Talking Dog: 'Game' has turned into intimidation for family

October 6, 2014

Q: We have a 10-month-old shepherd mix, Gus. My husband has been playing "take away" games with Gus during feeding time for months, to make sure he is safe around our 4-year-old. What started as a game of take away the food bowl while Gus was eating, and then returning it once he sat on command has turned ugly. Gus now grabs at the food as if he hasnít eaten in days, and has growled and urinated twice when my husband approached. Yesterday he growled at my son! Can this dog be saved? Ashley

A: So glad you wrote in, Ashley. The short answer is yes, this can be addressed, but first and foremost, make sure your husband ceases all interaction with Gus during mealtime! Iím assuming his intentions were good, but your husband has systematically created a resource guarder in Gus, and without proper desensitization work, this can get dangerous.

While I will note a basic approach to work out this issue, I strongly recommend you schedule some time with a qualified expert who has a strong background in canine behavior rather than go forward on your own.

Until you can arrange that, Gus should be fed twice a day, and should be placed in a room by himself with the food bowl, and the door closed. Give him plenty of time to eat his entire meal by himself, without the threat of competition, and then let him out; pick up the food bowl only when Gus is out of the room.

Signs that indicate that your dog is feeling the need to guard a resource ó and Iím sure you and your husband have seen many of these ó include freezing over the food bowl, staring up at you with hard, unblinking eyes, accelerated food consumption, a growl, an air snap and a bite that makes contact.

What youíve described is a stress-filled, anxiety laden event, in which Gus must work fast and get possessive over his food, or risk losing it. The fact that he is urinating and growling when your husband approaches is a huge indicator of a serious problem ó Gus is stressed and afraid during these mealtime situations.

This is the opposite emotional response you want a dog to have when he is eating and people are nearby. Your job is to teach Gus that people around the food bowl only equal better things for him.

In order to teach Gus to be relaxed and welcoming of people when food is around, a desensitization and counter-conditioning process needs to be implemented. The goal is to change Gusís emotional response to people present around the food bowl, from stressed and guarding, to relaxed and welcoming.

With a professional showing you how to get started, Gus should be fed on a tether. When the food is introduced and while he is eating, your job will be to approach in a non-confrontational manner and offer him something better than he already has in the bowl, like some high-in-value treats. Your distance from Gus will be determined by Gusís behavior; you should remain far enough away so as not to induce any stress.

Your goal is to repeatedly practice the above in such a way that Gus does not feel any stress or threat by you. Gradually, with repetition, Gus will come to associate your presence around the food bowl with good things, you will be able to work more closely with him, and he will readily lift his head and happily accept treats from you before going back to the food bowl.

You have done your dog an injustice, but with the right modification plan, it can be fixed. Be your dogís parent, his advocate; be empathetic to his emotional needs and above all, be his friend, not his competitor or intimidator.



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