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Have You Ever Wondered Why Dogs Guard Empty Food Bowls?

To be clear - I never walk away from a dog that is tied. This is Yeti, happily enjoying his dinner!

The dog in the photo is Yeti. He is one of the most challenging Maremmas I have ever raised. He still lives with me. As an adult, he is one of the most consistent and trustworthy guardians I have. I adore him, and all the extra effort it took for us both to find our way through his adolescence was worth it.

On a good day, he would have been challenging. He came into my life very early in my career with Maremmas. I feel like I made almost every mistake possible with this poor dog. He trained me well and was very forgiving, continually offering me another chance to get it right for him. What I learned from Yeti has made life much easier for many of the also challenging dogs that have come into my life later because I didn't have to make the same mistakes twice.

Yeti is very insecure in the presence of food, and I think he always will be. One of the mistakes I kept making with him was thinking that he would get over that. At the time this photo was taken, if I fed him outside his field, he was more comfortable than inside because his partner couldn't go near his bowl.

Yeti's partner is in the field behind him. Notice that he has his back to her. That is no accident.

My dogs know that they will only be asked to come through a gate when they are wearing a collar and leash. They get very excited when they see me approach with a collar and leash! Yeti LOVES to go for walks. Bringing him out on a leash, but not going for a walk, would have been confusing for him.

So, I set up this short chain. I brought him out the gate, curled right around to the bowl, and snapped him to the chain. The chain means food, not walks. And then I stood near him - always. I never, ever walked away from him when he was tied; I just don't tie my dogs.

Targeting and reinforcement history is why dogs stay with empty food bowls.

Dogs love physical targets because they are something they can touch. This makes sense to them. Sometimes, when humans train dogs, the concepts can be a bit abstract for the dog, and confusing. But a food bowl is always a food bowl, rain or shine.

Food is a primary reinforcer. A primary reinforcer is something that the dog does not have to learn to value. Primary reinforcers have evolutionary value to dogs because they are necessary for their survival.

The length of time that a dog is reinforced is relevant. Think about how quickly a marker must be used to identify a behavior for a dog. Fast. Dogs learn that fast. Now, think about how long it takes for a dog to eat a bowl of food. A dog, eating food, is being reinforced time after time after time. One bowl of food could be 100 reinforcers.

Intermittent reinforcement:

This is when a dog is reinforced for a behavior sometimes, but not always. If a behavior has a strong reinforcement history, intermittent reinforcement can actually strengthen the behavior. Think about a gambler in front of a slot machine. Sometimes that machine pays! And sometimes, it doesn’t, but if the gambler keeps sitting in front of that machine, there is a chance that it will pay again.

Behavior happens in context. It is never random. The dog knows that food shows up when the human does, but he doesn’t know when the human will show up next. If he stays near that bowl, there is a chance the human will show up, and food will happen, and he is there and ready.

Dogs generalize behavior, meaning they connect the dots in ways that may surprise humans; a dog that gets shocked by an electric fence while standing near a sheep may decide the sheep did it. He then may decide all sheep are dangerous.

Secondary (learned) reinforcers

Because the food in the bowl is reinforcing to the dog, the bowl itself becomes a secondary reinforcer; the dog learns that the bowl has value. The bowl has now become a target, a target with a lot of reinforcement history. So, even if there is no food in the bowl, the bowl is still a secondary reinforcer.

The chain the dog is tied with may become a secondary reinforcer; it is certainly a target. Do you have a dog who gets excited when you pick up your car keys? The same concept applies.

The area where the dog eats, where the bowl sits, has a reinforcement history. Some dogs won't let livestock walk near where they eat, even if food isn't present. This is because of the learned reinforcement history the dog has with that area. For this reason, I seldom feed my dogs near gates, water troughs, or other places where the livestock they live with frequent.

The time of day that the dog is fed may become something of learned value to the dog. Because he is looking forward to reinforcement, he may have a higher level of anxiety during this time. He may be less tolerant of general frustrations during this time than he is at other times of the day.

It is a lot to think about. Many people think giving toys and bones to a dog increases his quality of life. Maybe. But it also adds to a dog's responsibilities because that toy or bone has value to the dog, and he wants to keep it. If he can eat what he is given in ten minutes, for instance, he may truly enjoy that experience and then go about his day. But if he can't, he now has something physical he has to manage, to keep an eye on. And then we get back to where the dog enjoyed the item and all that was discussed above.

There are twenty (or so) adult Maremmas working on this ranch, in pairs. I do not have even one pair of dogs that I would give anything of value to that they could not eat in ten minutes because of the stress that would cause them. That stress has the potential of damaging their relationships with each other as well as with the livestock they live with.

If I give a toy, or bone, to a dog, I do it in an area that they know livestock will never come into. Often, the pairs of dogs are fine with sharing that space and experience with each other, but I never test that with livestock.

Behavioral science is fascinating. Understanding why dogs do things can take the "shoulds" out of it. The dog should know better. The dog needs to learn to get over it. All of that kind of thinking sets owners and dogs up to fail.

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