This is the story of Shady, who came to me as a foster dog after his owner's death. He had a behavioral issue, food-guarding, that would have condemned him as "unadoptable" (and slated for death) at most shelters and many rescues, but that with intelligence was very manageable. He lived out the second half of his life, over 7 years with me as a valued member of my family. He was a very good dog in spite of his one problem. He wasn't perfect but he was very good. (I'm not perfect either, but I hope my dogs would say I am very good. )
This article also discusses food-guarding, why dogs may do it, how wise owners can prevent it, and how it can usually be cured and how it can be safely managed when it can't be cured. Although a great many dogs can be cured of food guarding, some cannot. For many homes, management (prevention of oppertunity for undesirable behavior) is an easier or more desirable answer to this issue.
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The first part of his story is as I wrote it while he was my foster dog, up for adoption. It's also a good discussion of food guarding as a behavior issue. I will be shifting back and forth between Shady's biography and the more general discussion of food guarding.
Information about Shady, and adult male Bouvier cross, rescued and available for adoption from me. He was adopted but later returned . He is a wonderful dog but needs an especially knowledgable home, able to safely manage his one behavior issue which is food guarding.
PLEASE READ THIS PAGE ALL THE WAY THROUGH. Shady went through some tough times but is a genuinely adoptable dog.
Shady's good qualities are as follows :
- He is a very stable, self-confident dog.
- He is generally calm and laid-back in the house.
- He is affectionate, welcoming petting, but does not demand attention.
- He is well behaved in the car, on walks, and in public.
- He gets along well with other dogs.
- He behaves well for grooming.
- He obeys some basic commands, including off-leash recall.
Shady's only fault is his food-guarding, described in detail below.
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(to the tune of "A Wand'ring Minstrel, I"
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PLEASE READ THIS PAGE ALL THE WAY THROUGH. Shady went through some tough times but is a genuinely adoptable dog.
Information as of intake 10/09/03.
Shady lost his home due to death of his primary owner, nescesitating sale of house by surviving spouse. This is a loved and cared for dog and his former family hopes his adopters will be willing to maintain some communication . He is a Bouvier X Golden Retriever cross. Looks very much like a moderate sized Bouv but shorter easier to care for coat with antique gold undercoat; natural ears and natural tail. He is a sweet affectionate dog who is used to children. Knows basic commands in English and in Spanish. He is 7 years old, current on shots. Not yet neutered, but that is sheduled for next week. This info is as of day of intake. I will update it after I get to know him a bit better. He responded very well on his first walk with the Halti, becomming much better mannered within a 15 minute lesson.
I should add that his natural tail is extremely expressive. When he is alert or a "up" in energy, the tail curls over his back. When he is relaxed and mellow, the tail drops and hangs like a tired golden retriever's tail.
Update: Mon, 20 Oct 2003
Well Shady has been with me since Oct 9 and got neutered Oct 16. Also he was tested for heartworm, showed negative, and began the monthly prevention regime with Interceptor. He was already current on shots at the time of his surrender, so I have not had to give shots.
Every day he is becoming a more pleasant dog to take for walks. He's a bit exuberant the first few minutes, but that is pretty normal for a dog who is confined to a kennel run. Today I took him for his first really long walk and after the first couple minutes, he was very sedate and plodded along on a loose leash. He is getting into the habit of doing a good empty-the-tank type of urination right at the start, as he has found that I won't allow a multitude of marking stops along the walk.
When we got home today, I brought him through the house and out to my porch and yard, where we spent the next hour or more. I read and re-hydrated and ate a snack (and let him know that reaching his nose into my plate brought down disaster upon his snout; one reprimand was enough to make a good impression about "thou shalt not covet thy human's food !"). He was encouraged to plop himself down and chill out, which he did readily. I also let him cruise around the yard a bit, and of course pee in the yard. Each time we passed through the house, eg as I went back in to get water or a snack, I kept an eagle eye on him so that I could react if he even thought about lifting a leg on anything, but to my surprise and pleasure he did not try to do so.
Tuesday, Oct 21 :
Today he got to lie in the hallway outside my computer room for about two hours while I did e-mail. I put a double length leash on him so he had only a limited amount of freedom.
Because he has always been an outdoor dog and started out with an obsession on peeing on everything outdoors, I do not want to give him any oppertunities to start peeing indoors. I want to give him plenty of experience of being in the house in a very laid back sedentary way, so he becomes imprinted on the idea that indoors is a place to relax and chill out , thus imprinting him that it is a den and therefore invoking canine / lupine instinct to keep the den a pee free zone. So far , so good. this was his second visit to the house.
Wednesday, Oct 22 :
Today he has taken a 3 mile walk and then come into the house to lie in the hallway while I work on the computer again. He has been absolutely sedentary for the past 2 hours.
