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 Dog Behavior Library

Dog Food-Related Aggression
Desensitization Program

During this program, avoid any punishment and ignore the dog unless during a training or exercise session.

There are several "stages" of developing food aggression in dogs. Since each dog is an individual, every dog does not follow this pattern.  Often the owner does not notice the pattern until it is an ingrained problem. Here are the typical stages:

1) Eats faster if approached - dog may see others as competition
2) Freezes or shows "tense" increased muscle tone when someone comes near
3) Lip lifting or growling - a low level but clear threat
4) Air snaps - a clear indication a bite is coming
5) Some mouthing contact with no harm done - if willing to make aggressive contact then consider case severe
6) Leaves the food to charge the intruder - highest level of threat short of full attack
 
When a dog sits on cue before gaining a reward, this simple change has a stabilizing effect on most dog personalities.

The protocol below is intended for dogs exhibiting aggression toward family members when near the food bowl. This behavior modification plan is intended to communicate to the dog the following three things. 

1) The owner is not threatening.
2) The owner is the source of the food, and therefore an approach is a good thing.
3) The owner controls the food and is therefore a higher ranking individual.

One goal is to develop a new routine. For example when a dog sits on cue before gaining a reward, this simple change has a stabilizing effect on most dog personalities.

Finally, this protocol builds a positive bond between owner and pet, and strengthens the SIT, STAY and COME Instructions. If the dog does not know these basic Instructions, enroll in a basic obedience class, concurrent with this program.

Some cases require medication with professional assistance and behavior medication to get results quickly. The strategy is to reduce mental stress and anxiety temporarily so the dog can easily learn new habit patterns. Then the medication is phased out. If the program is not progressing, contact your veterinarian to evaluate the possible need for this medication.

The most common mistake is to try to go too quickly. It is not uncommon for all the steps described below to take several weeks to complete.

1) Do not leave any food down for the dog. Feed only dry kibble, not canned or scraps. 
2) Use a different food bowl, preferably with a long handle such as an old saucepan.
3) Begin to feed the dog in a new location, at least 10 feet from the previous location. It is ideal to vary the feeding spot frequently during each feeding and for each subsequent feeding. This eliminates any territorial component of the aggression.
4) When charging is a concern, tie the dog during feeding so that he can reach the food dish but not chase you if provoked.
5) Measure the normal amount of food but do not provide it all at once.
6) Place a few kibbles in the bowl in your hand and ask the dog to SIT.
7) It is VERY important that YOUR OWN body postures and voice tone be relaxed and happy.
8) If the dog does shows any aggression related postures, or refuses to sit, do not reprimand.  Simply put the food out of reach and move out of sight for several seconds. Return, and repeat the SIT Instruction. If the dog is uninterested in food, either skip the meal or feed 25% of the normal amount, and wait until next meal.
9) If the dog sits, lower the dish, keep your hand on the bowl, and allow the dog to eat the kibble. It is ok to offer some high value food like chicken bits to speed up the acceptance. If the dog still refuses the food, give no reprimand, act neutral, but put the food away, and come back later.
10) If the dog accepts the food, raise the bowl, and place a few more kibble. Back up a few feet and call the dog using the COME Instruction. If the dog comes too quickly, give the STAY Instruction, before COME. Try to work with Instructions for at least 30 seconds.
11) Repeat the SIT Instruction, and if the dog is quickly obeying, add the DOWN or another Instruction. The goal is for the dog to learn he must earn any food by obeying whatever non-threatening Instruction you give. Therefore, do not use a low threatening tone for Instructions. If the dog misbehaves, simply remove the food and give the dog a few minutes of "time out" while tied.
12) When the dog seems relaxed with you present, begin to pet the dog with one hand while holding the bowl in the other, while the dog is eating the food.
13) Once you are comfortable that the dog is totally relaxed and happily anticipating the food being lowered, begin to let go of the handle when when empty. Reach for the handle and pick up the bowl. If any aggressive postures are observed, begin this protocol over again.
14) Once there is no problem reaching for the empty bowl, begin to place a larger quantity, (e.g. 30% of total food) in the bowl at a time. Now have only kibble in the bowl, but try to drop pieces of high value food near, or in the bowl. Watch to see if the dog is happy to see your hand coming.
15) Confirm that the dog is relaxed being touched while eating, and allowing you to reach for the empty bowl. If so, the next step is to give an even larger quantity (50%) of the dry kibble, but bring your hand near the bowl for the purpose of dropping in a special treat like chicken or smelly cheese.
16) At times other than feeding, give the dog a gentle loving body massage or grooming session. Try to include every part of the body. When you feel the dog is fully relaxed with the feeding protocol, begin to groom or massage the dog while eating.
Look for a tense "frozen posture" body stance, and if seen, stop and move away.  This often indicates the first sign of pending aggression

If this occurs, back up on the protocol, and go more slowly, or call your behaviorist or trainer to develop a dog-specific protocol for preventing or reducing canine aggression.

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