Avoiding Food Possessiveness
The first dog we got as a family was an off-white Lhasa apso named Tobbie. He was an extremely energetic and loyal dog, but unfortunately we had no clue what we were doing in terms of training. So we did things that resulted in Tobbie guarding his food from us.
If we got too close to his food bowl, he would stop eating and growl at us. And if we tried to take it away from him, he would literally bite us.
Although it would be easy to blame Tobbie for this behavior, my family unknowingly did some things that encouraged the behavior, while at the same time we did nothing to prevent it from becoming worse.
As a child, I would bug and pet Tobbie while he was eating. Now, anyone with any basic understanding of dog training will tell you that this is a very bad idea, but my family didn’t know.
Can you imagine a worse scenario than this? Actually, we did many things wrong! The worst thing that we did was give Tobbie table food while we ate so that he would stop whining. Little did we know that this was actually reinforcing the behavior!
These mistakes were of our own doing, and it wouldn’t be until a few years later that I realized how my actions impacted Tobbie’s behavior. Then I learned all about conditioning and counter-conditioning, and I practiced some simple exercises with my second dog.
The difference was night and day. I went from having a dog who would growl at me, to being able to put my hand in my dog’s food bowl while she was eating (yes, I’ve actually tried this!).
What exactly did I do in the exercises?
I created a positive association to being near the food bowl. I gave my dog something incredibly delicious, even more so than what she was eating so that she would see me as someone who adds value to her food bowl, not someone who takes it away.
Below, you will find the exercise that I practiced with my dog. Practice it on a daily basis even if your dog hasn’t shown any signs of food possessiveness. It’s much easier to prevent a problem from occurring than to have to deal with it once it becomes a habit.
And if you have a puppy, this is the perfect time to do this exercise as the conditioning will last him a lifetime!
CAUTION: During this exercise, you must be alert and visually attentive to your dog’s responses. Be careful and if you see your dog showing his teeth, growling, lunging or trying to bite you, you should immediately stop this exercise and seek professional help. Although this exercise has proven to be extremely beneficial for my dogs, I am in no way responsible if your dog bites or injures you.
Food Possessiveness Exercise: Just Delicious!
- Your dog’s regular meal
- Highly desirable food or treats.
Description: The purpose of this exercise is to associate pleasure to you being near your dog’s food during mealtime, or while he is eating.
Set-up: You will need to practice this exercise while your dog is eating from his bowl.
- To begin this exercise, you will first need to give your dog his regular portioned meal. It can be either breakfast or dinner.
- While your dog is eating, walk towards your dog and drop a highly desirable food or treat inside his bowl. It can be steak, chicken, cheese or anything that your dog would see as more valuable than his current meal.
- Practice this exercise for a few days. Then, once your dog becomes more comfortable with you being near him while he’s eating, you can begin to touch his body while at the same time put the higher valued food into his food bowl.
Tip: The goal of this exercise is to change your dog’s perspective about you being near his food. Food is a scarce resource in the wild and dogs will protect it. But with this exercise, you will be training your dog that good things happen when you are near his food.
For advanced trainers: Once your dog is comfortable with you being near his food, you can pick up your dog’s bowl and add the highly desirable food or treats inside. This way, when you give it back to your dog, it will be better and tastier!
Possessiveness over toys and bones: This same concept can be applied to possessiveness over toys and bones. The only difference is that you must give your dog something of extreme value (that is more valuable than the toy or bone) as you take it away. And I recommend that you give your dog his toy or bone again once he’s eaten the delicious treat.
This is a win-win situation for your dog: he gets to eat a delicious treat and he gets his toy or bone back—what a great deal!
Important: Be patient with your dog! You should only work at your dog’s current comfort level. If your dog shows signs of discomfort, then stop there. Throw a few treats in his direction and continue to work at that level until your dog accepts you coming closer.