For walks I switched him from the halter to the pinch collar and found that a few light corrections made a very good impression. He is now plodding along on a loose leash virtually all the time.
Tonight I will take him to our Wednesday evening Farmers' Market Night, which has live music, chaotic crowds of people of all kinds and ages, and usually a number of dogs. While dogs are not allowed in the food selling area, they are allowed everywhere else. Farmers' Market makes a wonderful test of a dog's stability and his social behavior.
I am hoping he will be ready for a bit more freedom in the house after a few more on leash house sessions. In perhaps another week, he will be living in the house like a normal civilized dog.
I am expecting him to be ready for adoption by early Nov. I would advise the adopter to invest the effort of using the on leash (also called "umbilical cord") method for his first week or so in the house. On leash when someone is home; outdoors or confined to a smaller room when no one is home. After that first week or so , the transition to the more normal lifestyle of being a full time housedog can be made.
update : Oct 28 :
Shady has made the transition to being a real full time house dog, living the good life he deserves. Using the "umbilical cord" method of introduction has paid off very well.
Since my last post, he had a few more "umbilical cord" half days indoors, then Sunday was his first full day without the umbilical. He just kicked back like he'd been a house dog forever. So Monday, even though I was going to be out of the house most of the day, I left him in. Since he is not totally comfortable lifting the dog door flap, I did leave the door from house to yard open to make sure he could take himself out for potty breaks. Absolutely no problems. And he is getting along well with my own dogs. A few "loud words" between him and Pixel and between him and Duke, but just normal rank order establishing transactions.
He is getting more liberty on our walks too. I am using a long line instead of a leash and letting him have opportunity to sniff around. Have started teaching him the recall. He is basically very willing to come when called. Little bit of work on sit and down; at this point he is perfectly willing to be guided into either position, but I haven't worked him enough to get to the point where he does it on voice command alone. His former obsession with marking constantly outdoors has departed, leaving only the normal dog inclination to leave an occasional mark : humans have their e-mail and canines have their pee-mail.
He has discovered the joys of stuffed toys to chew on or toss around or offer to me to be thrown. No friction with the other dog over toys and no reluctance to let me pick one up from right in front of him or to take hold of a toy that is in his mouth.
This is a very nice dog who is affectionate without being overly demanding, who is mellow indoors but perks up for walks, gets along OK with other dogs and is OK with people in public, OK in car, well behaved in house. He was very well behaved at the Farmers' Market, including interactions with children and with other dogs of various sizes. And his transition into the house has been made without even one single attempt to lift a leg indoors. He is simply a nice normal housedog.
I will start entertaining applicants for his paw in wedlock right after Halloween is over. Already several people have expressed a desire to meet him.
update Oct 31 : Shady "the dark side"
Well , I have found the one glitch in Shady's otherwise excellent behavior. (How appropriate that I dicovered this on Halloween.). He is a bit into food bowl guarding, ie tenses his body and growls if a person approaches while he is eating his dinner.
Fortunately this is usually a very easy problem to treat and alternatively is easy to manage ("manage" means prevent oppertunities for it to occur). And it does not imply any other aggression problems. Remember that guarding food that is right under one's mouth is a normal dog behavior, though one which most housedogs learn is not needed towards humans. Some rescued dogs have a good reason to guard their food in that they may have undergone a period of starvation or a history of having to compete with other dogs for an inadequate food supply.
Note. Later I was able to question the daughter of Shady's dead owner. Her father was in the hospital a long time with his final illness and the family was there late into the night. So Shady got fed late, and maybe there were times when the exhausted family forgot to feed him. So that could be where his insecurity about food began. He'd never shown any kind of food guarding in that home according to the daughter, and I think she was being candid and helpful to me in our discussions.
For treatment the protocol (which I call "the Good Waiter" protocol) is simply to put only a portion of the meal into the bowl and to walk up a couple times while the dog is eating and toss or pour more food into the bowl. Later on, actually pick up the bowl (the first few times I do this using BBQ tongs to keep my hands out of the way) to add good stuff into it. Soon the dog welcomes your approach because he expects you to give, not take away. Soon growls cease, to be replaced by a happy wagging tail.
