Time To Change Our Perspective Around Food Aggression
For several years now, we have been teaching a simple protocol to eliminate food aggression in dogs in shelters. Many shelters have implemented the protocol, and many others have developed similar effective protocols. Our protocol was developed to be conducted by shelter professionals and does not require a behavior specialist (just someone who can read behavior and follow the plan) and was also developed to be conducted in a short period of time, so not to threaten the shelter with a long increase in length of stay.
It is important to identify food aggression as true food aggression, as dogs who aggress over non-food items require a different and more complex behavior modification plan that is quite counter to the food aggression protocol. If a dog who has what we define as “possession aggression” — meaning he guards non-food items such as stuffed toys, or even furniture or people — and we administer the food protocol, there could be a risk to staff. It is fairly easy to tease out the difference between the two, and ASPCA SAFER ® is designed to help the shelter professional do just that. The protocol also outlines how to generalize and proof the behavior to assure that the dog is comfortable with hands around his food bowl in multiple settings by multiple people. Finally, we have a handout for adopters to take home outlining the behavior and what they can do in the home to decrease the likelihood that their dog will display the behavior in the future. Learn more about the protocol here, and view a video of the protocol in action here.
While working with these dogs in shelters, we have discovered that the shelter environment can often increase the likelihood that you will observe food aggression during an assessment. In many shelters, food time is often one of the only guaranteed times for enrichment and social interaction. This alone increases the value of food. So while these dogs may have displayed food aggression prior to entering the shelter, the behavior is likely magnified in a shelter setting — and with a simple free feed and trade- up protocol, can be eliminated before the dog goes home. Dogs should be fed twice a day, and should receive some form of oral enrichment daily to decrease the likelihood of magnifying the behavior.
I visit a lot of shelters and talk to a lot of shelter professionals, and despite the simple protocol, there are still shelters unnecessarily increasing shelter death by not treating dogs with simple food aggression. For shelters that have not yet made the forward step to treat these dogs, or send them out to foster or rescue with the protocol, I respectfully and humbly suggest that it is time. Shelters with live release rates at or above about 40% for canines could certainly benefit from this protocol (whether in shelter, through rescue or through foster) to save many, many more lives. There are literally hundreds of thousands of dogs dying because of an easy-to modify behavior. It is time.
I would love to hear your stories of success with modifying food aggression, and I would be happy to answer your questions about how your shelter can get started.