Frogger was a sleek and energetic German Shepherd puppy. His case exemplifies many food guarding cases I have seen so I will use his story to bring to light some of the causes of, and intervention options for, food guarding in dogs.
Frogger was purchased from a breeder by a young couple who had little experience with dogs. When they put Frogger’s food bowl down on their first night home, Frogger ate voraciously, gulping the food in seconds and sliding the bowl frantically across the floor as he did so. He was not underweight and had eaten just hours before at the breeder’s house so Jack and Sara were surprised to see Frogger eat this way. In fact, many puppies eat very rapidly, especially when they have been raised and fed with littermates. Social competition over food, even when food is plentiful, leads puppies to eat more food overall and more rapidly when eating with other puppies.
Jack and Sara had heard that they should make sure their puppy allowed them to “mess with its food” and that they should prevent food guarding by showing the puppy that “they were in charge” of his food. Without being completely sure what this meant, they set out on a well-intentioned but misguided plan of making Frogger step away from his food so that they could put their hand in his bowl and take it. They would offer Frogger his food and let him start eating. Then they would march over to the bowl and command “Leave It!” as they reached in and placed their hand over the kibble or picked up the bowl. At first Frogger tried to eat around their hand or push his head deeper into the bowl and the owners scolded him. Over several weeks, Frogger began to stiffen and growl as soon as he heard the “Leave It” command and saw them approaching his bowl. Jack and Sara incorrectly assumed he was being more dominant and thus needed more punishment so they began to reprimand him loudly and remove his bowl for longer periods. After two months, Frogger bit Sara when she approached to take his food. He retreated into a corner and snapped at Jack when he came to reprimand and try to take Frogger by the collar. The owners were completely distraught by Frogger’s behavior and called me in to assist them.
When I met Frogger and observed a meal, I saw how tense he was throughout, even when we were across the room. His body and neck were stiff, his head lowered over the food with frequent furtive glances over the side of the bowl. His tail was low and stiff, with some puffiness in his fur at its base. Its tip quickened into a nervous wag when we moved or talked to him. At this point, any approach within several feet triggered growling and continued approach triggered snarling with teeth exposed, all while Frogger continued eating at breakneck speed.
After conducting a behavioral assessment, I reviewed with the owners where things may have gone wrong. While it is important to prevent food guarding in our dogs, we must go about it in a different way. Jack and Sara had tackled the problem with a “do it or else” mentality. That is, they expected Frogger to give up his food as they stole it from him, without arranging positive consequences for Frogger when they did so. This notion that our dogs should automatically do what we say simply because we are “in charge” reflects a widespread and persistent misunderstanding of dog behavior. What is missing from this notion is a fundamental feature of learning: behavior that produces no positive consequences will not persist while behavior that provides positive reinforcement will be strengthened. Frogger learned quickly that when he allowed Sara and Jack to take his food, he lost access to it, which was unpleasant. They praised him but this was no match for the rewarding effect of keeping his meal. When he began to use aggression, Sara and Jack backed off, at least momentarily, and Frogger kept his food a little longer. Sara and Jack had in fact strengthened the precise behavior they were hoping to prevent!
Our goal in the treatment of Frogger’s food guarding was to teach him that the BEST thing that could happen while he was eating was for Sara and Jack to approach him and ultimately to reach for his bowl! We started at Frogger’s current level of tolerance. From about 10 feet away, Frogger ate with few signs of tension and no aggression. From this distance, I had Sara and Jack take turns calling Frogger’s name about once a minute while he ate. (We moved Frogger to a slow-eating bowl to prevent his wolfing down his food and allow us more training repetitions per meal.) When Frogger looked in our direction, they tossed him a piece of chicken breast from across the room. Soon, Frogger was looking up each time he heard his name.
In addition to a look in our direction, I wanted to see that Frogger began showing signs of relaxation and happy anticipation. I was monitoring for reduced body and facial tension, softer eyes, and more relaxed tail swishes. When he was showing these signs reliably, we moved one foot closer and practiced again. Over two weeks, I had the owners move in after repetitions at each distance and after teaching them the signs of relaxation and happy anticipation to look for. When the owners could stand right next to Frogger while he ate, they began hand delivering the chicken when he looked up at them. I then had the owners crouch down next to him, then sit on the floor next to him, while practicing the training protocol. Finally, we taught Frogger to look to his owners as they placed a hand on his bowl or even picked it up.
Importantly, we were able to accomplish this process in stages such that aggression was not triggered throughout. We concluded the intervention by moving to an intermittent reward schedule, which meant that they continued the exercises on a maintenance level (less frequently per meal and then not at every meal) and ultimately with chicken delivered only occasionally while praise and petting served as ongoing rewards for Frogger’s successfully looking away from his food bowl on cue.