Updated: Jun 22
In the first resource blog (the one in the first part of the title of this one) I explain why animals guard resources. OK. Then I demonstrate how I teach my puppies that they can relax about eating because I will protect them while food is in front of them. Great. But what do you do if you are trying to feed a dog who has learned a lot about guarding resources?
Those behaviors are changed through the use of re-training. Through re-training, it is possible to create a different conditioned emotional response to the presence of resources. For my purpose in this blog I will talk about how to do this with food. Re-training takes a LOT more time than training does, so getting it right in the first place with puppies is always time well spent, but the good news is that re-training can be done with a dog of any age, and it does indeed work.
With my puppies, I am able to start with a blank canvas, so to speak. The pups are born with the instinctual motivation to eat, and as they do so they create learned behaviors about food and eating. They learn that: mom=food=wonderful! Then they learn I can provide food too, and that is pretty wonderful.
First, puppies suckle food, then they learn to lap up food, and finally, to chew food. They learn to look for food when they hear, or smell, me. They learn to look for food in a bowl near their safe and familiar mom, then in multiple bowls, then in bowls away from mom, then in bowls outside their familiar whelping box area. Bit by careful bit, colors (learned experiences) are added to the canvas.
Dogs, and even puppies, who demonstrate stress in the presence of food, are working from a different canvas.
Dogs that become aggressive in the presence of food are often misunderstood, and therefore the behavior they exhibit is often mismanaged. I still have a lot to learn as a trainer, and my "specialty" is training, not re-training, but in my experience an aggressive dog is a scared or insecure dog.
Dogs that exhibit aggression are often shut down - told their emotions are wrong or inappropriate - rather than offered support. One of the exciting advances of behavior science is the increasing understanding of what aggression means.
I have shared videos about "Yeti the Bad Dog", and talk about him in the resource blog listed above, as well as in others. The first video of him that I recorded was back in 2017. I find it painful to listen to my own voice on that video, because my understanding of aggression has changed so much.
I used to believe that the presence of aggression in a dog was an indication of an instability in temperament, or that the dog might be attempting to be "dominant". Well, it is true that genetics can play a part in temperament, but the aggression I have encountered in dogs is based in fear.
If you punish a dog, in any circumstance I can think of, you add to his state of insecurity. And, “Dominance Theory” is a myth. Dogs have a social hierarchy with each other that is very different than what they have with humans – dogs do not seek to dominate people, that just isn’t real.
So, a dog who is aggressive around food has a couple of choices, if he is punished:
He can stop showing his aggression, until he snaps and bites someone.
He can continue to show escalating aggression, until he snaps and bites someone.
There is a different, more humane, and more productive way, to support an aggressive dog: change his environment. Keep changing it until the dog shows you he feels safe and calm. With food, that point is your starting point the next time food is presented, and you go forth with a training plan.
Let's go back to my lovely Yeti for a minute. I had been living with Yeti, and trying to understand him, for more than a year, before a light bulb moment happened that I will never forget; I learned the behavioral significance of being a singleton pup. I had known Yeti was a singleton pup for many months, but I didn't understand what that meant to either of us in the present tense. Singleton pups don't learn bite inhibition. Puppies learn this from each other: If you bite me too hard, I will stop playing with you.
Additionally, in Yeti's case, he was raised having to compete for food from both his parents. Wow. Tiny pup, two great big, influential dogs. Of course the presence of food is a trigger to Yeti!!! What a canvas he came to me with, at twelve-weeks of age.
As a beginning LGD owner/trainer I made many mistakes with Yeti. Kindness and patience, on both our parts, got us through, but I now know how to create a completely different canvas for pups I raise, in part because of what I learned from Yeti.
And now, lets go back to the photo at the top of this blog and talk about the cute little pup sitting next to the barn. Because of what I learned from Yeti, I began my training of Rosie with a solid training plan in place.
I struggled with resource issues with Yeti for the better part of two years; with Rosie it took me two weeks. She was a little younger, so she had less of an established canvas, but more than that I made less mistakes with her. She learned quickly because I didn’t confuse her, as I had done with Yeti.
Here is the story of Rosie:
Rosie was eight weeks old when she came to me for training. I should mention that there are two “Rosie” pups I have written about. This Rosie came to me in 2018; the second Rosie came to me in 2019. There are a lot of videos of training of the second Rosie. OK, back to this first Rosie.
This Rosie was purchased, at eight-weeks of age, to be partnered with a nine-month-old male pup I had, named Armani. If you take a really close look at the body language of both dogs in the photo above, you’ll have a clue as to where this story is going. Cute little Rosie was a terror!
