Monday, November 10, 2014

Don't Move My Cheese

I learned everything I needed to know about food aggression from a dog/animal actor named Chester. Our relationship started on a commercial set, where I worked as a second-trainer on a Three-Day Blinds commercial with him. He was an adorable wrinkle-beast, so cuddly it was hard not to fall in with love him. He reflected a mild nature, regardless if you scrubbed him up in the tub, cleaned his ears or provided a pedicure. He had a gentle mouth when offered treats, tail wagging and eyes sparkling. Over all, I thought of him as a gentle soul…until the day I fed him and attempted to pick up his food bowl. Watching the Exorcist would probably give you a good idea of the shock and awe on my face when I saw “that look” come across his face seconds before his teeth flashed near my hand! I jumped back – uninjured but deeply stunned.

This isn't an uncommon situation. Many people have perfectly lovely dogs - just so long there isn't a bowl or high-valued chewie sitting out. Food aggression is interesting in how owners react to the possessiveness. Let’s put this in perspective: I have a plate of chocolate chip cookie and I’m chowing down on them. I've been looking forward to this moment of bliss ALL DAY and now it’s coming to fruition. Suddenly, someone comes by and sticks their thumb in the middle of the cookie I’m eating. Then, as an indication of ultimate skeeziness, swipes the entire plate away while all the while telling me how BAD I am for getting upset. This is the travesty of being a dog. Misinformed people have perpetuated the idea of taking away food from puppies while they’re eating and scolding them for getting mad. Even worse: others put their hands in the bowl to ensure it’s understood who the Alpha is! In fact, you’re just being rude. You’re the provider of food and the one with the opposable thumb, so you really don’t need to put on such a needless show of power.

Food aggression is caused by the fear of losing a resource.

By taking that item away from the animal, you’re reinforcing that perception that their fear is valid. The only way to teach a dog that you’re not salivating over his bowl of kibble is to build trust. How can you do that? Become a provider rather than a thief.

If your dog is aggressive about food or toy – make your presence seem like a party. You want him to look forward to your presence while he’s eating rather than dread it.
  •  Start by getting close enough so your pet can see you, but not so close that he stops eating, gives you the hairy eye-ball, growls or snarls.
  •  Once you've established the “safe spot”, toss something truly special and delicious right near his bowl (like a piece of chicken or hotdog), then walk out of the room. You’re showing him “When I’m here, something awesome happens!”
  •  With treat tossing as your mission, get slowly closer to the bowl during each meal, following the previous parameters of ensuring your pet isn't getting upset with your existence.
Eventually, you’ll find that when you walk into the room your pet may STOP eating and look up at you with a totally different expression – one of happy expectation. If he leaves the food bowl, so be it, you want him to be happy that you've come by the ol’ doggy trough to visit.

Do you want to take the bowl away, but Rover refuses? Do a trade: Have one person call him with a delicious morsel, while you whisk away the bowl. Note that throughout this scenario, there’s no yelling, intimidation or corrections. Fear is built on those principles. Trust, however, is grown through consistency, respect and understanding. If you do your job right, you’ll find that the training is much simpler than arranging an exorcism.

                                              Chester courtesy of Ron Kimball Photography


  1. Your explanation is very similar to mine when I talk to clients with these issues. I use a hamburger in my senario and put the person in the dog's place that way.

  2. Kudos Shelley! I think it's important to see the role reversal. Pet ownership should be a dance, rather than a dictatorship.

  3. This is exactly what I do with my clients! (: