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Research Update: What Happens When We Stop Assessing for Food Guarding?

Heather Mohan-Gibbons shares preliminary results from an exciting new pilot program overseen by the ASPCA Research & Development team.

 

What comes to mind when you think about placing a food guarding dog into a home?

“That is crazy, why would we ever do that?”

“Been there, done that, no problem!”

We have heard both of these responses and everything in between!  

But what if you are already placing food guarders and don't even know it?

You’re probably familiar with the two studies on food guarding during standardized assessments. The ASPCA published results in 2012, as did Dr. Amy Marder and her team at Center for Shelter Dogs in 2013. Both studies found that food guarding behavior occurred in the home at a lower frequency than in-shelter. The studies also showed adopters bonded to their food guarding dogs, did not see the behavior as problematic, and they returned their dogs less often than the general shelter population. 

Over the past three years, we’ve been spreading the message to stop euthanizing food guarders and instead to send them home. We’ve shared this via blogs, presentations, webinars, workshops at national conferences and in a new book, Animal Behavior for Shelter Veterinarians and Staff. Some agencies now ensure that every policy they have provides each animal the best chance at a live outcome. Yet we all too often still see this policy: “If a dog shows any food guarding, growls when someone looks in their kennel or shows leash frustration, then the dog is a liability and can‘t be adopted.”

It is worth highlighting one aspect of Dr. Marder’s study—twenty dogs guarded their food during the assessment, yet only 11 dogs guarded food in the home. More importantly, 77 dogs did NOT guard their food during the assessment, yet 17 dogs guarded food in the home. Six more dogs guarded in this second group who did not guard on assessment. This means that shelters are unknowingly sending home dogs who guard their food, and those adopters did not receive counseling on what to do. It is time to educate every adopter that food guarding is a normal behavior and provide them with tips for success to avoid and/or manage the behavior in home when it appears. 

So the obvious question is, “Why are we still assessing for food guarding?” Some places like Dumb Friends League dropped the assessment some time ago. So we asked you for your help in a pilot program. We wanted shelters to keep their assessment intact but stop assessing for food guarding. We have nine shelters participating in this pilot in different states. In the first two months of baseline, over 550 dogs showed food guarding behavior, mostly through the shelter’s standardized assessment; this was categorized as mild guarding behavior (on a scale from mild to severe). 

We have overwhelmingly positive responses from the shelters so far. One shelter reported:

“It’s SO MUCH FASTER and more efficient without the food preparation, fake hand repairing, food bowl cleaning and fetching (they get borrowed when we’re not looking)! We were averaging about 4 evaluations per hour before and now we can do 6…but we DON’T, because we like having the extra time to get to know everyone a little better!”

Another shelter offered:

“I have not seen any change in returns due to eliminating the food guarding portion of the SAFER assessment. I am, quite frankly, surprised at how few dogs did show food guarding when we were really paying attention to it the first two months, and that it primarily fell into the mild-moderate level of guarding when demonstrated.”

Science is our compass, allowing us to test out different paths while keeping us headed due north. There is a balance of protecting the public from perceived risk to saving more dogs’ lives. We need to acknowledge what we don’t know and recognize that we may not be evaluating what is important to the public. As Dr. Emily Weiss said in a recent JAVMA article, “It’s time for us to take off the veil in terms of us deciding what [the public] wants.”  

Stay tuned for the results of this research and ways to support your staff and adopters to drop your food assessment.

 

 

As the Director of Applied Research and Behavior at the ASPCA, Heather’s work focuses on improving the lives of animals and reducing their risks in their communities. For over twenty years, she has worked professionally with animals in veterinary clinics, universities, federal and state governments, and animal shelters. She loves training a new species, growing heirloom seeds, and being outdoors with her rescue dogs.

 

 

 

 

Related Links

Blog: “Prostates and Food Guarding…”
Food Guarding: A Very Modifiable Behavior

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Comments

Comment

Very interesting! Pushing one's expectations and brain is always a good idea. A couple questions: Previously, the ASPCA has recommended measures such as free feeding dogs who show food guarding while they are in shelter, and counseling owners. Are these no longer recommended? Also, what is the current thinking on when dogs arrive with a history of showing strong food or possession guarding from the previous home - whose previous owner reports that in the home, the dog showed significant aggression with food and/or possessions? That's very different than seeing it on a behavior evaluation.

