We all know what Pugnacious means!
Frank is a delightful, friendly and playful ten-month-old Pug French Bulldog mix. He is a typical teenager in that he likes to play his family up – he is a clever boy!
What I was called for is Frank’s behaviour around dropped food, bones and other edible resources.
Food aggression can start with the breeder
From the moment they first got him Frank wolfed his food down as though in total panic – even faster if someone was nearby, like he was afraid they may steal it from him. Consequently they were advised to put the food on a plate which, because it slides around the floor, slows him down.
The breeder fed the litter all together from one bowl which we know can lead to competition over the food. It does not encourage eating confidently in the knowledge that the puppy can take his time with no fear of losing the food. This is where food aggression can start.
Food aggression is then unintentionally encouraged by owners who, thinking they are doing the right thing, force things off the puppy, either because it may be dangerous or maybe to make a point about who is boss. They don’t realise that even some of the games they play are nurturing guarding behaviour in certain dogs that may be that way inclined anyway due to either genetics or early life with litter-mates.
From the start, savvy dog owners actively encourage give and swap.
Frank has now snapped about five times at a hand that has got too near to dropped food or his bone. Once the little girl dropped something on the floor and when mum went to remove it Frank, who had his eye on it also, went for mum’s hand.
Like many people they felt they should be able just to take a bone off the dog. The young lady was snapped at so she withdrew. Because, to quote her, she ‘was not having that’, the next time she wore an oven glove and forcibly removed the bone from him, resulting in what would have been a much more severe bite had it not been for the glove.
An interesting display of minor guarding behaviour
I gave Frank a Stagbar (piece of reindeer antler) to chew and it was so interesting to watch him. For several minutes he paraded it, flaunting it around all the people there (there were seven of us including a little girl). “Look what I’ve got and you can’t have it” sort of thing! He then would drop it, as though tempting someone to try and pick it up.
Next he started rolling around the floor on top of the Stagbar. Sarah Whitehead would say that this is to spread his scent over it – to mark it as his possession.
Then he got down to some serious chewing.
They asked can they touch him or stroke him while he’s chewing? NO! They must leave him strictly alone. He must be ignored. When he parades something they should look the other way. He can’t flaunt something if nobody is looking, can he.
From now onwards he will have a very different relationship with his family around food. They will no longer be seen as ‘takers’ but as ‘givers’.
They will get him a heavier slow bowl feeder so it won’t slide around the kitchen floor like the plate; it has bumps in it to sow him down whilst making eating less of a chase and race, less frustrating.
A thing I personally feel that dogs must find so frustrating is the common practice of being made to sit, wait and maybe do tricks before they can eat start to eat. It’s not natural. In the wild an animal wouldn’t sit back, wait and do tricks, giving other animals opportunity to get there first.
I prefer to hold the bowl and wait before putting it down, getting the dog’s attention in order to emphasise my role as ‘giver’. Then I put the food down. It’s his. I walk away and leave the dog to eat in peace.
Although Frank so far shows no food aggression when someone walks past while he’s eating his meals (if they bent down and put their hands near it would be a different matter), they can still help by silently chucking a bit of something better than his food – cooked chicken perhaps – in the direction of his bowl.
When I was there the little girl had an ice cream and dropped a bit on the floor – almost the same situation as one of the ‘incidents’. This time Frank was more interested in my Stagbar fortunately. Recently the lady was eating crisps on the sofa with Frank beside her, watching. She pushed him onto the floor and he snapped at her.
This needs to be taken very seriously, particularly when little children are about. They should not tempt fate by giving him any further opportunity to rehearse the behaviour again. A dog that has any hint of food aggression should be in another room when anyone is eating anything at all, even ice cream or crisps (due to the food aggression they do put him in his crate when they eat their meals).
Frank rolling on the Stagbar
Now there is some hard work to do so that should a situation accidentally arise Frank can be trusted not to attack a hand.
If he’s chewing a bone they must ignore him. He needs to build up trust that it won’t be taken from him and then he will have nothing to be protective about.
Preferably they should wait until he loses interest before taking the bone away. Alternatively they can swap it for a Kong stuffed with something tasty which they can remove when it’s empty and he’s lost interest. I wanted my Stagbar back before I left and dropped food on and beside it a couple of times, watching his body language carefully, and he let me pick it up – I rewarded him again with a little jackpot.
Teaching Frank to ‘Give’ can start with Tug of War. Tuggy done properly teaches a dog to ‘give’ as well as to avoid teeth on human flesh.
Frank’s humans will be Givers, not Takers.
Teaching him that his humans aren’t interested in stealing from him is one thing, teaching him to actively and happily give things up is another and needs working on.
I suggest they lift his toys. They can issue them one at a time, using the ‘exchange game’: offer it, don’t let go, say ‘Give’ and exchange for food. Do this a couple of times, then without food, ending in letting him keep it. The rule is that they never take anything off him unless he gets it back or its exchanged for something better than what he already has (better to him that is).
Another good teaching game is to have a range of objects and food in ascending order of value to Frank, and teach exchange starting with the lowest in value. They can leave him to keep the final most valuable item.
Food should also be used as payment – rewards for doing as asked. This will make him a lot more cooperative in general and again emphasise that his people are ‘givers’ and that he has to give something in return.
Our human instinct when met with food aggression or aggression of any sort from our dog is to respond in kind – we are aggressive back. We’re ‘not having that’. He mustn’t get away with it. Its hard, but the very opposite approach is needed. Any growling or air snapping should not be met with punishment or anger. We need to look at the cause of the aggression and deal with that, not the snapping itself.
The snapping is, still, fortunately only a warning. Teach him not to give a warning and it can only escalate into real biting.
The very achievable goal is that when the adorable Frank has a bone or is near food, he should be relaxed and happy. He won’t need to immediately going onto the defensive lest someone should nick his bone or get to dropped food first.
An email two months later: Our main worry and concern was the food aggression. We have seen NO aggressions since our meeting and not even a slight indication of it. Frank happily bring bones to us all, will Give things he shouldn’t have if we have a treat in our hand to reward him handing it over etc. He seems all round a happier dog 🙂
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Frank and I’ve not gone into exact precise details for that reason. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly, particularly where aggression issues of any kind are concerned. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)