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The "Good Waiter" protocol
The overall protocol of changing the attitude of a food guarding dog is what I call the "Good Waiter" paradigm. Imagine that you are eating a meal in a restaurant and a waiter approaches. Now if you have not yet finished your main course and the waiter approaches to pick up everyone's plates (everyone else at the table has finished their plate but you have eaten more slowly or maybe been talking instead of eating) , you would undoubtedly feel the "threat" that the waiter intends to take your food away before you have finished. So you would "protect" your unfinished food, using the human language of speech, eg "I'm not done", or gesture , eg putting your hand over your plate. You wouldn't need to bite the waiter or stab him with your fork, but you would act on your fear of losing your food by a defensive word or gesture. Now imagine instead that you have not yet finished your main course and you see that very same waiter bringing plates of delicious dessert (eg Triple Chocolate Decadence) and setting them down beside your fellow diners. You would feel happy to see the waiter bringing dessert and would give an encouraging and welcoming message, such as a verbal " please set it next to my dinner plate. thank you !" or a smile and equivalent gesture. So the paradigm of treatment for the food guarding dog is to get the dog to realize that you are a waiter bringing desert (the Good Waiter) , not a waiter coming to snatch away an unfinished meal (the Bad Waiter). You are only picking up his bowl or other guarded food in order to add something nice to it.
One could if one were inclined towards puns, say that "Good Waiters make good waiters." Ý Ie, that your acting the part of the Good Waiter results in the dog being good, ie patient and cheerful, about waiting while you pick up his bowl and add something to it and set it down again.
(NOTE : in the dog behavior literature there are a number of variations on this theme that I call the "Good Waiter". Eg, Jean Donaldson has an elaborate one in her book "Dogs Are From Neptune". Dr Karen Overall in her veterinary text "Clinical Behavioral medicine for Small Animals" gives a set of protocols, but adds that risk-preventing management (see below) makes more sense for many owners. What all these variations have in common is that you are teaching the dog that you are approaching and picking up his food item only in order to add something extra, something yummy, something he wants ; therefore he is happy to have you do this.
The better puppy rearing books advise some degree of Good Waiter training for puppies as a PREVENTION against the pup becoming a food guarder. I heartily agree. A lot of people unwittingly do some Good Waiter training whenever they walk up to the dog while he is eating and toss in table scraps (leftovers) from the family dinner. They don't think of this as training but just as giving the dog a treat or as getting rid of leftovers, but whether or not you think you are training the dog, the dog is still learning from whatever he experiences.
For MANAGEMENT ie risk-preventing management, the simple solution is to feed the dog in some private place, ie separate him from other dogs and from any people who might approach. Eg feed the dog in a crate or X-pen or in any room with a closed door. Most dogs will gobble it down in 5 to 10 minutes and will not feel any need to guard the now empty bowl. If there is concern that the dog might over-react to food dropped to the floor from the human dining table, then it is easy enough to crate or pen or otherwise put the dog out of the situation during the human dinner time. It's probably wisdom to separate the dog from child guests when they are eating or preparing food. Management of any problem means basically thinking ahead and preventing oppertunities for anything undesirable to happen.
(Note : I would much much rather have to deal with a dog who is a food bowl guarder than with one who guards toys. Why ? Because food is a once or twice a day 5 to 10 minute affair, but toys are everywhere all the time. Even if you think you have removed every guardable toy from the home, the dog can find his own toys , eg a stick found in the yard or plucked off a tree or shrub in the yard. So I am delighted that Shady has no problems over toys at all. Any dog-savvy adopter will find the food situation easy to treat or to manage.)
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I should add that Shady is very gentle about taking an offered treat from one's hand. He also has no inclination to guard any toys from humans or other dogs. He is happy to have me touch a toy, probably in hopes that I will throw it for him. He is a sweet happy dog who generally trusts people but for some unknown reason feels he needs to guard his food against them.
UPDATE : Dec 4, 2003
Shady has mellowed out and become a really nice, companionable dog. He is completely adjusted to being a civilized housedog. His social skills with other dogs have improved greatly, so he now gets along with other dogs even better than before. His obediance has also improved, especially his off lead recall. He is hoping to get a new home for Christmas.
to inquire about adopting Shady :
Anyone seriously interested in adopting Shady, please phone me at (530) 756-2997 between 10 am and 6 pm California time. I would prefer placement to a home located within a day's drive of Davis (think Sacramento), and I would want him to go to an adopter who has some training experience.
UPDATE : Shady has been ADOPTED (at the end of March). His family consists of a loving couple of humans and a delightful Border Collie X Corgi bitch who finds him to be an ideal playmate and patsy. I drove Shady to his new home and supervised his introductions and repeated careful instructions for the adjustment period and for dealing with his food bowl issues. He is being fed inside a wire crate with people walking up to drop goodies through the wire to his bowl. This allows a safe approach to getting him to accept people walking up. At the very first meal, he made a believer out of them when one approached too closely and reached towards the bowl and saw a faceful of fangs; no harm done but it sure was a convincer.
UPDATE a few weeks later : Shady is adjusting well to his new home, and his people and the bossy little bitch are delighted with him.
It took a bit longer to find Shady a home, not so much because he is a Bouv cross, but mostly because he needed adopters willing and able to cope with the food bowl issues. He is a wonderful dog, and I did not want this one quirk to cause problems or get anyone hurt.
