|Above photo owned by Just dogs with Sherri|
As the child walks into the kitchen the dog freezes. Like most, the child notices nothing and continues on her path to the dog. It is a neighbors dog and the little girl simply adores him. As she gets closer the dogs turns to give her a direct hard stare; a clear warning but she sees nothing to deter her. The closer she gets the warnings grow stronger; the dog is now frozen with it's head low in the bowl and growling. Still the little girl approaches; even with the dog growling, giving a huge teeth display and hard stare she stretches her hand out to pet the dog that she has grown to love. The end result to this interaction is euthanasia. Sad.
How many things went wrong in this situation? So, so many. The biggest and most obvious is the lack of supervision. I am a Mother of three human children and many dogs over the years. I am also a huge advocate of intense and high levels of safety surrounding both. No dog and child should ever be left alone unattended, bottom line. I have talked to people before who said that if they could not trust their dog and child alone then they wouldn't have the dog. Well, I am here to tell you that no dog and no child should be left alone unattended. It is a recipe for a disaster. You might have the greatest dog ever; one that loves your child and all their antics. But if you are not present then you don't know. You don't know that maybe your child might accidentally fall over your dog, step on them or do something that they shouldn't. Children do not always act appropriately, we all know that.
There is also the known fact that the dog eating was not okay with people around their bowl. Perhaps it was just an issue with children; maybe not, maybe the dog is not okay with anyone around their bowl. This is sadly one of the biggest scenarios when children are bitten. That and general resource guarding. Unfortunately most people do not know how to change a resource guarding behavior. In fact most people make the problem worse by taking whatever is being guarded away. By taking the object away; you further enforce the need to guard in your dog. Makes sense right?
I have asked clients if their dog is okay with family members around the food bowl. They then tell me "yes of course we take her food away all the time." Hmmmm, not good. You cannot expect a dog to just get use to having their bowl removed. They might be fine until one day they snap. The snap could come from being yelled at or hit for showing any aggressive signs when the bowl is removed. It is just a horrible recipe for a huge accident to happen.
So what should you do to prevent food bowl guarding? If you are starting with a puppy it is very, very easy. I recommend that everyone do this; no matter how great your puppy is about their food already. Continue to do this well into adulthood. I still do it with Elsa occasionally and will continue. Guarding is a very natural behavior for dogs. Many puppies will give it a try to see what happens; others tend to have a stronger guarding instinct. But for all puppies you do the same thing; and that is to change they way they feel about you around their bowl. Make your presence or that of a human around their bowl have a really great association.
You start out by dropping really great food into their bowl while they are eating. From there you move to putting your hand in their bowl with the really yummy food (something that is better than their meal) and dropping it in. You want to monitor body posture; sometimes even a puppy will freeze, ever so slightly so watch carefully. What you want to create is a relaxed situation that has your puppy anticipating your approach. Approach = something extra yummy being put into the bowl. Once you have that then occasionally take the bowl away for a moment; make some stirring noises in it and place something extra good in there, returning it to them. Now it is better than before you took it away.
All of this creates a "what ya got?" attitude instead of "keep away from my food," reaction. It is one of the best and most important things that you can do. I know that many people feed their dogs in crates or a closed off area for safety or convenience reasons but it does nothing to teach food guarding safety around people or other dogs for that matter. By isolating when you feed you can create a whole pile of problems.
This is all regarding puppies. If you have an adolescent canine or adult dog who already has food guarding issues there are many more steps and much more safety needed to rehabilitate. That is a whole other ball game and one that you need to call a professional in for. Make sure that it is a positive trainer if you do call one; not like the guy on television.
If your dog does not have any guarding issues then it is never too late to start the routine that I have laid out. But, if you are working with an adult dog; take great care and watch for any warning signs. They can be very subtle but almost all dogs warn; we humans just fail to see them. Proofing your dog against food guarding is one of the best things that you can do for them.