Petting a dog or puppy while eating is advice that has been suggested for some time in order to prevent or reduce food aggression, but this practice can turn out being counterproductive and even downright dangerous. Sure, let's face it: those giving out this advice may have good intentions, the goal perhaps being getting the dog or puppy desensitized to the owner's presence and touch while eating, but there are several reasons why this type of advice can be flawed on many levels. A better understanding of dog psychology can help us better understand why it's best to avoid petting a dog while eating.
Not a Gradual Approach
Desensitization is a behavior modification procedure that entails a systematic, gradual and repeated exposure to stimuli or situations perceived as aversive or unpleasant.
The main intent of a desensitization program is decreasing the negative emotional responsiveness and its associated physiological changes through systematic, gradual exposure.
If for example, a person is terrified of spiders, he or she will be emotionally overwhelmed when a spider crawls on the arm and the physiological response may include a racing heart, increased breathing and sweating.
A systematic desensitization procedure in such a case may entail having the person initially look at pictures of spiders over and over until the person no longer emotionally reacts to them, then criteria is raised, and the person may watch videos of spiders and then progress to viewing a live spider from a distance.
Developed by psychologist Mary Cover Jones, desensitization has been used for many years in helping humans and animals to unlearn phobias and anxieties. When facing problems such as fears and phobias, therefore, it helps to compile a hierarchical list of anxiety-evoking stimuli or situations, and being exposed to them in a gradual, systemic manner which paves the path towards adaption.
In dogs who are potentially prone to food aggression, touching or petting while eating will be unlikely to decrease negative emotional responsiveness, but actually risks making matter worse. Such a close level of proximity is too much for them to handle and may evoke aggressive behaviors which is the total opposite of the final goal. Such non-gradual exposure therefore risks leading to sensitization rather then de-sensitization.
Dogs prone to food aggression desire nothing more than distance, and an outstretched arm moving towards them with the good intent of petting them, may be mistakenly perceived as reaching out for the food in their bowls. A gradual approach is an important missing element in such a case if the goal is desensitization. However, even with a well-planned desensitization program though, petting a dog while eating is not a recommended practice.
The Freedom to Eat in Peace
Even in dogs who are not prone to food aggression, petting them while they are eating can in the long run lead to the dog dreading the owner's presence near their bowls.
Let's face it: dogs are highly-food motivated animals and for most dogs the most anticipated perk of the day is mealtime.
Sure, many dogs crave human attention and many dogs will do all sorts of tricks in exchange for a belly rub, but there is a place and time for eating, and a place and time for giving attention and pats. Even us humans after all, share similar feelings if we think closely about it.
We might enjoy our fiance's touch under the form of a gentle stroke of our cheek, (which can be quite romantic during an evening walk by the beach!), but when we sit down at our favorite restaurant, and having waited several minutes for our juicy steak, being stroked over and over can ultimately irritate us. So why should dogs enjoy being stroked when eating?
After some time, even the most mellow dogs may come to dread being touched while eating and this uneasiness may generalize to dreading seeing their owners even approaching them as they are eating their meals.
"Watch a dog who's been called away from an exhuberant play session and is "rewarded" with a pat on the head: most dogs turn their heads and move away. I swear, I practically hear them saying "Awwww...mommmm..." Neither do most dogs enjoy being petted while greeting other dogs, while eating their dinners, or otherwise engage in something that requires concentration."~Patricia B. McConnell, For the Love of a Dog
Encouraging Defensive Aggression
No dog though should ever be forced to or expected to tolerate touch "just because they are dogs and they must tolerate everything we do." Some dog owners go as far as touching their dogs under the form of poking or pushing them while eating with the intent of expecting their dogs to tolerate such interactions. Some dog owners with young children often do this in hopes of obtaining a dog that allows any form of interaction during mealtimes to cover all basis should the children possibly rehearse those actions one day. Should the dog react to such touch by growling, the dog is often corrected until it gives signs of "tolerating" the interaction.
The term "tolerating" is a misnomer here. The dog actually ends up dreading such interaction, but doesn't exhibit any reaction because of the fear or threat of being corrected. This response is often just temporary, until one day the dog has had enough and decides to react. These dogs can be ticking time bombs, just waiting to explode that day when their aggression threshold is surpassed. Just like us, they can reach a point they have had enough.
To be precise, we are talking about defensive aggression here, not the bully-type aggression of dogs who want to be "the boss" as some television shows wish to portray. Defensive aggression is evoked by the dog's simple wish to get out of an unpleasant situation that creates uneasiness or fear. It has been found that the majority of time, when a dog decides to employ aggression, it is a reaction based on fear.
In many cases, the dog may have tried in the past to warn the owner by "using his words" through growling to communicate that he wasn't comfortable, but now, because his growling was corrected with punishment, the growling has been suppressed, which may cause the dog to resort to plan B which is biting without a warning. The dog now, not only doesn't trust humans around his food, but now doesn't even trust being touched if he has been victim of being poked and corrected for some time.
"The root of most aggressive behavior is fear. Combine fear with a situation where a dog has not been raised and trained humanely and the result is often a disastrous cocktail of fear aggression. This is frequently made even worse by owners and trainers who employ punishment-based techniques on the fear aggressive dog."~Victoria Stillwell, Positively
Changing the Dog's Emotional Response
As seen, dog owners should avoid poking, pushing or petting a dog while eating for several reasons: it's annoying, it may evoke defensive aggression and the dog may misinterpret the dog owners' intent. If dog owners should avoid poking or petting a dog while eating, what can they do though to prevent or treat mild cases of food aggression?
Things can get better by correctly using desensitization along with counterconditioning. Desensitization, as already described, entails gradually getting the dog exposed to stimuli or situations that elicit a negative emotional response. It is best combined with counterconditioning, which entails changing the dog's underlying emotional response from negative into positive through positive associations.
An example with a dog who is mildly food aggressive may therefore entail having the dog owner walk at distance from the bowl while the dog is eating and tossing tasty treats his way. Distance is then gradually reduced until the dog owner can walk more closely up to the point of being close enough to drop a high-value treat into the dog's bowl.
In dogs or puppies who are not food aggressive, but dog owners worry about the chances of it developing, simply adding goodies to the food bowl can help. Owners particularly concerned about a dog reacting to touch while eating can be instructed (under the careful guidance of a behavior professional) to every now and then give a brief touch (not a whole petting session!) before hand feeding or dropping a treat to cover unexpecting scenarios (e.g. accidentally bumping into the dog, startling a dog to unexpected touch ).
It may also help to drop the dog a goodie when the food bowl is lifted. This approach helps the dog look forward to the dog owner approaching him and the bowl, because the dog has, not only learned that nothing is taken away from him, (which by the way is the root cause as to why dogs develop food aggression in the first place) but actually goodies are added! A win-win situation for all!
It may help to tell clients that messing with a dog’s food bowl when he is trying to eat is like somebody messing with your plate or petting your head when you are trying to eat dinner. Nobody likes that. However, you may be more tolerant, maybe even look forward to the person approaching if you know that the person was going to give you a small bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy ice cream every time approached. ~Dr. Albright, veterinary behaviorist
For further reading: Exercises to prevent resource guarding in puppies.
Disclaimer: this article (as other training or behavior articles found on this website) is not meant to be used as a substitute for professional behavioral advice. If your dog is showing signs of food aggression and lunges or attacks you when approach the food bowl, feed your dog behind a baby gate or closed door and do not attempt these techniques on your own. Please play it safe and seek the assistance of a professional using gentle, force-free behavior modification methods for safety and correct implementation.