You – yes you!
Take your hand out of your dog’s food bowl and back away slowly, hands up. You're under arrest!
At least, that's what I'd like to say sometimes.
What if I told you that you don’t need to put your hand in your dog’s food bowl to prevent them from being protective of it. Or take it away while they are eating?
In fact, what if I told you that doing either of the above is more likely to cause a behaviour problem than prevent it?
*BOOM* That sound you can hear is of minds everywhere being blown. Shocking, no?
It’s a massive, infuriating, and complete nonsense myth that you should put your hand in your dog’s bowl while they are eating, or take it away and then give it back in order to prevent them from resource guarding their food.
Resource guarding is where your dog becomes protective of something they find valuable: that could be their food bowl, treats, chews, toys, beds, items they’ve stolen, the sofa, or even their favourite person. If you have a dog that guards food or stolen items like food packaging, you may see them start to eat faster, try to run away with the food or item, stand hunched over their food, go very still (freeze), give you a hard stare, growl, show their teeth, lunge, snap or even bite. It's not good, not good for them, and not good for your relationship all around.
So, let's start at the start, shall we? Why does putting your hand in their bowl, or taking food away potentially cause guarding rather than prevent it?
Editors note: Me too, dogs, me too
It all comes down to your dog’s emotions. So many people seem to forget they have them, but they do. Eating, for most dogs is a highly exciting time (Editors note: Me too, dogs, me too) and they are going to be experiencing the big emotions, usually positive ones. If we approach them and shove our hand in their bowl, or take it away as they’re eating we start to introduce negative emotions: apprehension, fear, frustration.
Or let's look at it another way: How would you feel, if mid-meal at a restaurant, the waiter strolled up without a word and swept your food away from you? You'd get angry, or confused, or at least irate, no?
When you pair these with the big emotions you create conflict. Your dog doesn’t know what to do, the poor thing is confused and frustrated. Some dogs will step back and look at you, others will start eating faster, or giving you the classic side-eye... which happens to be the first signs of guarding. Over time, those negative emotions begin to grow. They generalise, a learning skill most mammals perform, including ourselves, linking one specific situation to various similar-but-not-the-same ones as time goes on... and suddenly your dog is eating faster as you approach them, hunching over and freezing, or lunging at your feet. to top it all off, guarding can be very quickly generalised since it's such a strong feeling. Maybe it started out with your dog guarding their bowl, but now they guard their chews, something you’ve dropped, rubbish they’ve raided from the bin or found on the street. It doesn't improve, it only gets worse unless addressed.
So instead of introducing conflict around mealtimes, try following my patent-pending, Great and Small 3 golden rules;
1. Leave your dog alone.
Giving your dog space to eat is important, we don’t like being crowded as we eat and our dogs are the same. Avoid feeding them at busy times! If you're making dinner, rushing around to get the kids to school, or the house is a bit hectic: it can wait.
2. Add food to their bowl
Much like anything, there are best practices you can follow. The best way to prevent your dog guarding their food is to add food to their food bowl slowly, while they are eating. Just keep a small handful of food back from their meal portion & add a few pieces at a time into their bowl. 3 Simple steps:
Drop the food in
This makes our approach a positive one, rather than a negative, scary, stressful one. Back to our restaurant analogy: Your waiter strolls up and plonks a plate of extra sides on the table, with the words "on the house my friends" - Y0u're not going to get irate or frustrated, right?
3. If you have multiple dogs, feed them in separate rooms.
This helps avoid inter-dog resource guarding by feeding your dogs in separate areas, giving them the reassurance the other dogs aren't going to impose on their meal. If you absolutely have to feed them in the same area, feed them as far apart as possible and stay in the room to supervise, giving them the reassurance that you are there to look after them, like a safety blanket of delicious food.
Give these a go, and see how you get on.
As always, Great and Small Dog Training is here for you, your dog and your training needs, so if resource guarding is something you're having issues with, please do get in touch. We'll get our friendly neighbourhood dog trainer to support you and your pup and work towards a happier, stress-free mealtime.