Comment

Hi Karina,
Great questions! If an owner reports seeing guarding in home, then have an open dialogue to get clarification on what the dog is guarding (food vs non-food guarding are different things). If food guarding was reported in home, then you have some great information to create a plan to best support that dog through your shelter (as you do with other behaviors). We do still recommend free feeding any dog who may benefit because by increasing the availability of food you are likely to get a decrease in food guarding behavior. Food guarding is a normal behavior and like other behaviors, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior if the environment stayed the same. When the food guarding item is dropped from the assessment item, then all adopters can receive support so that every dog is set-up for success in their new home.

Best,
Heather Mohan-Gibbons, MS, RVT, CBCC-KA, ACAAB
Director, Applied Research & Behavior Research and Development
ASPCA

Comment

The article recommends treating food guarding as a natural and often seen dog behaviour and counseling EVERY adopter on how to deal with it, since the study they did finds the food guarding test to be unreliable in predicting food guarding in a home environment

Comment

This is great research. So how can these findings play into the decision of when to assess? At one point I remember reading that assessment on intake gives similar findings as assessments done a week later except in the area of resource guarding. If removing the resource guarding element, are we able to look at more accurate assessments earlier in a dog's stay?

Comment

Hi Nina,
There was research done comparing the results of the same assessment right before intake then again a few days later. Our research here is only looking at what happens when a shelter drops the food guarding assessment (adoptions, bites, returns, etc) and we have not modified other parts of their assessment or when they perform their assessment. If a shelter elected to not assess for food guarding anymore, then they wouldn’t be doing this item at any point in the dog's stay. The recommendation for when to assess is still unchanged in that shelters can either assess right at the time of relinquishment by taking the dog directly from the owner before the intake procedures, OR 2-3 days after intake in the shelter. Thanks!

Best,
Heather Mohan-Gibbons, MS, RVT, CBCC-KA, ACAAB
Director, Applied Research & Behavior Research and Development
ASPCA

Comment

Would there be any way to be put of a list of people to receive this study once it is published in peer-reviewed paper?

Comment

Hi Dominique,
Any updates we have on food guarding will be shared in our blog posts, so if you are subscribed, then you will receive the latest information fresh-off-the-press! Given there are already two peer-reviewed publications, the focus of this work was not to publish again. Rather to add an applied piece to the research, giving shelters confidence knowing that other shelters have done this with success. We will certainly share highlights with the field through a variety of ways including blogs, conferences, and possibly a webinar once we have the data.

Best,
Heather Mohan-Gibbons, MS, RVT, CBCC-KA, ACAAB
Director, Applied Research & Behavior
ASPCA

Comment

Are the results for toy/rawhide guarding considered valid?

Comment

Hi Emily,

Shelters in this pilot are using an array of assessments, so I can’t speak to the validity of each one or how each shelter chooses to us it. We required shelters to have a standardized way to assess food guarding, and most are using Match-UPII or SAFER. When Dr. Emily Weiss first published her work in the late 90's, it was based on developing an in-shelter assessment for therapy dogs. She determined core assessment items that elicited responses that were predictive of future behavior. In SAFER, toy is required and rawhide is optional. More about SAFER Research can be found here: http://www.aspcapro.org/resource/saving-lives-adoption-programs-behavior...

Of course, none of these items can be used as stand-alone. Toy is used in conjunction with the whole assessment, it is one tiny piece of information. The whole assessment is used in conjunction with other observations you make in shelter, the conversation you have with the previous owner, interactions that occur between the dog and other staff, volunteers, and potential adopters. They are all pieces of the puzzle to determine the best placement of the dog. For more info on how we recommend using any assessment, go here http://www.aspcapro.org/resource/saving-lives-behavior-enrichment/safer-...

Best,

Heather Mohan-Gibbons, MS, RVT, CBCC-KA, ACAAB
Director, Applied Research & Behavior Research and Development

ASPCA

Comment

As a foster, I have found that many, if not most guarded food initially. Once they realize that the food is always restocked, the behavior subsides, even if they bowl is temporarily empty.

