Devan, the Food-Guarding Greater Swiss Mountain Dog
It never fails to astonish me when I am called into a lesson and the owners are considering getting rid of a dog because of a behavior that they (or someone they hired) inevitably caused. Today I did a lesson with a woman that I had seen several years ago with a previous dog. She now has a new 8-month-old Greater Swiss Mountain dog puppy (named Devan) that started showing food bowl guarding at about 12 weeks of age. She said when they first got the puppy he was doing great and that she was able to touch the food and put her hand in the bowl when he was eating. Then she went away for the weekend and her husband was left in charge of 12-week-old Devan. He had bought a book “The Art of Raising a Puppy” by the Monks of New Skeke. In my opinion, this book is one of the greatest injustices done to the modern dog.
This book tells the owners how to hit the dog, grab them by their necks, scruff them and “Alpha Roll” them into apparent submission. Techniques that inevitably will make your dog defensive and not trust you! When you grab a dog by his neck and shake it or scruff him, think of what this is instinctively conveying. To your dog you are trying to break his neck and kill him! As far as the “Alpha Roll” goes, just remember there is not a dog in the world that grabs another dog and forces him onto his back. The dog that rolls over does so voluntarily to show submission. Hitting the dog (don’t get me going…) always makes them defensive!
This book also talks about how dogs get nothing for free. So when the husband fed Devan over the weekend, he was making the dog “sit stay” until he released him to the food bowl —a training technique that inevitably backfires as you build tension on the food bowl. He then would take the food away from the dog in the middle of eating (showing that he controlled the resources). Poor Devan, getting frustrated, gave a little growl and that is when the husband screamed, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and then proceeded to forcefully roll him on his back into the Alpha Roll position. Then Devan proceeded to submissively pee all over himself and the husband became even angrier. The husband continued to follow the same techniques from the book. By the end of the weekend, every time the food bowl was placed down, Devan would begin to growl and was now starting to lunge.
When the wife came home from the weekend she could not believe Devan’s new behavior. She immediately tried to arrange a lesson with me but for one reason or another our schedules did not mesh. At her wits end and not knowing what to do, she got a referral from two of her friends of another trainer that was supposed to be “good”. The trainer arrived for the first lesson and took the puppy for a walk. When he came back into the house, he proceeded to place down the food bowl. Immediately Devan began to growl. The trainer then started to hit Devan on the rear. Hitting him over and over until finally Devan swung around and nipped at him, barely making contact (good For Devan!). He instructed the owners to continue hitting Devan every time he growled at them when the food was down. They then set up another lesson and the trainer would see them in 7 days. By the third day, the behavior started to really escalate and now Devan would not only growl when the food was placed down, but also he started to urinate as he ate. (A behavior I witnessed today!). When the trainer came back for his second lesson, the owners pleaded to try something else but the trainer continued to instruct the owners to hit the dog for growling. By the end of the second week, the behavior was getting out of control and the trainer’s techniques were making matters much much worse. What surprised me is that they actually did a second lesson!
After I explained to the owners today of the tragedy of errors that poor Devan had been put through because of a book and a poor trainer, I started to coach them on the first steps to fixing this.
We got a coffee can and filled it with a handful of tasty dog biscuits. I instructed the owner to shake the coffee can repeatedly as she approached the empty food bowl from 15 feet away. She then was instructed to open the top to the coffee can and drop a biscuit in the food bowl. They were to repeat this exercise at least 5 times a day for the next week.
The objective was that when Devan heard the shake of the coffee can, he would run to the food bowl in anticipation of getting a tasty treat. The shake of the can would mean that good things were coming to the bowl.
Now that Devan is excited by this new game, he should be reliably running to the food bowl at the sound of the shaking can. Now is the time to step it up a bit.
Place the food bowl down with his meal in it. Let him start working on his meal. Now prepare the coffee can with biscuits and also conceal a piece of tasty chicken or steak in your hand. When he is eating, continuously shake the can as you approach him. Initially you should see him look up at you in a bit of confusion but not show aggression. As you stand over him, quickly drop the steak into the bowl and walk away. Continue to repeat this exercise at every meal until he welcomes your approach.
Once he gets excited when you walk up to his food bowl (as you are shaking the coffee can), now it is time to reduce the number of can shakes as you approach. Gradually reduce the number of shakes until they are totally eliminated by week’s end. The other part of the exercise it that when you stand over him when he is eating, gradually increase the time you are next to him. Make sure the whole while you are dropping tasty treats into his bowl. By the end of the 3rd week Devan should be happy for you to approach him when he is eating and his defensiveness and growling should be a thing of the past.
The next step of picking up the food bowl and putting wonderful things inside it as you place it back down, needs to be done gradually and with caution. Although the time it takes may vary, I have used this technique for years and have rarely seen it fail.
Of course I always recommend that when working with any type of aggressive behavior, it is best to work with an experienced trainer or behaviorist. Make sure you review the trainer’s techniques before he uses them on your dog!
Please look at my Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/CanineMaster/ to follow Devan’s progress.