Dogs should be able to eat in peace

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 4/4/10
By: Gail T. Fisher


A reader writes: Dear Gail: I have been an animal lover all my life (I'm 58) and I frequently watch "Animal Cops Houston" (and other city animal cops on TV) and my heart breaks when they rescue a dirty, chained-to-a-tree, starving dog. The shelter goes through the trouble of testing for heartworm, giving all the needed shots, bringing them back to good health, only to have them "evaluated for food aggression". They place a bowl of food on the floor, and using a fake hand, they start by touching the dog's back. The dog "freezes" (warning #1), then they move the fake hand to the head. The dog growls (warning #2). Then they put the fake hand by the dog's head or pull the food bowl away. Finally, the dog (that was once starving to death) growls and bites the fake hand. The evaluator deems the dog "unfit for adoption" and he is then euthanized. Could you address this in your column? Am I just an "old softie", believing these dogs can be rehabilitated and adopted into a loving home? Thanks again and may you enjoy many more years with the Union Leader.

This is a topic that I have long had an opinion about. It goes along with so-called “food bowl training”—ill-conceived advice to “teach” a dog or puppy to accept being touched, bothered and have his food dish removed while he’s eating.

We have often been consulted about dog or puppy’s behavior problems as a direct result of an owner who has tried food bowl training, usually on the advice of someone they respect (a trainer, breeder or veterinarian). A dog should not have to accept being annoyed and touched, having someone handle his food, or even have it snatched away from him while he’s eating. Would we put up with such treatment? It’s against the rules of both human and canine courtesy.

I would object to being stroked and touched while I’m eating. I consider it rude for someone to take food from my plate without being offered. And I might be driven to bite the hand of someone trying to take my dish away before I had scraped up the last morsel of chocolate mousse. Yet some expect a dog to tolerate such repeated annoyances.

Some dogs do need training to accept people around them when they’re eating, but most are fine simply being left to eat. When you let the dog eat in peace, she knows that you respect the rules of polite behavior. Then if at some point you need to do something while the dog is eating, just do it. Most dogs won’t object. 

I recall a day when I was feeding my multiple Mastiffs. I put down their food bowls, and no sooner had they started eating than I realized I had forgotten to add a supplement. I picked up each dog’s bowl to add the pill, quickly returning it to the floor. Several of my dogs never moved. They stood staring at the spot where the bowl had been as if they were thinking, “There was food here a minute ago . . . what happened to it? Aha! There it is again!” No growling, no snarling, no guarding. They tolerated my doing anything because they trusted I would obey the rules of polite behavior, and I didn’t abuse their trust.

The reader’s description and interpretation of the rescued dog’s reaction to the “assess-a-hand” is absolutely on-point. Just as I would crossly tell someone to stop touching me, or warn them to stay away from my chocolate mousse, so does a dog. To euthanize a dog for a natural, understandable reaction with a test that is escalated until the dog blows is both distressing and heartbreaking.

Dogs should be allowed to eat undisturbed. If you have a problem either because you’ve already followed this advice, or because your dog is a food guarder, talk to a professional who approaches a solution from a positive perspective. No time-outs, no removing food, and no Alpha rolls. Doing so simply escalates the problem and, as the reader describes, could lead to the dog biting and being put to death.

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2010. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.