UPDATE : 6/10/04 : Shady is back in foster care.
His adoption, which had seemed to be going so very well , his adopters really loving and enjoying him, has come unglued due to adopters getting careless about respecting and managing his "dark side" of food guarding.
After doing a bit of the recommended work of feeding him inside a wire crate and walking up to drop additional food into the bowl, ie to get him to think of their approach as harmless and welcome, they later switched to feeding him outside on the porch. That was a perfectly acceptable solution, but I think it may have contributed to letting them become less mindful that he remained likely to guard food. They had heard and (I thought) understood my emphatic warnings that he could on occasion take a food guarding attitude towards any discarded food container with food remnants or scent inside that he might happen to get into his posession, unfortunately they did not always recognize when a situation fell into this paradigm. So one night one of them reached for what he thought of as just a bit of trash, namely an empty popcorn bag, that was under Shady's snout. It never occurred to him that to Shady this bag might be food worth guarding (people, think how movie theater popcorn always smells "good enough to kill for"). so he reached for it without thinking or observing, and Shady bit his hand. Well any hand bite tends to be a bad one, because human hands are so complex and delicate. and this was more than a mild bite. So after two weeks of soul searching , both adopters concluded that they really did not feel competent to manage Shady properly and safely, though they genuinely liked him and enjoyed his company. So they asked to bring him back to me and were considerate enough to do the driving to bring him to me.
So he has now been back for nearly a week. He is still a wonderful dog in every other way.
I am working seriously on his food bowl guarding, doing a lesson about 3 to 4 nights a week. Right now the lesson is that I keep hold of the bowl (holding it with 16" BBQ tongs, so my hand , arm, and face are further from his head) while he eats. I put only a handful of kibble in the bowl at once and then as he finishes it or while he is still eating, I raise the bowl up with the BBQ tongs and add another handful of kibble. He is on the inside of an X-pen 36 " high as he eats and I am on the outside. So even if he were to try to defend his food aggressively, I would be relatively safe. (A stretch gate between us would serve as well.) And I don't need to tell you that I keep my attention on him while doing this. So far after 3 or 4 lessons, he is pretty well comfortable with my taking his bowl and returning it with more food in it. He has shown not aggression to me whatsoever while I do this. Now I will be doing a lot more before I reach for a filled bowl that is on the floor with my bare hand while he is eating from it. But I think I can get him to that point.
I also want to work with him on allowing me to take empty food containers (with remnants inside) from him. I would like to give him a container and then take it back and give it back with a treat inside, doing that several times in a row. Again, I will initially use the BBQ tongs to take and give the container, and I will probably also have him wearing a halter and with the leash tied to some immovable anchor, so that he has only a limited reach. Or maybe I will start with him inside the x-pen, then give him a food remnant container for me to take and give back with a goodie added.
Whatever progress Shady may or may not make in being more relaxed about people approaching his food while he eats, I will offer him for adoption ONLY to an adopter who is committed to manageing him safely and capable of doing so. He will only be available to a home that does not have any resident children (because children are more likely to get careless and forget a precaution they have been taught) and only to one that will unfailingly put a barrier between him and any visitors who are less than 110% dog expert, thus eliminating potential mistakes by visitors. His adopters must be very very dog expereinced and very behavior savvy. They must be willing to either repeat all of the "Good Waiter" protocols or they must be willing to feed him only inside a safe confinement and absolutely committed to never attempting to take anything he might think of as "food" away from his posession.
Why not simply put him down ? Because he is a wonderful dog in every other way. His food guarding is NOT a part of some larger problem. (Note : food guarding CAN be a part of a larger problem in SOME dogs but NOT in others.) I don't know why he has this problem, but to some degree food guarding is a "default setting" for dogs.
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|"The kill of a wolf is the meat of that wolf |
He may do with it what he will,
But until he has given permission,
The pack may not eat of that kill"
from "the Law of the Jungle" by Rudyard Kipling
The wolf rules about food are
In the wild these food rules assure survival of the high ranked wolves (the most valued members of the pack) and also assure reasonable chance of survival of all the pack members.
- (1) that when the pack makes a kill, the highest ranked wolves eat first, thus getting the most desirable parts, and the lower ranked wolves get the rest, but
- (2) once any wolf, even the lowest ranked, has actually gotten a chunk of food into his own posession, taken within a certain range of his forepaws and mouth, then that posession belongs to him absolutely and no other wolf can take it or demand he let go of it.
