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Dealing with food aggression

September 18, 2012

First, let me say that while I don’t consider myself an “all positive” dog trainer, I do believe in utilizing positive reinforcement techniques as much as possible. Corrections, when given, should be fair, consistent and not excessively harsh. However, this weekend I saw a video clip on a popular social media site that blew my mind, and prompted me to write this blog.

Let me say now, that this is NOT the proper way of dealing with food aggression. In nearly every case of resource guarding/food aggression, it is caused by the dog’s fear of a particular resource (in this case food) being taken away. It is not the dog’s way of trying to dominate the person, as many would like to believe. Any time you use force with a fearful dog, you are only reinforcing that dog’s fear. Is it any wonder the individual in the video got bit?

On the other hand, by using positive reinforcement techniques such as counter conditioning, you can change the dog’s attitude about food and view you as less of a threat. To use an analogy that I “borrowed,” if someone tries to grab your wallet to take money from you, you might defend it.  But if that same person grabs your wallet to GIVE you money, your reaction is totally different, right?

This is not intended to be a step-by-step guide to dealing with food aggression. As with any form of aggression, it is best to seek professional help from a qualified trainer who can evaluate the dog in person and work one on one with you to address the issues. However, it would be unfair for me to criticize a particular training method without giving an example of a better way of dealing with the situation.

When Lizzie came to me at three months old, she was extremely food aggressive. I started out by hand feeding her. Some people will tell you this teaches the dog you are in control of their food. While there may be some truth to that, more importantly she learned that good things come from me, and if good things come from me, there’s no need to feel threatened by me. Case in point: the wallet analogy.

Gradually we progressed to adding high value treats to her food bowl while she was eating, and trading up “lower value” treats and toys for “higher value” treats. It took a lot of time, patience and love, but eventually I was able to pet her on the back while she ate. And though I rarely bother her after I give her a special treat such as a raw knuckle bone, I know that if I asked her to give it up she would because she knows I will give it back or give her something better.

Lizzie chewing on a high value treat – a raw bone

For an excellent “blow-by-blow” dissection of the video and what the dog is trying to communicate with her body language, click here.

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