go to another room (not where his food bowl has traditionally been) and when he “sits” put the 4 – 5 kibbles in his bowl for him to eat.
When that is comfortable, start putting a quarter of his dinner in the bowl at a time and periodically, drop a REALLY GOOD TREAT, like a piece of meat or cheese into the bowl. If the dog growls or shows any sign of discomfort tell him “too bad” and walk away with your Really Good Treat. Then back up to a previous step and work that one some more.
Next step, put the food bowl down empty. Pick it up and put a quarter of his dinner and a Really Good Treat in it. Then ask him to “sit”, when he complies, put the food bowl down and let him eat. Pick it up and repeat.
By now, he should be getting the idea that you around his food bowl is a very good idea. When he gets to the point that he will let you take the bowl with food in it and put tasty treats in it before you give it back, you are ready to let other people start working with him. Never let young children do this work – they move too quickly and are too easily intimidated which will set your work with Spike back like you wouldn’t believe. However, other adults – first adults he knows and then friendly strangers can start doing the work. Each new person has to start at step one and work through the stages at the pace the dog’s comfort level sets. Let your dog tell you when he’s comfortable and ready to go on to the next level, rushing things will not get you there faster, it will slow your progress down. Always remember, your goal is to change his attitude from confrontational to cooperative – you won’t be able to do that if you can’t control your emotional reactions and the situation.