To some degree during the domestication of dogs, we have bred these instincts to a weaker form, though this no doubt varies with breed and with individual. Also our pet dogs usually LEARN very early to allow us to take toys and food from their jaws and paws. So MOST pet dogs DO NOT guard food with great intensity, but A FEW pet dogs DO guard food intensely and aggressively, especially dogs who have experienced starvation or had to fight other dogs for their food or have been chased away from their food by humans, experiences more likely to have occurred to dogs who have lived on the street as strays.
Understood and respected, food guarding does NOT need to be dangerous. But ignored or mishandled it can get someone seriously hurt !!!
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UPDATE 7/02/04 : I have been working with Shady regularly several times a week about his food issues. He quickly got to the point where every time I reached in with my BBQ tongs to pick up his dish, he sat and looked at me with a happy face while I added more food and put the bowl back down. So at this point he is really good about my picking up the bowl with the tongs, ie he has begun to think of me as the "waiter bringing the next course". I have not tried to pick up the bowl with my bare hand, rather than the tongs, and I don't think we will get to that point any time soon (partly because I am very chicken about getting my hands injured).
Additionally, I soon discovered that he has a real problem with being touched while he is eating. He stiffens and freezes and if the touch is more pronouced he also growls. So I have been doing touch desensitization while he eats, using my "duster" tool (one of those multicolored synthetic fiber dusters that look like the plume on top of a circus horse's bridle) and using my "backscratcher" tool (bamboo backscratcher with massage wheels at the other end). He is now fairly tolorant and undisturbed by being stroked with the tools along his back and his rear legs. He is less tolorant and still tends to stiffen when touched on his neck and his face, but he has gotten better about this than he used to be. As I continue to stroke , he goes back to eating, but tends to eat faster, which shows he is still tense about the situation. I do not think we will any time soon get to the point where I would be willing to stroke his neck or face with my bare hand while he is eating (again, because I tend to be chicken about risking getting hurt when I don't have to).
So what is the prediction for his eventual behavior about food ?
My belief is that the kind of work I have been doing will make him less hair-triggery likely to bite, ie will make the problem less severe, but I don't think that the underlying problem will ever really go away. I don't think that he will ever be so completely comfortable and trusting about anyone taking food from him that I personally would be willing to take food (or some item that might have food scent on it) from the vicinity of his mouth or front paws. I simply am too fond of my own body parts and I am too intelligent to put them at risk when I don't have to do so. Instead, I would do one of two things.
I should add that he is NOT a "food thief", ie will not try to take any food in your posession or even food that is on your plate on your table while you have left the room (as long as it is not too damn tempting, too easily reached, and/or you are gone too long).
I have to emphasize once again that , aside from this one problem which is almost certainly something he just cannot help having as part of his nature, Shady is a VERY VERY NICE DOG. He is pleasant to live with and well behaved in all other respects in home, car, and public. He is affectionate without being a demanding pest. He gets along with other dogs.
UPDATE (9/18/04): thanks to some information from his dead owner's daughter, I have made improvements to his food guarding rehabilitation program and he has been improving. A few weeks ago his owner's daughter contacted me to ask how he was doing. She was saddened that he did not yet have a permanent loving home. She was very surprised when I described his food guarding problems. During the entire time he lived with them, ie nearly 7 years, he NEVER showed any aggression over food. She and her brother often approached him while he was eating and sometimes picked up his bowl. So that shed new light on the issue. She also told me that he was normally fed twice a day, 6 am and 6 pm, and he usually would eat a bit then wander off and come back to eat more. However during the terminal period of her father's life, the family often was at the hospital until midnight, so Shady got his evening feed late. And, yes, it is possible that they might have forgotten his night meal a time or two. (As could happen to anyone under such difficult circumstances.) The last day of her father's life, Shady suddenly began to howl , and a few minutes later the dreaded phone call came from the hospital. After that Shady was clearly in some kind of mourning mode.
Now all this new information caused me to modify Shady's program. I began dividing his food into morning and evening meals. Some dogs just get too hungry on a once a day feeding, and he is probably one of them. That change made him somewhat calmer about feeding time. Also for at least one of his meals as often as I can, I hand feed him the first half of the meal. And lately I have been petting his head with one hand while feeding him out of the other. That is a tremendous improvement ! I also think that the likely cause of his starting to guard his food has probably been the presence of my other dogs in the vicinity , several of whom would clearly like to have any leftovers.
UPDATE 2/14/05 : I've tried two more additions to Shady's program.
One is that at times when the other dogs are shut out of the room, I will sit in my rocking chair and hold his food bowl between my knees, thus leaving my hands free to pet and massage him on the top of his head and neck. This has been fairly successful, as he enjoys it. This is something I would advise an adopter to include in his program.
