“Mine” Craft – Working with Food Aggressive Dogs

“People aren’t against you; they are for themselves.” – Anon

A shelter dog undergoes the SAFTER test.  Food reactivity is guaged when the fake hand tries to take away the food.

A shelter dog undergoes the SAFTER test. Food reactivity is guaged when the fake hand tries to take away the food.

A few days ago I had a very difficult situation to work with.  The dog in question, a Shar Pei mix, I’ll call Lisbon, was food aggressive (had actually bitten people and other dogs in the house) as well as resource guarding (resource guarding is the same as food aggression, only in place of the food, she was aggressively guarding areas in the house she deemed as her own).

If a dog is reacting with aggression over anything other than their safety (i,e., they’re scared of you), or the safety of their pack, that’s trouble.  That’s the sign of a dog who is in the Pilot position, and who is frequently more than happy to try to take money out of your Piloting Piggy Bank.  Remember, whomever has the most money wins, so frequently these dogs are indeed the Pilot in the house simply because snapping and growing over a resource works.  Essentially, they tell you “no”, and it works because, well, teeth can be scary!  The more often they tell you “no”, and the more often you accept that as an answer, the more money the dog has taken out of your Piloting Piggy Bank.

Most other things aren’t quite so dangerous to work with because we are working with questions that the dog actually hopes end in a “no”.

Will that other dog kill me?

No, Fido.

Have any dogs ever died in a thunderstorm before?

No Fido, and I doubt you’ll be the first.

Resource guarding is different.  A dog has decided that something is theirs, and no matter what, they are keeping it.  Sometimes when I come into a house a dog is resource guarding, but their heart really isn’t into it.  They’ve accidentally become Pilot in the house because the owner has never properly communicated with the dog, letting them know that they don’t have to be Pilot.  Hint:  most dogs don’t even want the job!

These dogs aren’t resource guarding so much as taking all the perks that come with the Piloting position.  For a dog, being Pilot can be scary, terrifying, and generally sucks.  Just like not every human feels comfortable leading, the same is true for dogs.  If they’re going to be Pilot, there had better be some perks that come along with it!  These include the right to eat first, the right to sleep where they want to…basically, the right of first refusal for anything.  For the dogs who aren’t even really into the Pilot position, and didn’t want the damn job to begin with, merely Piloting them and taking the money out of their bank is sufficient.  They aren’t true resource guarders.

As Danika mentioned in her blog post On Food Reactivity….Nothing Personal.  Really.,   they aren’t doing it because they hate you.  Or because they want to hurt you.  In their minds, you are asking a question:  Can I have that back? They are answering your question (No), but you aren’t listening, apparently, so they have to answer it with more force, until you finally back down.

Dogs and wolves are a pack. They are a single entity driven towards one thing, survival and continuation of the pack.  In the pack, only alpha male and alpha female breed.  They are the Pilots.  They have (for the moment) the best shot of perpetuating the pack because they are the best dogs/wolves in the pack.  Obviously this can change.  Dogs and wolves don’t vote in who they think is the best for Pilot.  There’s no bribes.  Either you are or you aren’t and accepting another dog’s “no” to a question you asked can take enough money out of your Piloting bank to no longer make you Pilot.

Wolves deciding who's eating first. The wolf on the left is giving typical "back off, it's mine" body language. The wolf on the right is submitting.

Wolves deciding who’s eating first. The wolf on the left is giving typical “back off, it’s mine” body language. The wolf on the right is submitting.

So back to resource guarding.  It isn’t a bad behavior.  Remember, nothing a dog does is bad; it’s always perfectly correct.  For a dog.  However, as humans, we can not safely tolerate resource guarding.  It’s dangerous, and for kids, it’s the second biggest reason I see them get bit, (first is teasing or torturing the dog).  The difference is, a bite because a child is manhandling a dog is usually a sudden nip.  Yes, it may cause blood even (remember, you’re supposed to be covered in hair and loose skin, like a dog, not soft vulnerable flesh), but it’s typically not that bad unless the dog hit a lucky spot.  With resource guarding, it can be a lot, lot worse.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  resource guarding is one of the few things (the only?) that I will tell a client to put a dog down for.  Yes, they can be worked with, and you can indeed take the Piloting position back, but you will have to defend it the rest of your dog’s life.  They may challenge you at any moment.  You may absent-mindedly drop food on the floor, lean over to pick it up, and the dog decides at that moment to claim it, meaning a bite.

These dogs can be the sweetest, kindest dogs on the planet, as Lisbon is.  Wonderful, loving family pets.  But once the food comes out, they are like a vampire who hasn’t fed being led through a blood bank.  Yucky, ugly things ensue.