Comment

I think it is good info to know especially if the dog is going to a home with small children but I do not think it should result in a life or death sentence. Just to give the new owners a heads up and some training on how to correct if they notice it.

Comment

Is there anything within this research (or other studies ASPCA has conducted) that examines how the severity of the food aggression correlates to in-home behavior?

In general, we're quite comfortable placing/working with food aggression. However, there are some dogs that exhibit such a severe reaction (lunging/chasing/snapping and not recovering), that we are not currently placing all levels of food aggression. Perhaps these same dogs would exhibit other concerning behaviors in the evaluation; but if we discontinue the food aggression test and there are no other flags - I'd be concerned about missing a potentially dangerous behavior.

Thoughts on this?

Thanks!

Comment

Hi Amy,

This pilot created and defined three categories that shelters used to define the guarding behavior; Mild, Moderate, and Severe.
We plan to see if there is any difference among categories in regards to risk to staff or adopters, or if one category was more likely to be returned than another. Stay tuned!
• In the original research done by the ASPCA, we did not track the categories. We had dogs that showed guarding in all categories and placed them without bmod (note: we had some important exclusion criteria that you can read in the manuscript in Section 2.4).
• In Dr. Marder's study, they did track severity of aggression as seen in home. Quoting the manuscript: “Twenty-eight of 97 adopted dogs showed FA+ behavior at home.” However, the adopters rarely saw the guarding behavior and when they did it was mild. “Only 5 dogs were reported as exhibiting more severe reactions such as snap, lunge or bite.”
• Another key finding, “Even the adopters who had observed their dogs exhibiting aggressive behaviors did not consider their dogs to be food guarders”. As both studies found, the adopters did not see the guarding behavior as a problem, were bonded to these dogs, and return rates were lower than the general population of dogs.

So for everyone, this brings us right back to the blog post above where the link says “sometimes the behaviors that cause concern in shelter are only ‘in-shelter’ behaviors – and going home is the best solution to the problem.” Consider all the ways to collect information as each animal moves through your facility. The FG item is such a tiny portion of the big picture! Ensure you have an open dialogue with your adopters policies support each animal toward a live outcome.

Heather Mohan-Gibbons, MS, RVT, CBCC-KA, ACAAB
Director, Applied Research & Behavior
ASPCA

Comment

I find every shelter Rottweiler that we have adopted tries to resource guard their food when we have them home. I hand fed my dogs until they realize I am the one they get food from. One of the Rottweilers we adopted, I was not comfortable feeding from my hand. I sat on a chair next to her feeding area, holding the bowl's sides and fed her a few nuggets at a time. Once I felt comfortable, then I hand fed her. After accomplishing the hand feeding, I taught them to wait until I say "Ok" and touch the side of the bowl before they can eat. It has been a learning experience and one that I am enjoying.

Comment

I have been following this research with interest and we have discontinued testing for food guarding as part of our routine intake, although we may still test when a dog appears to have more severe food guarding behaviors. We do not use a food assessment as a lone tool for making euthanasia decisions, just for information gathering.

That brings me to a question. How do you define mild, moderate and severe food guarding? I'm defining it as Mild: Behavior that includes growling, stiffening (and/or) physically blocking the food, Moderate: Behavior that includes showing teeth or snapping without contact, and Severe: Behavior that includes contact with pressure. All of these dogs would receive BMod, but the Mild and Moderate dogs may be available during BMod while the Severe dogs may be assessed further before making them available (e.g, check out other red flag behaviors, medical problems, etc.) to identify suitability for adoption. We certainly don't want to retain animals in the shelter if we can place them and provide adopter support, but we also don't want to place a dog that already produces high level bites during guarding.

Your input would be very appreciated.

Comment

Great question, Kellie! We created three categories that they could use to define the guarding behavior. The behaviors you have listed in each category align with what we used as well.

Heather Mohan-Gibbons, MS, RVT, CBCC-KA, ACAAB
Director, Applied Research & Behavior Research and Development
ASPCA

Comment

Our shelter is no-kill so food guarding is not a death sentence. I would hesitate to drop it from the evaluations because I think it is an important piece for new adopters to know. One dog recently passed all of our tests with flying colors, was social, took treats gently, played and released toys with no problem and enjoyed all handling. He growled when I removed the food bowl so I did use the asses-a-hand to finish the evaluation. He turned from the food bowl and bit and shook the hand. Yes, I know the "hand" can be scary but this violent reaction was very unexpected. This is information I feel is vital for an appropriate placement. This would be a dog that would quickly earn the trust of most adopters and it might set them up for a very sad outcome. I'd rather err on the side of caution and know as much about the dog as I can before sending them to new homes.

