Playing with your dog’s food… good idea or not?

Imagine, if you would, that I handed you a great big slice of cake. Let’s pretend that it’s your favorite kind of cake, and it’s homemade with a big scoop of ice cream on the side. You smell the sweet scent of the gooey dessert, and eagerly pick up your fork to take a great big bite. Just as you’re lifting your fork to your mouth, taste buds tingling in anticipation, I grab your fork from you and take that bite myself.

Now, I’m going to assume that you’re a kinder, more patient person than I am. Assuming that, I’m going to guess that while you’re annoyed with me for grabbing your fork, you’re not going to knock me out over a single bite of cake (even though it is your favorite kind). I’ll hand your fork back, and you’ll go to take another bite. As you do so, I’m going to stick my hand onto your plate and start smearing your cake around. How would you react? Are you getting more annoyed? How much would you put up with before you physically removed me from your plate before you tried to eat?

Photo by Esteban

Photo by Esteban

It’s understandable that you would be annoyed with me if I kept messing with your food. Putting my hand in your dish and taking your food away from you as you tried to eat would be an indescribably rude behavior on my part. In fact, it’s so rude as to be nearly unimaginable in our society. So why do we do this to our dogs?

There’s a myth out there that we should play with our dogs’ food to teach them tolerance while they’re eating. Like most myths, it’s got a kernel of truth at its center. Guarding is a normal, natural behavior in most dogs, and if they’re not taught to share while they’re young they may become aggressive over resources like food, toys, or bones when they hit adulthood.

It’s easier to prevent guarding than to treat it. But messing about in your dog’s dish while he’s eating is not the way to go about it. In fact, it could make things worse. After all, it’s generally a bad idea to expect your dog to be more tolerant and peaceable about intrusions into his personal space than you would be. Dogs are pretty cool, but they’re still animals, and we don’t live in a Disney movie.

So, how can you prevent guarding in your dog if messing with his food bowl is off-limits? Simple. Just convince him that it’s worth his while for you to muck about with his stuff.

Doing so is so simple that it takes mere seconds at every meal. Just feed your dog as usual. Wait for him to begin eating. Then approach his bowl and toss something better than his dog food in. I use small cubes of cheese or chicken, but you could use anything your dog especially likes. It just has to be something that your dog prefers to his regular food.

That’s it. Lather, rinse, and repeat on a regular basis, and your dog will be absolutely thrilled to have you approach his food bowl. Instead of worrying about what you’re going to do, your dog will begin anticipating your arrival, since it always predicts something good. You’ll see this shift in his attitude reflected in his body language. Instead of eyeing you out of the corner of his eye, stiffening up, or gulping his food down more quickly, your dog will start to wiggle as soon as he sees you approach. He’ll back away from his dish eagerly, excited to see what wonderful gift you’ve brought this time. He’ll be so busy feeling happy that you’re approaching his food that guarding will never even cross his mind.

Of course, if your dog already guards his food, use your own judgment about the safety of this exercise. Generally it’s best to work with a skilled professional if your dog has ever stiffened up, growled, snapped, or bit when he was guarding something.

However, if your dog has not yet started guarding, now is the time to begin┬áthese exercises. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and a few moments a week of food-bowl exercises such as this can prevent a great deal of problems later on. Do this exercise with new puppies as soon as they can eat solid food. Do it with your adult dog. Do it with foster dogs and shelter dogs. Do it with any dog who doesn’t yet guard, and you can prevent a lot of dogs from ever guarding at all.

Once your dog’s a rock star at this exercise with his food bowl, consider other situations in which you could do the same thing. Practice approaching your dog while he’s playing with his toys, chewing on his Nylabone, or eating a rawhide or bully stick. Each time, make sure that your approach heralds the arrival of a treat that’s much more delicious than what he had to start with. Soon your dog will be happy about you approaching him no matter what’s in his mouth.

Messing about with your dog’s food bowl is every bit as rude as sticking your hand in your spouse’s plate while you’re both eating supper. Let’s get rid of this harmful myth once and for all, and focus instead on teaching our dogs that we are trustworthy, kind, and respectful housemates. Next time your dog is eating, leave him to it in privacy unless you have positive intentions. Next time you’re eating cake, I promise I’ll do the same. It’s only polite.

16 responses to “Playing with your dog’s food… good idea or not?

  1. Sara I made a video on this exact thing with our new puppy! I’m going to share this and post it with my video too. Thanks for this excellent read! Here is my video: http://youtu.be/yVYRzCzT1uI

  2. It so works. We rescued a pup from a back yard breeder 7 boy puppies. We learned to put our baby’s food down then wait a few seconds and toss a piece of cookie into the bowl. Worked perfect never once gave us trouble with his food when he got older.