The other thing I have tried is (again with no other dogs present) to have his food dish on the floor and to stand or sit a few feet away with some yummy treats and try to call him away from his bowl while he is eating and reward him with a treat. This has been less sucessful. While eating , he is very intent on his bowl. So if I just call him, he does not notice. If I toss a treat to the floor a short distance from his bowl, he does notice and moves to gobble it. The next treat can be tossed closer to me. I have found that offering a treat from my hand in this situation is not so good because he is a bit too eager to grab it from my hand, so is likely to accidentally hit my fingers, even though at other times he has been very gentle taking treats from my hands. Dropping the treat on the floor beside me works much better.
One other type of training that I have thought of doing, but haven't gotten around to yet , is a variation of retrieve training that emphasizes dropping things on command. Beginnning with some neutral non-food item, ask the dog to "take" , ie take it into his mouth, and help him to accomplish this, then ask him to "hold", ie keep hold of it in his mouth, and then firmly tell him to "drop it" or "out" or any other term for letting go. Now in standard retrieve training , one asks the dog to release the object into one's hand, which is presented just below the dog's mouth or which touches the object. But since with Shady this would be a preparation for asking him to drop a food item, I think I would rather have him drop it to the floor and then immediately to sit (sitting raises his head away from the object on the floor). In either case there would be generous praise and a food reward for letting go of the object. How well this would transfer to dropping a real item of food, I don't know. Actually on walks, when he has picked up something, he has responded to a grumbled "leave it !" by dropping the object. And the one time when I caught him stealing a strawberry off the top of my cereal bowl (sitting on a very low table while I answered the phone a dozen feet away), and I growled at him to "leave it" , he drew back very politely. So I don't think that doing take, hold, drop training would be that good an investment of effort as compared to spending time hand-feeding him and doing other Good Waiter routeins described above.
So I am now more optimistic about Shady eventually coming to be relaxed, or at least less tense, about people being near his food bowl and touching him while he eats. I would advise an adopter to utilize some of the techniques I have used, especially twice a day feeding with half or more of some of his meals being fed by hand with petting by the other hand. Using these techniques serves two purposes :
If you are interested in adopting Shady, please contact Pam Green at (530) 756-2997 between 10 am and 6 pm California time. I will not place him in a home more than a few hours driving time from mine and I will not place him in a home that has resident children younger than later teens. I would strongly recommend that any adopter repeat and continue the desensitization work that I have been doing with him, but taking care to do so in the safest possible way. Don't worry : I will show you how to do all of this. I can even let you have supervised practice with Shady and with my other dogs (who do not guard food). An intelligent and self-controlled person can do all of this. It's not that hard.
Shady will be a rewarding companion for a person who is willing to invest some effort in him. His many virtues outweigh his one problem.
With no desire to roam,
UPDATE 10/19/05 : A few weeks ago I had an adoption inquiry from someone who actually seemed qualified to adopt him, who had enough experience with another food guarding dog that she felt comfortable adopting one with this problem. This came as quite a shock to me, and I was forced to realize that I'd grown accustomed to Shady being here and was fond of him and that , more importantly, he had become very bonded to me and fond of me. It turned out that the prospective adopter decided that her current dog , a bitch who is old and in poor health, probably would not appreciate a new dog moving in ; so she has decided not to adopt at this time. The news came as more relief than dissappointment to me. So let's mark Shady as ADOPTED, adopted by me. He's been here two years now, and surely that is enough to have gained tenure.
Shady lived with me for the rest of his life, the next seven years and more.
He'd "decided my home was his home" and I joined in that decision. For all those years he was a sweet and affectionate dog, gracious with people, pleasant with other dogs, never quarrelsome.. He taught several timid dogs how to enjoy dog-play with body contact. He always thought that bitches should consider him a very attractive fellow and would court a new bitch with a body posture and dance I called his "I'm too sexy for my shirt" routein. Of course if a bitch told him off , "I'm not that kind of girl", he would back off, at least for a while.
He was a very good dog. Over the years, I had many reasons to be glad of the decision to keep him myself.
In case you are wondering, I never did feel I'd really cured his food guarding. It seemed to be comeing straight out of a primative part of his brain, without any conscious thought. So once I decided that he would be my dog, I pretty much quit trying to change this behavior and switched over to managing it. So much easier and less stressful for both of us. I could usually call him away from an item he might have guarded. I did that when he found items on walks. He was usually very good about dropping such items. I praised him very richly for doing so. At home, I'd call him away and praise him , then find a treat to give to him. And of course when necessary, the good old BBQ tongs came into play. I fed him inside a crate or X-pen. (All my dogs are separated for their meals, so Shady really was being treated the same as the others in this regard. I don't want dogs competing with each other or trying to steal from each other, and I want to know if any dog leaves any of the meal uneaten, as this can be symptom of serious illness.) So in short, I "managed" the problem rather than curing it. Maybe I learned a little humility along the way.
