Your favorite soap is on TV. You settle on the sofa with that box of chocolates from Valentines, and invite Rover to snuggle beside you. Unfortunately, Rover snags a chocolate, and when you try to get it back, he growls. You heard chocolate is bad for dogs so you insist he drops his ill-gotten gains and grab at him – at which point he bites you.
Is this scenario familiar to you?
If it is, you are not alone. Food motivated aggression is a common problem with many dogs. And thinking about it, it’s no big surprise.
To a dog, food is a high value resource. A dog faced with the chance to steal a snack, asks himself the following two questions at an instinctive, subconscious level: First, he considers how much he wants the snack (it’s super yummy, so the answer is – LOTS); Secondly, he wonders how likely he is to suceed if he snatches it.
Now this second question is particularly noteworthy, because the chances are if he catches you by surprise and growls (he’s an angel the rest of the time) you’ll back down. And if you don’t, and try to prise the treat from his mouth, he may bite- and then you definitely give up. This means he’s learnt he has the power to win in this situation. And NO – the answer is not to challenge him further – you will get bitten and the dog won’t learn anything other than to bite quicker and harder.
So what should you do?
If he steals something you need back (for instance, your diamond engagement ring) then provide him with something more attractive – in other words scatter scrummy treats around him so he drops the stolen object to retrieve the treats.
In the short term (while you retrain Rover) don’t put temptation in his way. Stealing is its own reward, so whilst he has the opportunity the retraining isn’t going to get anywhere.
Either resist snacking on the sofa or put him in another room altogether. Resist the temptation to put him in his crate (UNLESS he’s trained to go in willing and happy to be there). If not, crating him to stop him getting the snack is a form of punishment which will make him view the crate as a prison.
Living in Harmony
In the long term you need to re-educate your dog’s ‘table manners’ and this means training. There are a number of things you can do.
Clicker training teaches a dog there’s a guaranteed treat in the offing when he performs a desired action. Use clicker training to teach your dog to lie on his cushion while you watch TV. This buys you some space of your own to relax. And if he stands with the intention of stealing your snack, repeat his click-and-command to go to his cushion (and then give him a reward by tossing him a treat). To learn more on Clicker Training please check our post here.
Teach him bad things happen when he approaches the snack. Start with him resting on his cushion a few feet from the sofa and place the snack on a table in front of the sofa. Position a motion-activated compressed air spray, so that if he moves towards the table he gets a squirt of compressed air. (This way he doesn’t associate the unpleasant experience with you but with the snack.) Immediately click-and-command him back to his cushion and reward with a treat. You get the idea…a sort of bad cop / good cop routine.
Offer an alternative
It helps to offer him an alternative to stealing the snack. If you’ve settled down to a good movie, why not settle him on his cushion with a Kong stuffed with tasty goodies – that will keep him busy for a while.
Remember, food is a high value resource – so use this to your advantage. Take control by training him to go to a cushion, or quiet place, and offer him alternative. And in the meantime avoid confrontation by not putting temptation in his path.
p.s. Check out also our post Dealing with Canine Aggression!