One of the examples that is often cited as a dog showing signs of a dominant behaviour is either food guarding or stealing. It is easy to see why this idea has taken so easily when you see it on TV, a human approaches a dog eating it’s food and it growls, barks and looks scary and aggressive. But is this really a sign of dominance, or is it something else?
Harping back to the wild, food guarding is a natural behaviour. Food is not easily available without a hunt for it, which expends energy. There needs to be a payoff for that expense, food to replenish that energy. Any animal which expends energy on a hunt, only to lose the food to another animal, will not last long. Of course in most of our homes, our dogs do not have to hunt for their food – food is freely available to them and they rarely need to compete or hunt for it. So why is this food guarding behaviour still evident in some dogs?
On TV you may hear that a pack leader should be able to remove any of its pack’s food without squabble from the dog. However my subsequent training and reading made me question this. Why take a dogs food away at all? Is this because you want to make sure it doesn’t get protective over its food? Well sadly, your actions will be doing the opposite.
If you want to understand this a little better, I suggest you enlist the help of a friend. Sit down for a lovely meal and ask your friend to randomly take your food from you when you go to take a mouthful. See how long it takes before you get frustrated, or start to position yourself or your food away from your friend, protecting your meal. Why would a dog be any different? I know that one argument is that in a home with children, dogs may get disturbed whilst they eat and you don’t want your dog to lash out at the children if that happens. Amazingly, there is a very easy way to ensure that this doesn’t happen, that doesn’t involve you frustrating your dog…
- When you get your puppy, feed it in a high traffic area, with lots of noise and things going on around it. People so often feed their dog in a quiet area, the dog then becomes wary of anything going on around it when it is eating. Feeding it in an area where there is lots going on will help it get used to just that, it will realise that these noises, movements, approaches etc are not a threat to its food.
- On occasions, approach your dog whilst it is eating, add something nice into its bowl. This will help it to understand that your approach is a Good Thing. Enlist all the family, children as well (under supervision!) to do the same thing. Repeat. You can also stroke your dog whilst it is eating and add food to its bowl. Make your proximity to its food a positive thing, always! Do the same when your dog is chewing a bone.
- Never ever remove your dog’s food or chew whilst it is eating or chewing. There is no point, whatsoever. You will merely make the dog naturally more prone to protecting its food. Ensuring that your dog and your children get on well is not just about training your dog, it is also about training your children not to do things that will upset your dog – make sure your children know to not take the dogs food away.
With dog/human resource guarding, the problem is that the dog has learnt that humans pose a threat to it eating food, it is scared of losing its food. This is not dominance, it is fear. If you already have a dog that unfortunately now has a resource guarding issue with humans, then you can address this, with the help of a qualified trainer. Do not attempt to use dominance training techniques, because you are not dealing with a dominance issue and you will simply either exacerbate the fear, or you will punish and remove the warning signs of a dogs fear, which could easily lead to your dog reacting with no warning signals, a very dangerous situation to be in, especially around children. Punishing the outward signs of food guarding can be likened to trying to turn off your engine warning light by disconnecting the power to it. The underlying problem is not fixed and it could blow up in your face.
Signs that your dog has a food guarding issue can include the dog ‘freezing’ still, growling, seeing whale eye (the whites of your dog’s eye), your dog blocking you from the food with its body, barking, snapping and biting when you or anyone else approaches. Any of these signs shows that you have a dog with food guarding problems and that you need to talk to a trainer or behaviourist immediately.
It can be tempting to see food guarding as ‘bad’ particularly when it is against humans who will not actually eat the dogs food or chew – I think this is where the idea of guarding as a dominant behaviour has come from. We don’t like it or understand it and so we label it as dominant. However, seeing guarding for what it is, an outward reaction to a fear, can help us to help our dogs overcome this with the right methods.
When we got Lexie we took great care to feed her in the kitchen whilst we were preparing our own food. This meant there was a lot of hustle and bustle around whilst she was eating. We also made sure to add tasty treats to her bowl whilst she was eating and gave her the odd stroke and treated her. The result being, that Lexie does not have a resource guarding issue around humans. Advocates of dominant dog theory might be tempted to argue that Lexie is just not a dominant dog. However on one occasion, Lexie was eating a yummy bone that we got from the butchers that was also rather bloody. As she likes to eat these things in our front room, we gave it to her on a big flattened cardboard box to protect our carpet. As she was chewing, the bone made its way to the carpet. Meaning well, myself and my husband approached her several times and moved the bone back to the box. After doing this probably 6-7 times I noticed Lexie start to freeze as my husband approached, and started to see the whites of her eyes as she kept her head directed to her bone but looked to us as a threat. Of course in our mind, we hadn’t done anything wrong, but to Lexie, each time we came up, we moved her bone away from her. I told my husband to stop, go get yummy treats and approach her several times to give her another treat and back off. We did this and she stopped freezing on our approach. Now of course, this wasn’t a fully fledged dog/human resource guarding issue, but it was the start. If we’d have kept doing it, she would have perhaps started to growl and show more aggressive behaviour. But we stopped, made our approach rewarding and her behaviour went back to ‘normal’. We gave up on the carpet! If we had wanted to, we could have confined her to her laminate room or kitchen to protect the carpet – but I like her to enjoy chewing her butchers bones in the comfort of the front room with us.
What about food stealing? Isn’t that a sign of dominance, a dog that thinks your food is its food? Well, we know that dogs are hunters, but dogs are also scavengers, and this is a popular theory for why wolves became friendly with humans at the beginning of the domestication process. Stealing food is natural to dogs, not a sign of dominance, just a sign of a dog being a normal dog. If you don’t like your dog stealing your yummy steak from the counter, that’s understandable, but the dog doesn’t think it’s ‘done wrong’, it’s just reacted on its own instinct. So what can you do about it?
Very simply, stop leaving food where you dog can get it! If you need to leave food on the counter, don’t leave your dog in the room unattended with it. You can work to train your dog to leave food that is not his/hers, but you are working against natural instinct, so make your life and your dog’s life easy – don’t tempt it. But if you do and your dog steals it, think carefully about what you will do next. If you punish your dog for being a normal dog, is that fair? Perhaps working on a strong ‘Leave’ or ‘Drop’ may stand you in better stead.
So dogs and food guarding or stealing, does it indicate dominance? I don’t think so – what about you?
If you have a resource guarding issue, then please do get in touch with us, we can help.