Feeding Time at the Zoo or Peace In the Valley?
It really is up to you!
When I get a new puppy, one of the first training moments that happen revolve around feeding time. I was taught the importance of feeding time etiquette for dogs by a German Shepherd's Dog female who was the runt of her litter. She'd had to scrap her way to the dinner bowl to the point that it was deeply ingrained in her to fight for her food, to guard it when she ate it. Many dogs who are like this become dangerous. This was a very good dog & part of my education started the day my ring came off as I sat her food bowl down & reached for it. The dog surged sideways using her neck to bump my hand away from her food. Many would say she just simply afraid I'd take her food. I don't doubt that was part of it but when these issues aren't addressed they can lead to stronger responses from the dog. As Dutch was the dog who taught me this lesson I can tell you that I did not let it slide. For three months I worked with her making certain I could call her off her food bowl, pick it up or move it around then release her to her food. Over the years I began to develop a way of handling meal time with any dog, including my own, that has made meal time at our place more 'peace in the valley' than 'feeding time at the zoo'.
At our training facility there have been a good number of conversations with clients. One of the biggest problems I find centers around the dog not really viewing his/her human as the leader. The other issue is the human not only missing the signs of problems yet to come but ignoring them in hopes they'll go away. To a dog, nothing means nothing & everything means something. Dogs learn all the time. That means the learn the things you intend to teach but it also means they learn the things you don't intend to teach. You open the door, the dog races out. Soon he learns you can't do much about his 'escape' or capture. Most humans are ill equipped to run a foot race with a dog and win. Aside from this we're supposed to be smarter than that. The same thing happens with meal time. We go to feed the dog. He bumps us. We don't think it means anything so we ignore it or worse, push him into defending his meal. It's like sewing a seed in the garden. Over time our ignorance or lack of attention to the details is like water & fertilizer for that seed. What grows is a bad or dangerous behavior. We don't realize the role we played in this but that doesn't make it go away either.
So how do we prevent meal time chaos? First we develop a plan, which hopefully you will do in reading this article. Meal time needs to be uneventful. You take your time preparing the food. My dogs eat a natural (or raw) diet. So for my dogs it's a matter of getting the stuff from the fridge to the bowl. From day one, meal one I do the same thing. I prepare the food. I take my time going to the crate. I tell the dog, "load up". They enter the crate. I respond for correct behavior, "good load up". I bend/squat down I pet the dog in a no nonsense manner that is just a stroke or two. So long as the dog is politely waiting I set the food bowl down. I give the dog another stroke or two. So long as there is no pushing, shoving or other telltale signs of guarding, then I close the crate & allow the dog to eat. This happens every single meal with no excuses for how busy I am. Meal times are uneventful & unhurried. The dog is left in peace to enjoy their meal at their leisure.
So how can we identify guarding or negative behavior? One of the safest ways is to silently watch dogs interact with one another. If you watch a large group of dogs long enough you'll begin to spot a pattern. A dog within the group will suddenly go very unnaturally still. This is a warning. If you're in a position to see that dog's eyes, you would notice a suddenly hardness to the eyes which often don't blink in these moments of grave seriousness. The eyes generally are the first warning, the unnatural stillness is another. If you were in a position to notice, you'd see or feel a change in the breathing. There would most likely be a low growl emitted which is usually followed by snapping. It's very easy to imagine when it's all outlined for you. During the phases of warning that I've described these are the things most people miss. Then it's said that the dog 'suddenly' snapped. Well he didn't 'suddenly' snap, the humans simply missed all those warning signs because we humans need it spelled out for us. Don't worry, we're all like that. If you were watching a boxing match between two humans you would notice, if you could slow the action down, that we humans telegraph a lot of what we're about to do also. Since we're human, we read human subtle signs more quickly. If you don't believe me, check out a book about human body language. You'll soon discover we read the subtle signs, such as the person coming toward us glancing to his right. This is a subtle signal that he's thinking about shifting right to avoid a head on collision with us on the sidewalk. But our actions & reading of those actions are often subconscious, meaning we don't have to think about them. So goes it for a dog. They are natural creatures who e