By Vicki Cleaver
CleverPawz Dog Training
SO, your cute puppy has now reached seven months of age and has enthusiastically looked forward to mealtimes, but over the past few weeks is now scoffing his food down and started growling when humans approach the food bowl.
When we analyse this behaviour, there is a lot going on here.
Firstly, the puppy honeymoon period is well and truly over.
Puppy has also hit the teenage stage so there are huge amounts of hormones that he has to deal with.
This gawky teenager stage generally coincides with growth spurts and can be a time when “reactive” behaviour rears its ugly head.
Aside from that, when people understand some of the basic scientific principles that underpin behaviour then it will give you a foundation to help you with all species of animals (and humans too).
We behave because of “consequences”.
Karen Pryor says, “…that behaviour is under the direct control of its consequence.”
If we exceed the speed limit, we may well get to the destination faster, but we may also get a warning or get booked and have to pay a fine.
If we practice the guitar, we might well end up performing at top gigs.
Going back to the dog guarding the food bowl behaviour and when you apply the science, it is easy to understand.
A = Person is approaching the food bowl when the dog is eating.
B = Dog growls at the person.
C = Person moves away from the food bowl after the dog growls.
C is the consequence because people move away after the dog has growled.
Growling is the way a dog communicates it is not safe to come near.
It is a warning sign to humans that if you come closer, next time I will likely bite.
So, the dog learns that growling will keep humans away.
Dispelling myths around the food bowl:
Petting your dog while they are eating so they will get used it is the same as petting a human while they are eating. You’d be irritated by this and so would the dog.
Putting your hand in their bowl while they are eating is teaching them to guard food. So, leave them alone while eating.
Taking away their food bowl while eating is the same as the waiter taking food off your plate while you are at a restaurant. You’d get pretty angry and so would the dog and might want to bite your hand.
What to do instead?
Depending on the intensity of the guarding behaviour, it may be best to consult with a professional trainer or a behaviourist to get some expert advice.
Teaching puppies to exchange a “lower value” item in return for a “higher value” treat – think roast chicken, then give the item back to them helps builds trust. This method is not recommended for dogs that already have guarding behaviours.
Taking away the food bowl altogether and being creative with feeding, such as food scatters, may also be another option.
When the dog learns that I get yummy chicken in exchange for giving up items, it is making a positive association and the consequence of that will be that the behaviour is more likely to occur in the future.