How does your dog behave at meal times? As you enter the kitchen when it is time for him to be fed, does he growl and glare at you? When you offer him a gift, perhaps a marrow bone, does he grab it and retreat with it to the safety of the coffee table, snarling possessively? If these scenes are regular in your home, your dog may be suffering from a form of food aggression, sometimes known as canine possession aggression (CPA).
The problem with CPA is that your dog’s view of the pack hierarchy within your family is wrong. Instead of being the leader of the pack, the provider of treats, food and all things good, you have become a potential enemy. He views you as someone who can remove items he treasures such as treats, meals or chew toys. You will quite rightly remove things from him which he should not have, such as gloves and shoes, but removal of any items which your dog viewed as his will reinforce his belief that you just want to take things off him. He may naturally become more possessive of items which he has under his control.
There is a fine balance to be reached at mealtimes in the family home. It is probably best that toddlers and young children are not in the immediate vicinity of your dog whilst he eats. However, a dog which always eats on his own from being a puppy into adulthood may develop an unbalanced and overinflated sense of himself. In a pack, the dominant alpha male has every right to eat his meal first, without interruptions from lesser members of the pack. Likewise, in your pack, members of your family should be present during at least some of your dog’s meals. Periodically interrupt your dog’s meal by adding something extra, such as a bite of a turkey hotdog, some egg or a broken up biscuit.
Sometimes it is difficult to re-train an older dog who has already become accustomed to eating by himself, without interruption. A mature dog will probably, and justifiably, react badly to his mealtimes being interrupted. However, when training a younger dog, you should be able to make use of the following steps, in order to break the cycle of CPA. Firstly, remove your dog’s food bowl completely, and do not return it for ten to fourteen days. Meals for the next two weeks will be all out of your hand, a few kibbles at a time. Granted, this may take more time out of your day, but the results will be worthwhile at the end.
The second step is to reintroduce the food bowl, but leave it empty. When you are ready, drop a handful of kibble into the bowl, and allow your dog to eat his first few bites. When the bowl is empty, drop another handful of food into the bowl, and allow your dog a second helping. Repeat again, and again, after short intervals, until the whole meal is finished. During this step your dog will become familiar with the idea that you determine when food is available.
Moving on to the third stage, half fill your dog’s food bowl with his meal and put it on the floor. Allow him to start his meal, and whilst he is eating add a few more morsels to the bowl. Before he is finished eating, add a further handful of kibbles.
The final stage of the process should make clear to your dog who is the boss of the kitchen. Fill the food bowl fully and put it on the floor, but do not allow your dog to start eating immediately. Hold him for a few moments with the commands to “sit” and “stay”, or “wait”. When you are sure of his obedience, release him with a cheerful “okay” or “eat” command. Occasionally, make a point of interrupting your dog’s meal by calling him away from his bowl, before he has finished eating. When he comes to you, praise him for his obedience and reward him with a tasty treat.
Each stage of this process should take up to two weeks to complete. Staggering the learning curve will allow your dog to come to the conclusion that you are the leader of your pack, and you determine meal times and you dispense the food. Given sufficient time, he should leave his possessive behavior behind. If your dog struggles with any of the stages during the training, return to the previous stage, or back to the first step, and try again.
One note of caution is that you may wish to have your dog wear his leash during mealtimes, as an additional safety measure. You should not need to use it to control your dog, unless there is any danger of your being hurt, but it is best to cover every eventuality.
Possessive behavior such as CPA can also be an indication of other underlying problems, perhaps in the relationship between you and your dog. Undertaking a basic obedience course is always a good idea and will be of benefit to both you and your dog, reinforcing your relative positions within your relationship.
If you find that your dog is particularly aggressive, or if you feel that you have tried sufficiently and have been unsuccessful in training your dog out of his possessive behavior, seek professional assistance. A certified dog trainer may well be able to assist you in your efforts.