DEAR DIDI: We have a beautiful 8-month-old male bulldog. He is sweet and very sociable with our family and friends. However, he has one issue that is very disconcerting. We can give him treats by hand and he takes them gently, but if we go near his bowl he growls and lifts his lips. My husband attempted to take the bowl from him for being rude and he bit him. He will also act this way over meat bones but not toys. We feel like he is bipolar, or a Jekyll and Hyde. Is there any way to fix this and how concerned should we be? -Unsure in Acampo
DEAR UNSURE: You are describing a behavior known in the industry as RG (resource guarding) or CPA (canine possession aggression). This tends to be a symptom of other problems but frequently has a genetically inherited basis. Your Bulldog sees food as his number one most important resource. Your dog doesn’t quite trust you around his food. If you try to take it from him you will only be proving his fears. Humans can’t be trusted ... they try to steal my food! A solid training program that is based on mostly positive measures will help you and your dog bond so that there is a mutual trust developed. He needs to trust you and you need to, now, trust that he won’t bite you! Scolding, physical punishments, and/or removing the dog from its food to do a time out in a crate will only undermine the trust bond further and cause the aggression to escalate.
I would ask you to no longer offer raw meat bones until the aggression issue is fixed. Dogs, like children, should not be offered special gifts if they can’t show basic respect in the household. Working on resource guarding a food bowl encompasses four steps. Each step should last 10 to 14 days. The steps may put a bit of a crimp into your daily routine, but will almost always work if you stick with it.
The first step will be to no longer offer your dog’s kibble in a bowl. Measure out his normal ration and put it in a treat bag or sealed jar. His meal will be offered directly from your hands throughout the day. Typically, he should also be asked to work for each piece of kibble even if it is just a basic sit. Depending on your work schedule he may receive all of his food in a 30 minute period of time or spread out during the day. Either way, we want him to begin looking to you as the most important thing in his life because you control his most desirable resource ... food!
The second step marks the return of the food bowl. Place the bowl in unlikely areas that are NOT where he normally eats. Walk by and nonchalantly drop a few kernels of kibble in the bowl. Allow 3 to 5 minutes between passes so that he has time to eat the few pieces and then wait politely. Be sure that your tone of voice is supportive, fun, and happy sounding so that he associates you and his bowl together in a positive way. This phase will also now last 10 to 14 days. Moving to the next phase too early could undermine all of your efforts even if things seem to be going super well.
Phase three involves offering a bowl that is half full of your dog’s normal rations and back in the location where he normally eats his meals. As he eats, you will walk by and drop a yummier-than-dog-food treat into the bowl. This could be cheese, a piece of leftover steak or chicken, hamburger, ham, etc. On your next pass, put the remainder of his kibble rations into the bowl. The goal is to have him begin to look forward to you approaching him and the bowl because it means good things will come to him. If your dog tends to inhale his kibble, giving you no time to drop a yummy into the bowl, please purchase a slow-down designed bowl. The bowl will have permanent built-in hills and valleys which cause your dog to have to work around the obstacles to obtain food.
In the fourth step, offer the dog food bowl with all rations but expect your canine to sit politely while you set it on the ground. He should wait until you give the okay to go forth. In the beginning this may be a challenge but he will eventually get the idea that waiting politely will get him to the food faster than constantly trying to force the issue. He also learns that you are still in charge of his most desired resource. Every other feeding, call him away from the bowl and reward him with an ultimate yummy. This treat has to be a way higher value to him than his dog food and not something he gets very often.
Resource guarding is a serious issue and can be very dangerous if not addressed early enough. A qualified and experienced Animal Behaviorist can help you undergo or modify the above steps to meet the needs of your particular situation. The issue has nothing to do with your dog being dominant or a runt that had to fight siblings for food. It is, at its heart, a trust and respect issue that is often inadvertently taught or reinforced by the owners.
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Dear Didi. Email your questions or inquire about dog behavior presentations at firstname.lastname@example.org.