So back to Lisbon:  how did things end?  Well, they haven’t yet.  They never will.  Some dogs you can slack with on the Piloting and still be fine.  Lisbon’s owner will always be on alert for any sign Lisbon is trying to take money out of his bank.  Lisbon’s owner is single with no kids, so he doesn’t have to worry about a child being bit.  He also understood the severity of the issue.  He is dedicated to the training regime, which includes:

- Feeding Lisbon after a successfully Piloted walk.  A walk done correctly (read: you are leading, not your dog) takes money out of their Piloting Piggy Bank.  We want to empty Lisbon’s account out as much as possible before feeding.

- Lisbon will always be on a leash during feeding times, just like you always wear a seat belt in the car.  You may never truly need it, but there’s nothing like feeling safe to help bring out the Pilot inside of you.

- Hand feeding Lisbon.  Food only comes from him, and no other source.  We want to remove everything as a possible option for Lisbon to acquire food.  She need to be dependent upon her owner for all food. Food is placed on the counter, and Lisbon will be seated and fed one handful at a time, and only if she is calmly waiting.

- Removing signals that may increase energy during feeding time.  For example, when Lisbon sees her owner grab her food dish on the counter, she knows her owner is about to feed her.  Her energy level goes way up, and she can be difficult to manage.  Lisbon will never be fed out of a bowl again.  Even the vessel used to contain the food while she is being hand fed will be switched out frequently so she never knows if food is coming or if her owner is merely grabbing a cup for some coffee.

- Dropping food on the ground doesn’t mean it’s yours!!!  Lisbon’s owner, while hand feeding Lisbon, will occasionally gently place food on the ground behind him, moving very slowly.  If she lunges for the food, he can redirect her with the leash, wait until she’s calm, and then slowly pick the food up and throw it away.  Lisbon will never have the right to food on the floor.  Ever.  If she remains calm during that little exercise, she will get another handful of food.

- Never toss food at Lisbon.  The very act of snatching food in the air is aggressive.  In some dogs it’s not a big deal, and is even amusing (Darwin could catch food out of a dead sleep!), but those dogs aren’t really jockeying for Pilot position.  We are driving the point home that calm is the only thing that gets Lisbon food, and lunging towards food won’t be accepted any more.

- Getting her used to disappointment.  A lot of resource guarding dogs get upset and retaliate if they think they were about to get food but don’t.  For example, the now-defunct food bowl.  If Lisbon’s owner simply picked up the food bowl to move it without feeding her, Lisbon might retaliate.  You were supposed to feed me, remember?  Touching the food bowl is a visual marker that is supposed to end a certain way, and if it doesn’t…bad things happen.  So he’s going to get her used to disappointment.  Dropping the food on the floor is a good start, but sometimes putting food in a cup on the counter, creating calm with Lisbon, and then dumping the food back into the bin, all in a controlled manner.  Calm doesn’t always get Lisbon food.  It’s merely the only way she might get food.  It’s like the lottery:  you don’t always win, but unless you play, you aren’t going to win.

Hand feeding... in the good way

Hand feeding… in the good way

I have great hopes for Lisbon and her owner.  Lisbon is a great dog, and they made wonderful strides in the two hours I was with them.  Lisbon’s owner is dedicated, and he understood the severity of the problem.  If anyone has a chance at a safe, wonderful bond with a resource guarding dog, it’s him.

Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

The Complete, Unabridged Set of Dog Rules

The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

“Is it okay that my dog is on the couch?”

“Can we play tug with a rope toy? Or is that wrong?”

“We’re using puppy pads.  Is that bad?”

Questions like these from my clients make me crazy.  No, not because they are asking me questions, but because somehow they got it in their head that there are hard and fast rules to “dogging”.  They get a dog, and the first thing they want to know is what the rules are.  All. The. Rules.

winterBecause obviously, if something isn’t complicated and supremely structured, it doesn’t work.  The more rules, the better you’re doing, right?  After all, t’s been working for the DMV.

We must be cautious.

We must be cautious.

So obviously, rules suck.  Unless you’re a dog owner, and then you want the rules.  All the rules.  Well, you want ‘em?  You got ‘em.

Before I tell you the rules, let’s review the steps to working with a dog, in any capacity.  Whether stopping the barking, teaching them to sit, or maybe something a little more intricate.

Everything starts with these steps:

1) Control Yourself. 

Controlling yourself means you are calm (even if only on the outside).  You are using confident body language (stand up straight!).  You are not yelling, or even talking.  In other words, you are NOT Corky Romano.

Don’t be a Corky.

2) Control the Situation.

