Food and Bowl Guarding Aggressive Dogs
We work very hard training our dogs to fit into our lifestyle and our family unit. We believe we have done a great job, then just as we are congratulating ourselves on a job well done, the growl starts.
It may be as we pass the bed, food bowl, or pig’s ear, or even as we remove a toy or tissue. This is a common problem, often called food guarding, or resource guarding.
In reality, it is a natural innate tendency for dogs to protect what they perceive as theirs. Possession to a dog is 9/10ths of the law, some dogs will resource guard anything, and that includes us.
This article will cover the area of bowl or food guarding,
I have written another in-depth article on (1) Possession Aggression Object Guarding which is a very different problem than bowl guarding and far more difficult to eradicate..
Bowl guarding happened to me. Kai, my rescue white German Shepherd, They are also known as the Swiss Shepherds, he was about nine months old, lovely temperament nice nature.
Just after rescuing him, he growled as I walked past his food bowl. I have never owned a resource guarder or possessive aggressive before getting Kai. I have treated dozens but never actually owned one, so this made for a good exercise as I knew exactly what to do.
Kai was a rescue after having a few homes in his first eight months. My daughter who owns a dog-themed Cafe called (2) Paws for Coffee was asked if she could re-home him by the last owner and he ended up with me
Not exactly the best of starts, he had a bit of baggage but nothing more than a bit of TLC and training could not put right. Unfortunately, I had no impact or influence on his previous owners, or what they did or believed with regard to feeding, possessions and training.
The myths and beliefs that surround this common problem are numerous. There is the “let him know who is boss brigade” and the “if he had done that to me I would have belted him” Others that will tell you he is dominant. Dominance and dominant behaviour is a somewhat outdated term in modern canine behaviour therapy.
That does not mean that dominant behaviour does not exist it does. But where the mistake happens is people relate dominance to aggression and that is in nearly every case totally incorrect.
It is too easy and simplistic to label everything as a bid for power and control. The term suggests that the dog is personally threatening you in a bid for the top dog slot. Which I assure you is not the case with possession aggression.
These beliefs and myths probably get more people bitten every year than any other single behavioural problem I encounter. The belief that the dog is being disloyal and biting the hand that feeds it is, unfortunately, commonplace.
Once again anthropomorphism raises its ugly head. This problem is also one of the key reasons why some dogs are euthanised.
Back to young Kai. When he growled just a low grumble but a subtle threat no less, I did not react or even look at him nor chastise him in any way.
To challenge him at that time would have suggested that the growl wasn’t sufficient to warn me off.
So lets up the ante and perhaps a snarl or a snap would be in order.
I am of the belief that violence begets violence, therefore, why do we challenge the dog if there is no need to. watch the video below.
I waited until his next feed time; I feed my dogs twice a day. Instead of using one bowl, this time, I used two. I prepared his food as normal in one bowl and then got him to sit and wait. I then put the empty bowl down.
The look of confusion on his face was classic, he looked around the bowl nudged it to see if his food was underneath then was totally flummoxed looking at me totally bemused. It was at that time; taking a long-handled wooden spoon, I tossed a small portion of his food into the bowl.
The reason for the spoon is if he were to grab at anything, he would grab the spoon and not my fingers. I proceeded to feed the whole meal in spoonfuls, what I was telling him was that by me getting access to his bowl was a condition of him being fed.,
I continued with this method for three days. Sometimes this may take longer depending on the severity of the guarding. After the three days, I could tell by his posture and body language that he was relaxed and comfortable with me near his bowl. I gradually decreased the distance between myself and the bowl on every spoonful until I was standing next to it.
I then started to put a small amount of his food in the bowl before putting it down rather than spooning it in, then gradually increased the amount over a few days until I was putting all the food in at one go. Once I had reached this stage, I add a very tasty titbit whilst he was eating,
I usually use my own brand of totally natural air-dried products including ones you can use as special training treats, Some may need cutting up into small pieces with scissors if they are to be used as a training treat rather than a tasty titbit dropped in the bowl.
When you start dropping in the special treats start from a little distance away and gradually decrease the distance.
What he learns during this exercise is your approach to the bowl is no threat, in fact, quite the opposite it is positive as it means he is going to get something really special and tasty.
This is a positive reinforcement type technique that requires no aggression, threats, or force; these rarely if ever work in the case of possession aggression. You must make sure your dog is relaxed at all times.
If you hit a problem then you have gone too far too fast. Go back a couple of stages and work back up to the area where the problem or behaviour was being displayed, take your time there is no need to rush, it’s not a race
At the end of this article, there is a video of Cesar Milan effectively doing just about everything wrong, whilst working with a bowl guarding dog. He does get bitten though I cannot sympathise he clearly did not read the dog and he certainly did not understand the problem.
If I wanted to analyse why Kai growled in the first place I would only be guessing at the trigger. Without talking to all the previous owners to see what they had done then it’s pure conjecture, though I can imagine a number of possible scenarios. As an educated guess, someone probably thought it was right to take his bowl away whilst he was eating, just to show the dog that he could.
This can often create a seed of doubt in the young dog’s mind that his food could be stolen, and he may, therefore, start to feel threatened or uncomfortable when you are in close proximity.
This seed of doubt could germinate with the onset of maturity and could blossom into full-blown food guarding. If I had lashed out or acted differently to the first threatening growl then things may have turned out very differently. As it happens Kai has never growled or shown any inclination to guard since.
If you are training a puppy not to guard then start training him not to touch the food until you give permission.
To achieve this start with the pup on the lead and a Jingler (5) The Jingler Further Information.
You will need to set the “OFF” command for this. Put the food down as normal, then as the head goes to the bowl give a slight check on the lead and say “OFF” this may take a few checks.
Make sure this check is really light and gentle, then as the dog looks to you for permission, immediately praise by using a trigger word such as “Good Take It”
Continue with this training until you can do this whilst off lead.
The object of this exercise is to train him not to touch on command, once you have done this you can then stop him eating on command by using the “OFF” command Once you have reached this stage then occasionally approach his bowl and put in a tasty treat, he should never have, doubts that your proximity to his bowl is positive never negative.
Below is a video showing Cesar Millan working with a bowl aggressive dog. Note that he hits the dogs and makes it far more fearful. He stands over it and does his macho posturing. I’m afraid he just looks ridiculous. This is an easy problem to overcome, what you do not need, is to try and dominate hit or threaten, it is not a dominance issue. I am afraid this man is adored and supported by millions of people that believe he is a credible dog trainer or behaviourist.
He is nothing of the sort. Just from this clip, his behaviour against a fearful and nervous dog could have been turned around in a couple of days maximum without punching or kicking the dog. He has shown himself as a bully, and totally ignorant of why the dog was behaving in that way. He got bitten because of his one-trick pony techniques. Amazingly he says “I did not see that coming” Well I did, a mile away. If he could not see it he should not be working with dogs.
©Stan Rawlinson May 2005 regularly updated
Last Updated 2022
(2) Paws for Coffee
(3) Large Range of Air Dried Dog Treats (Scroll Down)
(4) The Jingler Further Information