And in case you are wondering, his food guarding never caused any problems with other dogs. Other dogs all immediately picked up on his very subtle warning, "mine, don't even think about taking it", and backed off. Dogs read dog-body-language so much better than people do. It's their native language after all. Human guests could not be counted on to see the warning from him, so they got very explicit verbal warning from me : "don't try to take any food or anything away from him even if you think it is deadly poison". If children were guests and food was part of the entertainment, Shady was crated during that period.
With me he was affectionate in an unobtrusive way . He asked for attention but didn't demand it. He'd smile at me, then sit with his back to me to get me to stroke his back. Ditto for guests. He'd place his head under my hand. He enjoyed petting but he was never an obnoxious pest. (Not that any dog could compete with Pixel for the Gold medal in obnoxious or in irresistably cute nor with her partner in crime, Chris, for the Silver.)
I never felt the inclination to work him in Tracking or Herding or any other dog sport. By this time in my life, I wasn't in need of competition prizes and Shady never showed a need of serious work. He enjoyed our walks, enjoyed playing with other dogs, enjoyed occasional trips to the dog park. He enjoyed being a companion.
He was a very good dog.
He was a valued and loved member of my family.
He enjoyed very good health right up until early May of 2011, at which time he had to be well over 14 years old, probably around 15 (based on his owner's family statement at the time I received him). He'd slowed down a bit, but he could still go for a two to three mile walk with the rest of the dogs. He still enjoyed his food and treats , and , yes, he was still inclined to guard his food. He was still teaching new foster dogs. He still enjoyed his life and he was still a good companion to me and my other dogs.
It couldn't go on forever of course. He was already much older than most dogs his size and breed type ever get to be ; most of them had been dead for a couple of years by now. For over a year, I'd been telling myself (and occasionally telling others) that he was almost certainly in the last year of his life. I expected he might develope a serious health problem any day now. I thought I was prepared for this, but of course I really wasn't.
Then early in May he wasn't doing as well on walks. He'd fall down once in a while, not too surprising considering that he had the usual old dog weakened rear legs (atrophied thigh muscles, stretched ligaments, hip arthritis). Not often, just enough that I had started leaving him home when heading out for a longer walk or going for a short one with him and my elderly foster Walter, then leaving the old guys home and taking the rest for a long walk.
Then I noticed Shady was slightly sore on one front foot and told myself that if he should have osteosarcoma (bone cancer), I wan't going to allow amputation, but would do palliative radiation to kill the pain and let him be comfortable. A few days later, I did his monthly foot hair trimming and I discovered a small tumor hiding under the big center triangle shaped pad. The next day I got him in to the VMTH to be seen by our favorite oncologist, who did fine needle aspiration and found that the lump was a sarcoma, a type of cancer that can be invasive locally and that can metastasize distantly. We asked the surgery service to plan a conservative surgery, to remove the main bulk of the tumor but not worry about possible infiltrating tendrils beyond that main bulk, as a more extensive surgery would have impaired his use of his foot or required extensive reconstructive surgery and long healing process. I also asked for opinion on whether the rest of his joints were still sound enough that he'd regain comfortable mobility after healing from tumor removal. I wanted to be sure that tumor removal was not simply going to degrade his enjoyment of life during whatever months were likely to remain to him. Unfortunately preliminary exam showed that something was going on in his neck, either one or more bad discs or else a spinal tumor, causing pain if his neck was turned too far or too fast and causing all four limbs to be weak and disrupting communication between his feet and his brain, ie causing some loss of coordination. At this point, after the exams, he was not willing to try to walk at the Vet School. We cancelled his surgery, or at least post-poned it
We went home for the weekend with Shady on prescription for prednisone (which reduces inflamation, so would help for a while with a tumor and might help for longer with a protruding disc) and tramadol (a pain relief medication). The plan was to see if he could improve enough and regain his mobility. Then we'd re-visit the idea of foot surgery. We were not going to consider disc surgery ; that has a recovery period that would not be right for an elderly frail dog. Tumor surgery for a spinal cord tumor was even more out of the question.
I took him home with much fear that we were in for a very hard weekend. Indeed he had a hard time getting into the house again ; I was supporting a large portion of his weight with the support sling. (Later that evening I added another support sling, so that I could support him better , with more comfort for him and more effective use of my strength.) That evening our very dear oncologist phoned to make sure I had all of his current phone numbers, cell and home, and assured me that if things got bad and I needed him to come out to the house, just call and he'd be there. He wanted to relieve my fear of what could happen, even though he knew that I was quite capable of getting a non-ambulatory dog into my car to bring in to the VMTH (because I'd done it several times before with other dogs). He told me that the pred should cause really helpful improvement within two days if it was going to help at all. I cannot tell you how very much I appreciated this kindness and safety net for Shady and me.