  3. I like the comparison at the beginning of this. Both of my rescued boys resource guard food, bad. From each other, my girl, and me. I cannot fix it, because I have tried, but I am able to manage it. They eat in crates. No one comes out of their crates until everyone is done eating.

  4. I completely agree that it is rude to just mess with a dog’s food dish in order to teach them not to guard; however, there are times when it is important that we are able to interfere with a dog eating for their health and safety, so I’m not convinced that training a dog to be alright with a human handling its food while it is eating is a bad thing. If your dog guards any resource, it should be treated (and treated respectfully), but it’s sometimes necessary for us to remove a resource in the event that a dog picks up something dangerous.

  5. I see your point… but I’m not sure that dogs see the scenario the same as we humans do.

    IMHO, I don’t think the comparison of messing with my food is equivalent to messing with my dogs food… there are so many societal rules of what’s “polite” that dogs just don’t have.

    But, I will have to say that offering a better treat is absolutely a nice way to interrupt their meal!

  6. Rose Marie Joskow

    I was once bitten by my brothers dog cause i accidentally bumped into him while he was eating at our grandmothers house. The location of his food bowl was right in the doorway from the living room to the kitchen. Not the best location if you ask me. My dog has her bowls located in an area of the kitchen close to the backdoor where she can eat and drink without interruption, but needless to say if I wanted to take her bowl from her it would not be a problem, but why would I want to take her food I know I would not like anyone taking my plate away without an explanation or something given in trade.

  7. Part of my new puppy program is having clients gently (no fanfare) take their pup’s food, toys, treats, chews away starting about the time they bring them home…and then give the item right back. This teaches the puppy that just because something goes away doesn’t mean it’s gone for good, so no reason to guard. I’ve never heard that any of my former puppy clients developed resource guarding. I do like the idea of tossing food into a bowl to address a mild case of existing guarding.

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  9. This makes sense when you are dealing with resource guarding and humans, but how can you manage resource guarding if the dog is guarding when other dogs come up to it and it has a toy etc? (other than the obvious keep them apart at all times)…in other words, if you have a dog that snarls if another dog comes up when they have food toys etc? The 2nd dog can’t toss a treat….and I am not being a smart butt here, just curious!! :)

  10. I got my rescue bull terriers as puppies, they were not resource guarders at the time, I have always made them wait to eat and I regularly put my hand in the bowl while they are eating, occasionally I take the food away until they sit and wait patiently for it. They both know the food will come back and the sooner they are sitting they sooner the food will return.

    These are the dogs bring me so much love and joy but I don’t think of then in human terms especially with regards to their ability to reason and understand why the food is being taken away. I know that if a young child was around while they were eating I don’t have to worry about my dogs nipping at her. I did this without reward or punishment, The look at me as the bringer of food and they know the rules relating to that food. I promise there is nothing wrong with “messing” with your dogs food so long as you do it responsibly and with a little understanding of your dogs state of mind.

  11. while I agree its a nicer way of making the dog realize you pose no threat to his or her dish, I don’t believe dogs reason the same as humans. the problem is we as humans add our take on everything. dogs understand hierarchy, they understand positions in the household. the human is the head or alpha. they are the bringer and taker of food. if you have a dog who is guarding their food then you need to address it, that would mean to desensitize them. that’s where the treat may come in but more likely it will be to move them back from their dish remove the dish wait and replace the dish. this isn’t instant but over time they will accept that you will not take their food. have then eat out of your hand – put your scent on the food- have all things relate to you. dealt with many a stray who is a guarder of food and it has worked every time. understand where your dog is coming from and you will have no problems. walk in and think you can do what you want with no training and its a recipe for disaster.

  12. Jeanne Johnson, you answered your own question. “how can you manage resource guarding if the dog is guarding when other dogs come up to it and it has a toy etc?” YOU manage it. The other dog can’t toss a treat, but you can. You can train the snarly dog that the presence of another dog = wonderful stuff from you. See the other dog, get something good, see the other dog near a toy, get something good, see the other dog with another toy, get something AWESOME. It takes time, but it’s possible.

    • Jeanne Johnson

      Thank you Susan, and you’re right, the answer was right there. I have never experienced resource guarding in my personal dogs, but some of my students have and I like to have several ideas to help them if needed.

  13. We play go fish outside. It’s called go fish because I get the big boxes of goldfish crackers. It’s high enough on the treat list to create interest, and if you fling them all over the yard the game of find the fish in the yard is more fun than who got that other fish. Peanut butter cheerios works too. Not regular cheerios, you’ll get the stink eye ;)

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