Comment

It is still important to know what the dog may do so it can be placed appropriately. I would not place a dog that guards its food with small children. In some dogs food guarding is inherent. In others, it can be created in the home by lack of structure. So unless the study keeps all the homes exactly alike in how they treat the dogs, I don't see much value in it. Obviously some dogs felt less threatened in the home than they did in the shelter and didn't feel the need to guard food around people they trust. It is so complex I don't think a blanket statement will be suitable. I fostered a dog that was a food guarder on her assessment, and she was always a food guarder, and other resources as well, even with many ways at trying to fix the issue. So I still think it is an important piece of the puzzle when assessing a dog's personality

Comment

Julie, you are absolutely right in that we need to be careful about using blanket statements in regards to behavior. As you astutely noted, behavior does not occur in a vacuum. Meaning, if the environment or context changes, so can the behavior.

The only blanket statement I am comfortable saying is that if the animal is a dog, then in some situation, he/she will guard its food.
EVERY dog has the potential to guard food from children and that is not a behavior we are likely to discover while under shelter care. Guarding is already occurring in the home, whether we assessed for it or not.

My takeaway is this: rather than limiting adoptions for some and giving those adopters more support, consider having an open dialogue with all adopters, setting them up for success (as noted above, free feeding is a great idea), establishing realistic expectations, and offer support when they need it. If they don’t need it for food guarding, they will for barking, digging, escape behavior, house soiling, etc. I am not suggesting to turn all dogs loose in the community; rather reflect on the shelter’s policies to ensure they are aimed at supporting each animal toward the best possible live outcome, given your resources.

Heather Mohan-Gibbons, MS, RVT, CBCC-KA, ACAAB
Director, Applied Research & Behavior Research and Development
ASPCA

Comment

Why not use it to serve your clients? You have 3 kids under the age of 6? This dog might be a better match for you so you don't have to visit the ER with your toddler. Why are we not interested in serving our clients, helping them with the best choice for their family? Interestingly, food guarding can be easier to manage than guarding of beds, Kleenex, laps, and so on. We should be assessing those things.

Comment

Was so glad to see your research and the direction it is taking. I think it's silly to expect a dog NOT to guard its food -- especially when being approached by a stranger after several hours in a vehicle without food during transport to a shelter. I'd growl at someone doing that to me!
And as for behavior in the home. My parents taught me early to never interfere with a dog while it is eating. That's just common sense. If there's a crawling baby or a toddler in the home -- feed the dog outside!

Comment

I think it is very unfair to give an animal which has been rescued a food guarding assessment. If they lived on the street they had to fight for every meal and guarding their food was survival to them. If they lived in an abused situation where food was denied or very scarce or in any environment where food was not plentiful it is only natural they would guard any food they found, wouldn't you? They are doing it to survive and it is very hard to get over that and realize you don't have to fight for it anymore. These animals deserve a chance too. To deny them adoption for this, I believe, is wrong. Potential adopters should be informed of the problem, advised on ways to overcome it and offered any other help available.

Comment

There are good points on both sides of this issue. I'm wondering, though, are shelters that are eliminating the food guarding portion of their assessment evaluating for behavior around something else that might be of high value (e.g., rawhide, bully stick or pig ear)? Also, are their handouts for the public available on ASPCAPro that discuss food guarding management in the home?

Comment

Hi Michelle,
If shelters were using a pig ear or other food item as part of their standard assessment, that aspect was dropped when they stopped assessing for food (since it is a food item). If shelters had a component of assessing for non-food, such as a toy item, they kept that portion of the assessment intact.

There are food guarding handouts on our website and once this study is completed, there will be more information available for support. http://www.aspcapro.org/resource/saving-lives-adoption-programs-behavior...

Best,
Heather Mohan-Gibbons, MS, RVT, CBCC-KA, ACAAB
Director, Applied Research & Behavior
Research and Development

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