Shady did improve and by next morning once I helped him to get up onto his feet, he could walk , walk like he'd had a drink or two too many, and go out to the yard to pee and to the kitchen water bowls. I also made sure that he always had a water bowl right near his head so he could drink without having to get up, and made sure he had plenty of cushioning underneath him. I added non-slip matting to the few parts of the pathways to outdoors and to kitchen water bowls that weren't already matted, so he wouldn't have to walk on any slippery areas of floor. Over the next days he improved. He still needed help to stand up and his first dozen steps were a bit wobbly, but he could walk reasonably well. The tumor paw would at times be "upside down" , the carpel joint knucked over, but he got fairly good at managing this proprioceptive defect. He could walk around the yard enough to visit the mustard weed clumps and do his "pee mail" on them. One time he actually was able to rise from lying down to standing on his own, but I didn't get to see that happen as I was in the house for a minute, then went out again to find him up and on his way in all by himself. I was hoping a bit more improvement and he'd be back to where he was before. But at least at this point his life was mostly comfortable and had some enjoyment in it. It wasn't great quality of life, but it was still in the acceptable range. I could see in his demeanor that he was still getting some enjoyment out of life, that he was still game for continuing.
Then at midnight he started having spells of panting. This was almost certainly pain. If I tried to help him get up (for a late pee break), he showed that the neck pain was going to be too much. He warned me with a show of teeth that he didn't want me to do this to him. I gave him more tramadol. It's a remarkably safe drug and I had been told what higher doses I could give with complete safety. I had to give a second extra dose later. Finally at 3 pm he was able to relax and sleep. I knew that we were at the end of his road. Next morning I waited only until time I could be sure his oncologist would be up, and I made that call. He and one of the techs were out here shortly thereafter to give Shady that final peace that he needed and deserved.
A few days later, the preliminary necropsy report came back. He did have a tumor growing into his spinal cord in his neck. There could have been no way to cure this, no way to treat it beyond the palliation with prednisone we'd already done. And he had hemangiosarcoma metastases in several vital organs. After hearing these results, later that night I found myself feeling a true peace over his passing. There was absolutely no room for doubt that he could not have been restored to a comfortable or enjoyable life. He had lived with surprisingly good quality of life right up until his last few days, and he only had suffering for a couple of hours that last night.
He was a very good dog. Now he is a "shade", a ghost, and his box of ashes joins others on top of my bedroom bookcase and his memory stays in my heart.
Because of Shady and all he caused me to learn about food guarding, I invented what I call "the Feeder Hand", which is a way of safely testing a dog for food guarding and at the same time giving the dog the first lessons in the Good Waiter protocol. This latex fake hand can give food to the dog as it approaches the food bowl. That's an improvement over the usual shelter behavior test procedure which tends to teach a dog that any assertion against the hand will drive it away, thus making a dog worse and worse in his reactions. I've distributed prototypes of my Feeder Hand to several behavior experts and several shelter medicine experts in hopes of improving the test procedure. It bothers me greatly that the usual test procedure is so often used to condemn the dog as unadoptable and to schedule the dog for execution if no Rescue intervenes to save him. Instead a discovery that a dog is at all food guarding should be reason to begin the remedial protocol. It's also reason to be very careful in making a placement (as I discuss above).
Dear reader, if Shady's story has made you realize that a food guarding dog can still be a worthy individual and a good pet, then now you are part of Shady's legacy. If you use this information to save another dog or to help another owner, then you and they are part of Shady's legacy.
Don't cry for me , grieving pack-mates :
The truth is I have to leave you.
I lived a long life, well loved and pleasured ;
I rest a shade now, a memory treasured.
There have since been at least two very good published research studies showing that the food guarding "test" commonly used in shelters has very little predictive value for the dog's post-adoption behavior. The great majority of dogs who "fail" this test will cease to food guard after a while in the adoptive home if the dog is simply allowed to eat in peace (as I allowed Shady to eat in peace). Moreover some dogs who "pass" the shelter test will later become food guarders in the adoptive home,
The shelter test involves an artificial hand, a latex hand on a stick, intruding into the dog's food bowl while he is eating, then trying to shove his face out of the bowl. Now really, is this a fair refection of the way a normal considerate person would really treat a dog ? You or I would object if someone did this to us. Moreover some dogs arrive at the shelter with a history of inadequate food, possibly having lived on the street and had to forage in garbage cans to survive. The need to protect food will diminish when the dog is adopted and getting regular meals and allowed to eat undisturbed.
Of course there are exceptions and Shady was one of them. But with intelligent management he lived out his life without harming anyone and as a cherished companion.
Please join the fight to get shelters to use my " Feeder Hand" method of assessing a dog's reactions to a hand approaching while he eats. Dogs should not be killed because of an invalid test.