Armani had never encountered a canine terror, and was completely confused by her. In Rosie’s early transition to the ranch, her default response to new situations was to go on the offense – in very obvious ways! Armani’s response to this energetic, opinionated little dog was to give her space when she asked for it, which was generous of him, but when she claimed both her dinner, as well as his own, he had to make some choices.
There is a trainer’s maxim that is helpful to me. It says: “train the dog in front of you”. What this means is that a trainer can never really know the history of a dog. I always try to figure out why a dog is making the choice he is, but even before that I make a management decision about what is happening right then, right in front of me.
I can’t truly know why Rosie was so amped about resources, but she was. It upset Armani, and wasn’t comfortable for her, so we changed things. The first change I made was about how Rosie was fed. Food is a primary resource. Because a primary resource is necessary for survival, if I can convince this little dog that I will make sure she survives, this learned confidence about food will spread (generalize) to other aspects of her life. With Rosie, probably in part due to her young age (minimal canvas) this happened very quickly.
This is how it went:
The first time I fed these two dogs I placed two bowls of food on the ground, about 20 feet apart. Rosie ran back and forth, from one bowl to the other and back again, snarling. Armani ran to the back fence and stayed there. I was not successful at getting him to eat at all the rest of that day, even when I removed Rosie. He was shocked, and somewhat traumatized, by her behavior. Remember, this is my carefully cultivated, calm around food, nine-month-old dog. So, the next time I fed these two I went forth armed with a training plan.
***Note: This was my training plan for Rosie in 2018, prior to my introduction to clicker training and my completion of the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Foundations course, and is what happened with her specifically. I want to point out that Rosie was not frightened; she was frustrated. The training plan I employed here was humane, and effective, but it would not be my training plan at my current level of education as a trainer because I have more skills in my toolbox now. To understand how I would train past this behavior today please see the blog below:
Training Rosie – Then & Now – Shaping:
I took a chair out to the pen where I would be feeding Rosie and Armani. I then put Rosie on a short leash. I carried both bowls of food out to the pen. With Rosie on leash, with me, we set Armani’s food down. I told him he was a good boy (yes, this is your dinner and I will protect you) and quickly removed the now noisy Rosie from the proximity of Armani’s bowl. I took (somewhat dragged, in truth) Rosie to my chair and set her bowl at my feet. Then I sat down in the chair and waited.
She barked, she growled, she jumped in the air, she did crocodile rolls. She did everything but eat. In her moments of calm, such as between snarls when she had to take a breath, I told her she was good. When she did behaviors I didn’t want to see more of, I said nothing to her.
When my still somewhat worried Armani finished eating and walked away from his bowl, Rosie and I, with her still on leash, went and picked up Armani’s bowl. Then, still together, we picked up Rosie’s bowl of kibble. We put both bowls away. I took the leash and collar off of Rosie, told her she was wonderful, and left.
Both dogs were a little confused by this new feeding situation, and no, Rosie did not choose to eat that first feeding. She won’t starve. Training is important. The next time I fed, both dogs were ready.
We followed the same plan at the next feeding opportunity; I was feeding the dogs twice a day. Rosie, now more motivated because she was hungry, and more savvy because of the experience of the previous feeding, ate a few bites of food, in-between bouts of snarls, growls, and crocodile rolls. She gave me more opportunities to reinforce her good behaviors because there were more of them.
Over the course of a few days the growling and crocodile rolls diminished and then stopped altogether, but Rosie would still have been willing to steal Armani’s dinner, so the leash stayed on and I sat in my chair. I began to attach a cue to Rosie eating kibble: chewing, “go eat”, “good girl”. After about a week I could unsnap the leash from her collar mid-way through her meal, then at the beginning, then just feeding her while holding the leash in my hand, then no leash, then no chair.
And, finally, I had a changed canvas; I had created safety for Rosie, and for Armani.
So, what do you do with a “really awful dog”? You change the environment. You control the dog, meaning that you make sure his body cannot behave in a way that allows him to make mistakes. Piece by tiny piece, it is possible to teach a very worried dog that he can trust. With Rosie, I never told her she was wrong. I just made it impossible for her to steal from Armani while she figured out the rules of dinner at Benson Ranch.
If a dog can learn to trust you around issues with food, he is likely to trust you in other situations much more easily. This peripheral benefit is why it is so advantageous to participate in feeding dogs, rather than only changing the environment.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog, and that it was helpful. It was a fun one for me to write, as this trip down Memory Lane took me back to the beginning of my career as an LGD trainer. As blessed as I feel to have learned what I have thus far, I am so excited to consider what I might know a year from now, or two, or three. I figure I can continue training dogs even from my wheelchair as an old woman!
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