Meaning if you can’t stuff 10 pounds of dirt in a 5 pound bag, why are you trying to stuff 15?  Stop, take a look at the current situation.  For example, if someone is at the door, but your dog is there barking, jumping, and, well, being Corky Romano, do you have control of the situation?  No!  Then don’t add any stimulation (such as opening the door) until you have control. Answer your dog’s question about the door, and then move forward when you have control. Reboot if necessary.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

Okay, now that you know the playing field (controlling yourself and controlling the situation), now for the rules.

I use a mix of negative and positive.  The same way you do throughout your life.  I asked my husband it was raining outside  He said “no”.  That’s a negative  My daughter asked if she could go to a friends house. I said “yes”.  That’s a positive.  Think of it as a game of “hot or cold”. We call this Piloting your dog.

Rules of When to Use Negatives

1) When you don’t like what your dog is doing.  Yes, seriously…it’s that easy.  Ask yourself if you like the behavior your dog is giving (barking, jumping, or just laying against the fridge that you are trying to open), and if you don’t like it, give them a negative.  Remember your dog isn’t bad.  Dogs are incapable of being bad.  They are perfect… for a dog.  They just happen to suck at being human.

And guess what?  You probably don’t make a very good dog.

So let’s jettison the whole “Good/Bad” thing…and the gun.  You’re answering questions for your dog, not deciding if the questions make your dog “good” or “bad”.

2) When your dog is “yo-bitching” you.  Now there’s an interesting term:  ”yo-bitching“.  What does that mean?  It’s when a dog slaps you with their paw.  Or jumps on you.  Or pushes you out of the way.  It’s the human equivalent of saying, “Yo, Bitch, gimme a cookie.” Or “Yo, Bitch, that’s my chair”.  Vulgar?  Absolutely.  Acceptable?  Never.  You wouldn’t accept a human addressing you like that, so don’t accept that from a dog.  Dog’s are perfectly capable of using polite, “May-I-Please” body language.  Start to demand and expect it at all times.

On to the positives!

1) The come command/recall.  Positive, people.  Give your dog a good reason to come when you call.

2) When you are asking your dog to be human.  Think about what one dog will tell another dog.  Things like, “Go away”, or “Let’s play” or even “That’s mine”.  But dogs don’t teach each other English (“Sit”, for example). They don’t housebreak each other.  So if one dog can’t teach it to another dog, and you’re asking your dog to be a little bit human, you must use positives.

3) Calm.  This is the most important, most overlook opportunity for positives.  I want calm to be a like a lottery ticket:  You have to play to win (you’re probably not going to win), but unless you have a ticket, you definitely aren’t going to win.  That ticket is calm.  The more your dog has the “calm ticket” the more likely he is to win.  So if he’s calm, give him a gentle positive.  Anything from chilling out on the floor, to trying his best to be calm at the vet.  Reward the effort.  Progress, not perfection.

So there you have it.  That’s all the rules.  When to give positive and when to give negative.  Everything you ever needed to know about how to work with your dog.

But I didn’t address your questions from earlier?

“Is it okay that my dog is on the couch?”

“Can we play tug with a rope toy? Or is that wrong?”

“We’re using puppy pads.  Is that bad?”

Yes, I did!  About the couch, think about the negatives.  Do you like what your dog is doing on the couch?  No?  Then give him a negative.  Don’t care that he’s on the couch?  Well, then, neither do I, as long as he isn’t “yo bitching” you.

Playing tug with a rope toy?  Cool!  I love a good, rough game of tug.  My husband doesn’t.  I encourage it.  My husband negates it.  Remember, ask yourself if you like the behavior, and if the answer is “yes”, go for it.  If the answer is “no”, then negate it.  Just make sure that you have your limits adhered to.  My Sparta is allowed to really go at it with me when we wrestle…until she isn’t  When I feel things have escalated too much, I simply give her a negative, and she stops.

Puppy pads?  If it works for you, it works for me.

In short, nobody should be telling you how to enjoy your dog.  My dogs are allowed to beg from the table, as I frequently give them a small amount of table scraps.  But once I’m done with them, they are given a negative, and they know to stop begging and stay away from me while I eat.

My dogs, like yours, are only here for my enjoyment.  They make life easier, and so much sunnier!  Don’t let a book full of rules tell you how you should be enjoying their company.  Make sure you are indeed enjoying your dog, and not merely tolerating their behavior.  If you don’t like their behavior (say, getting up on the couch), it’s up to you to answer your dog’s question (“Can I sleep up here?”), and set your own rules of how to enjoy your dog.  The rules will differ from house to house, but the enjoyment will be constant.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to snuggle in bed with my dogs while I share my snack of cheese and crackers with them. I’m tired from all that rope-tug I played with Sparta.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio