Food is one of the most important, most attractive resources for most dogs. One which they will fiercely defend. It is not surprising that a dog defends its bowl, after all, for many centuries wild dogs had to fight for food with other predators, and later still defend their own against other members of the pack.
Domestic dogs also fight constantly for food, defending this precious resource from their litter mates, from other animals with which they share their home, and also from their guardians, who often use a confrontational relationship instead of developing methods based on trust and partnership between dog and human. Find out why your dog defends the bowl and how to prevent dog aggression when guarding food.
What warning signals does a dog send out?
The media has repeatedly publicised situations in which a dog, without warning and quite suddenly, attacks a human being. However, what we see on TV and the Internet is only half the truth, the rest is usually left unsaid. A dog does not attack without warning, and even if it does, the reasons for this are to be found in human behaviour.
Every aggressive behaviour of a dog is preceded by appropriate communication signals, including stress and threat signals. If a dog defends a bone, it does not immediately throw itself with its teeth at the person who wants to take it away. The animal will first send out various stress signals indicating that it is uncomfortable with the situation it is in.
These include, for example, attentive observation, licking of the nose, highlighting of the whites in the eyes, and muscle tension. Unfortunately, these signals are often so subtle to humans that most people simply do not notice them or do not think about their significance.
The consequence of regular ignoring of these signals by household members may be their complete disregard by the dog in the future – the animal simply learns that the messages sent by it do not bring the intended result, so it is not worth wasting time on them. In such a situation, the dog defends the bowl, going straight to the next stage, which is the presentation of more explicit – threatening – signals. These include lip raising, growling and snapping teeth in the air.
It is not true that a dog that growls will attack and bite. It gives the „attacker” a chance to withdraw, signals his discomfort and warns you to stop the action or behaviour that is stressing or upsetting the animal.
The problem is that many people ignore these signals too. Some people, to show their superiority over the dog, punish the animal with a raised voice or by hitting it. This is not the right thing to do, as it can lead to a situation where the dog – to avoid being punished – will stop presenting any message and attack without warning.
Why does the dog defend the bowl?
A dog can defend its bowl for various reasons. However, resource defence never occurs just like that, without a reason. The dog learns from an early age that it must defend the things that are precious to it, but if aggression creeps into this defence, it is most likely that there has been some negligence in the dog-human relationship.
A dog defends its bowl if the relationship with its handler is based on intimidation or conflict. This is the most common cause when a dog guards the food, although it has not done so before. It’s worth teaching your dog from puppyhood that your approaching the food shouldn’t cause him stress and anxiety, that he doesn’t have to defend the bowl from any member of the household, because he’s not threatened by you.
Another situation is the defence of resources by a dog taken in from the street or a shelter. The battle for food has been a part of everyday life for such a dog. Of course, one cannot generalise, but dogs with a history of homelessness usually display aggressive behaviour at the bowl.
Do you want your dog not to defend the bowl, growl or exhibit other such behaviour at it?
You can work on this! The basis is counter-conditioning, which is the combination of two opposing stimuli. A dog growls when food is taken away because losing a valuable resource is very uncomfortable for him.
As a result, the dog will begin to associate an initially stressful factor with something positive. He will understand that your appearance at the bowl does not mean danger, but on the contrary, it is the announcement of something pleasant.
Although counterconditioning seems like a simple method, you need to remember a few extremely important details. The most common mistake made by dog guardians is rewarding their dog with a treat at the wrong moment, e.g. when it whines. In this way, you are reinforcing the undesirable behaviour in your pet. The second common mistake is haste. Remember that rebuilding a relationship with your dog is not something you can do in a hurry.
Patience, regularity and gradual shortening of the distance between you and the dog are important. It is the dog that has to decide when it will allow you to approach the bowl or, for example, stir it with your hand. And he will allow you to do it only when he feels comfortable and safe in this situation when he fully trusts you because your relations will be proper.
Why does the dog growl at the bone?
The dog defends the bone because it treats it like any other food. The four-legged dog doesn’t understand that, for example, a poultry bone can be dangerous for him, or that the beef bone he has been playing with for the last two days is already stale and he can’t continue chewing on it. For a dog, a bone is a resource just as valuable as the food in the bowl, and perhaps even more valuable, as it combines the qualities of food and toy and therefore brings double the pleasure.
No wonder your dog growls at the bone whenever you try to take it away from him. Sometimes you don’t even have to try to take it away – it’s enough if you pass by your pet chewing on the treat…
Here, too, it’s a good idea to introduce the counter-conditioning method and to combine taking the bone away from your dog with giving him a tasty treat or inviting him to play and pet you. Remember that taking away the dog’s resources by force, using aggression or punishing the dog never brings good results and contributes to the increase of the problem.
What to do when the dog has found food on a walk and does not want to give it back?
Eating leftover food found on a walk is a common problem for many dog owners, not only those with difficult pasts and homelessness in the background. Letting your dog eat „rubbish” is a huge risk, because not only are you introducing other, completely random products into your pet’s menu, but you also risk poisoning or injuring your pet (it’s not uncommon to hear about pieces of sausage stuffed with nails or tasty morsels with poison).
The worst thing you can do in such a situation is to pull your dog away from the precious find on a lead and raise your voice at him. What you can do, however, is developing a method whereby your dog will not touch the food it encounters along the way. Simply offer your dog something far more attractive and tasty instead.
Self-control is essential!
Start self-control training in a quiet environment, preferably at home, gradually increasing the distractions.
In the first stage of training, take the treat in your hand and say the command, „leave” or „don’t move” etc. Do not let the dog get to the treat. The moment the dog loses interest in the contents of your hand, utter praise, then give the dog the treat with your other hand – this way you reward the moment the dog gave up eating the treat on its own.
You can also practice with a clicker – clicking the moment when the dog moves away from the hand with the treat. Repeat the exercise until the dog reacts to the command and does not try to take the treat out of your hand.
The second stage is to place the tasty morsel on the floor. When your dog tries to eat it despite your command, cover the treat with your hand, preventing him from eating it. Repeat this exercise too, until your dog responds to the first command and pays no more attention to the treat left on the path. Remember to reward each correct reaction of your pet, thus reinforcing the desired behaviour.
The final stage of training is to place several different treats along the walking route (initially in the house, later in the garden, etc.) and „pull” the dog away from them with a command. Once your dog is fully responsive to the command, you can return to your old walking spots, just remember to always carry a handful of dog treats and reward your dog when he leaves a food find untouched.