Thursday, August 6, 2009

Rehabbing food aggression

As discussed in previous blogs, dogs owned by hoarders may have food aggression issues.
If the dog was in a situation where there were tons of other dogs, and perhaps not enough food to go around, survival mode would’ve kicked in.
Any food morsel a dog managed to grab for itself would be dearly guarded from others. After all, it sometimes becomes a matter of life or death.
I admit, I do not have much experience with food aggression. I actually have more experience with the other end of spectrum; getting fearful or bored dogs to stop refusing to eat!
I believe, though, that some basic laws of socialization can apply to food aggression.

1) Do not use an automatic feeder. This is a big no-no. As humans, we think, “Once the dog realizes that food is always available, he won’t be aggressive anymore.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Remember, dogs do not have the capacity for analytical thought.
An abundance of food will not rehab their aggression. Instead, the dog will become super aggressive and protective of the feeder.

2) After feedings, when your food-bowl-protective-little-monster is off somewhere else in the house, pick up the dish. This way, at feeding time you are not trying to reach down and swoop the bowl up, which could create a potential bite from the little monster. Be sure your dog is not around when you pick it up. Put the bowl up somewhere that the dog cannot reach it.

3) At feeding time, call the dog. Allow him to watch you fill his food bowl, but ask him to sit. This is a perfect time to work on perfecting the dog’s sit-stay. He must sit and stay until you give the release command. He must not move an inch when you put the food bowl on the floor. Once the food is on the floor and he is still sitting and staying patiently, go ahead with the release command. (I use “OK” and it means, whatever I’m asking you to do is now over)

4) Stand near the dog during feeding time, but allow him whatever distance he feels comfortable with. Don’t stand so close that he growls at you between bites. If that means four or five feet, or even ten, do it. But each day, gradually inch forward.

5) When he is done eating, approach the bowl and toss a treat in it. Do not bend down or get closer than is necessary.

If you’re feeding your dog twice a day and you’re practicing this exercise at every feeding, the dog will gradually become more socialized to the idea that human+food dish=good things.
This is a good start. Be patient. It may take a lot of time.
Remember, all canine rehabilitation needs to be done in baby steps.
Tomorrow, I’ll go over some more advanced techniques that can be used once the dog’s aggression around the food dish has been toned down a bit.

An IMPORTANT note on the sit-stay
A dog just adopted from a hoarder will probably not have a clue what a sit-stay is.
I recommend working on this during day one of bringing the dog home, just for a couple minutes here and there. Don’t make a production out of it.
It’s a very low impact exercise, it’s rewarding for the dog if trained properly with lots of positive reinforcement (treats, games), and it’s so very helpful in so very many situations.
If you can’t get your dog to perform a sit-stay at feeding time during the first few weeks, involve a second person in your feeding routine.
This person will hold the dog on a leash. Once you put the food on the ground and have given your release command, the second person may drop the leash.
Allow the dog to eat with the leash on.
Remember, safety is first. The purpose of the leash and sit-stay is to avoid any situations where your hands and face are near the food dish at the same time the dog is.
The long-term goal, of course, is to be able to do just that. But in the beginning, you have got to play it safe.

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