Biting the Hand that Feeds

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by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

Many dogs display some level of aggression to their owners over food. Resource guarding – for that’s what it is – is one aspect of what is now referred to as conflict aggression. It is not so much a condition in and of itself but rather reflects an uncertain situation that the dog finds itself in. The response of a dog in a situation of uncertainty over its owner’s actions can range from a growl to a lip lift to a snap – or even to a bite. Owners of such dogs often report that he is a “perfectly fine dog for ninety-eight percent of the time but then he suddenly turns on us for no apparent reason.” I believe that the dog thinks exactly the same thing about them. He knows and even likes his owners for ninety-eight percent of the time. But then – out of character –they challenge him in some way. It’s often not just a hand-in-food issue that’s involved. Dogs can guard any “valuable resource” of a food or non-food type — or act out in response to unwelcome physical interventions, chastisement or punishment. The dog’s response under these circumstances may be only shown to certain individuals in the household – usually ones who are more invasive and ones who don’t command sufficient trust and respect. The good news about owner-directed aggression is that it is often quite easy to fix and need not occur at all if people understand what to do – and what not to do. Below is my recipe for success when dealing with this sometimes thorny problem.

Avoid unnecessary confrontation

1) Food Aggression – If a dog growls or worse around its food bowl, it is telling its owner that it does not appreciate being disturbed while it’s eating. The solution – don’t do it! I would not like it if a person kept interfering with my food while I was eating so I can understand the dog’s point of view. Some dogs have become so unsure of their owner’s actions around the food bowl that they will growl at them if they walk too close to the bowl while they are eating. This warning signals a lack of trust on the part of the dog who is unsure of his owner’s intentions. To avoid this situation, simply feed the dog in a place where he can eat undisturbed and leave him alone to eat. Whatever others might say, there is no necessity to add food, touch a dog’s food while he is eating, or to feed him in a high traffic area — so simply avoid these conflicts. In time, he’ll come to trust you and will appreciate the fact that you respect his boundaries.

2) Real bones, rawhides and other delicious long-lasting food treats – If a dog finds such food items so powerfully emotive that he wants to protect them from you, the situation can easily be addressed by not giving them to him in the first place. After all, if you gave a child a pen knife and he stabbed in the leg with it you would confiscate it. Well, it’s the same philosophy. In addition, not many of these food items are unhealthful and most are considered taboo by various veterinary experts including nutritionists, veterinary dentists, internists and surgeons who fully appreciate the consequences of providing such items.

3) Disturbing a dog when he is sleeping – Shakespeare said, “Let sleeping dogs lie,” and Geoffrey Chaucer, the English medieval bard expressed similar sentiments a few hundred years before that. A dog that growls at you if you physically disturb him when he is resting is telling you he doesn’t like you doing that. So don’t do it. It’s a little bit like one of the Henny Youngman jokes where someone goes to the doctor and says, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this,” and his response is, “Well, don’t do that.”

4) Postural interventions – If a dog doesn’t like it when you stare at him, pet him in a certain way, groom him, touch his feet, or groom him, once again, he’s telling you he doesn’t like these interventions. If you want to be his trusted friend, you will appreciate his wishes and think around the circumstances that cause him grief so as to avoid such unnecessary conflict. Let groomers or vets do the tricky stuff instead. What happens at the vet’s stays at the vets – and they know how to handle such dogs.

5) Making a dog do something he doesn’t want to do – This is another one of those circumstances where the dog’s reaction is perfectly logical. For example, if he wants to run out of the door and you try to stop him by grabbing him by the collar or scruff. In that case he may turn around and try and prevent you from doing that using the language of aggression. Grabbing the collar never means good things are about to happen. Quite the reverse. It is far better to think ahead so that you do not have to physically apprehend a dog or force him to do something against his wishes. In the example given, simply put him in another room or behind a kiddy gate before opening the front door would work well. There’s a way of avoiding all these circumstances if you think about them carefully.

6) In response to admonition of physical punishment – Some dogs may cower if so treated but others will retaliate. The bottom line here is that physical punishment in the form of hitting the dog with a hand or rolled up newspaper or yelling at him and getting in his face is neither necessary nor productive. It will just turn him against you and escalate aggression all round. It is far better to use reward-based training, and remember, the opposite of reward is not punishment — it’s no reward.

No Free Lunch

Meals – Dogs who have been displaying any level of aggression toward their owners or family members for whatever reason should be required to earn their food by responding to a command. For this program to be effective the dog should be fed meals and not allowed to graze free choice. At breakfast time, the owner comes down, puts the food in a bowl, stands in front of the dog and issues a one word command, “Sit” works well (assuming he knows the command). The dog is given a few seconds to respond and the desired response (his sitting) is rewarded immediately by putting the food down in front of him. Then he should be left in peace to eat his meal. Once he has finished eating, whether the bowl is empty or not, it should be picked up. A generous time allowance for eating is fifteen minutes. An automatic sit is not rewarded – instead the dog is given a different command, like Down – the point being that he must respond to a command to get his food. If he doesn’t sit or lie down when instructed to do so within a three second window of time, he simply misses that meal. You return at dinner time and give him the same opportunity to respond. Some dogs know exactly what you’re saying but simply refuse to do what they’re being asked to do. I have seen dogs go two or three days without eating before they finally succumb and understand that the owner has ultimate control over the food resource. Don’t worry, dogs aren’t designed to eat three square meals a day. In nature they may go a couple of days between meals unless the hunting is exceptionally good.

Treats – The same strategy should be applied to treats. Owners should remember that it is not their job to ply the dog with treats but rather the dog’s job to earn treats from them by responding appropriately. Some people have even called this program the “say please program” as it is really tantamount to insisting on good manners.

Other things that must be earned – Having a dog work to get his daily meals from all family members and to earn his treats is often all that it takes to turn a dog from a growling complainer to an understanding companion. However, it is sometimes possible for an owner to balance one more earning opportunity for the dog as well as the above measures. For example, a dog of this nature could be required to work for a favorite toy or for petting or access. I think it is best, however, for people not to try to have the dog earn too many different things otherwise the program gets too complicated and the family ends up doing nothing at all.

If this program of avoiding confrontation and having the dog earn valued resources, particularly food and treats, is enacted religiously by all family members, about ninety percent of people find their dog is much improved and more livable after a period of two months. Seventy percent of people say their dog is cured and all they have done is to set a few limits of acceptable behavior while providing a less confusing environment for the dog.

Dogs thrive much better when they have some daily structure and routine that they understand, particularly if their owners are not getting in their face all the time. I like to think of this program within the context or what I call the three F’s — fun, fair and firm. Fun in the sense that you should have fun with your dog – that’s why you have a dog in the first place. Fair in the sense that you never ask him to do anything unreasonable or beyond his limitations. Firm in the sense that you have a few basic house rules from which you never waver. Using this approach – setting limits, if you will — the dogs seem happier and often become non-aggressive. I’m sure owners will appreciate the relief such a program brings and it helps dogs remain in their home for life instead them being surrendered or returned to the shelter.


Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

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