Concerning behavior at food bowl while eating

Dear WOOF,

 

Hi my wife and I rescued a puppy back in Sept about 3 or 4 months old by guess of vet and pound. She is a mix breed dog (best guess German shepard mix with possibly husky and something else) before sending her to get spayed last weekend, when I would try to mess with her so that when we have kids she won't bit them if they touch her or her food while she is eating she would do fine, just eat faster. After she was spayed and boarded that weekend at the vet now when I even touch her near her head or food she growls and even once put up her hackles. Any tips to fix this problem back in right direction similar to you story posted on website about growling over food? Could it have changed because of how she was treated there?
Thanks,
Andrew

 

Hi Andrew, and thanks for writing. I'll start by saying that since she had been displaying a clear sign of discomfort (eating faster) as you would "mess" with her while she was eating, prior to her being away for the spay procedure, it's not likely that the fact that the problem is getting worse has anything to do with how she was treated that weekend.

I realize that you thought she was "fine" since she would "just eat faster" but gobbling food is a sure sign that she was not comfortable with what you were doing from the start. You aren't specific as to what you mean by "I would try to mess with her" as she was eating, but I'm assuming that you mean putting your hands into her bowl, and petting her? This assumption is based on the progression of her behavior as you describe it, and what you describe as happening just before she has growled with raised hackles.

While it's a common mistake people make, it's very important to point out that there is a big difference between a dog being "fine" about something, and being happy about it! The fact that she would eat faster indicates that she wasn't comfortable, and because that warning sign went (unintentionally) unheeded, she's now left with no choice but to use the more overt behaviors of growling, tensing up/hackles raised to communicate with you. Her behavior will continue to grow and get worse, unless the proper steps are taken, starting now.

My immediate advice is to stop touching her - and attempting to touch her food bowl - while she's eating! In fact, I think you'd be wise to leave her completely alone while she's eating for a little while. She's likely started to associate your mere presence and/or approach to her while she's eating with unpleasant experiences, so giving her an opportunity to relax and eat in peace for a week or so is a good starting point.

From there, you'll need to teach her that your being around her while she eats (no touching!!!!) is a good thing for her! For example, standing nearby as she eats, toss her delicious treats (extremely high value - like chicken, or cheese!). The idea is for her to begin to not only relax, but look forward to you being around while she's eating, rather than concerned about it. The process will involve building on one success after the other - starting with teaching her that your presence when she eats means good things for her - and only adding another element, when she is completely relaxed and happy with the preceding step. Since physically touching her while she eats seems to be particularly unpleasant for her, she likely wouldn't be ready for that until the last step in the modification process. It's all about helping her to look forward to you eventually touching her, or her food bowl, one small step at a time. The process could take weeks or months to accomplish, but this is not only a very common problem in pups and dogs, it is one that with the correct approach, can be successfully overcome!

The details of your email do not provide enough information for me to outline a complete behavior modification program in this email, but read more helpful information on the topic of resource guarding at the following links, taken from our Training Tips and Behavior section:

Resource Guarding - What It Is, How to Prevent It

Help for a Resource Guarding Puppy

The other thing you mention is, "I would try to mess with her so that when we have kids she won't bite them if they touch her or her food while she is eating"... I understand your goal here, but I must warn you that even if you teach her to be completely happy and relaxed about that with you, it does not mean she's going to be happy about it with kids! In fact, it's very unlikely that she'll be happy about it with kids, or anyone else who hasn't specifically worked with her on it. The link below takes you to an excellent article on the topic of kids being around dogs' resources, like while eating for example, and includes video footage of what NOT to do, and what to look for in a dogs body language that calls for immediate intervention and management to prevent problems!

http://dogsandstorks.blogspot.com/2011/07/baby-and-dog-sharing-food-bowlyikes.html (copy/paste link if necessary)

One last thought, if you live in Metro Detroit please consider enrolling in one of our puppy classes, which include exercises to prevent and overcome resource guarding problems. Click here for more information on puppy class.

If you live within our service area and would prefer to discuss one-on-one help and a specific modification plan for this issue, please give us a call at 248.588.3222. If outside Metro Detroit, see the link here to our Classes page, for help finding a qualified behavior consultant in your area.

Take Care and thanks again for writing!

Lisa Patrona, Dip. CBST, CPDT-KA, ACDBC, AABP-CDT