A battle of wills
June 1, 2011 § 19 Comments
Milton and I are currently embroiled in a battle of wills.
At every single meal, he and I challenge each other for dominance over the food bowl. Annie merely waits patiently on the sidelines, occasionally whimpering when Milton gets in trouble. (Sometimes I fear she’s being traumatized…but she doesn’t seem to be frightened of me, which is a relief.)
Milton has food possessiveness issues. I hesitate to call them “aggression” because he does respond to corrections…most of the time. I have been bitten a few times at meals, which is where we are right now.
Last night at dinner, he bit my thumb. I have two red marks that would have bled had he clamped down just a little bit harder. This morning at breakfast, he threatened to bite again. I practically sat on him to pin him to the floor. Last week, he bit my hand. In the past, before we really started on retraining him, he had bitten my arm if I attempted to take his food away from him or even to toss a stray kibble back into the bowl.
One day, there will be children in this house, and I will not tolerate a dog who will bite at people.
We’ve been working on his behavior for several months now. Sometimes we feel triumphant and proud of Milton’s progress. Sometimes we want to scream.
My technique is imperfect, but I’m doing my best. And for the most part it works to at least snap him out of the biting headspace.
Last night, for instance, Milton was eating out of his bowl when I told him to “leave it.” “Leave it” means step away from the bowl and sit down. Wait patiently until you have been given permission to continue eating. Milton ignored the command that he knows. I bent over to offer him a correction on the side of his ribcage. (A firm but gentle “nudge.”) Milton hunkered down over his bowl and growled at me. I commanded “leave it” again. He bared teeth and turned his head toward my hand. Faster than I could react (really, I was thinking, “It couldn’t be. He wouldn’t bite me. Again.”), Milton turned around and clamped on my thumb by his side. With my free arm, I blocked his head and pushed him down to the ground so that he was laying on his side. He continued to fight me, kicking at me and “hissing” (more like a gator, less like a cat). I pressed his head down with my forearm against his bottom jaw. We sat there until I felt his body relax and his breathing slow. I examined my thumb and started to shake at the reality: had I not stopped him, he might have caused some real damage. My thumb was really sore.
When I felt like he was ready, I stood up, commanding him to stay down on the ground the way he was. I eventually allowed him to come to a seated position, but we moved farther away from the bowl. I made him wait several minutes longer, ignoring the long trails of drool coming from the sides of his black lips, waiting for him to stop shaking. He finished his meal half an hour after we began it.
I was livid.
I’ll admit that I did call him names. And I did raise my voice when I told him “NO!” as he was biting me. But after the meal was finished, I took him to go potty. And we spent the rest of the evening cuddling.
This morning, he threatened me when I corrected him, but as soon as I reached out to pull him down to the ground, he practically collapsed on his own. We sat there, waiting for his breathing to slow down. It was 7:15 in the morning. Way too early to be getting so worked up, especially over food.
Currently we feed Milt and Annie separately. Annie eats in the kitchen (slowly, and patiently–she allows me to mess with her face, put my hands in her bowl, pick up her bowl, everything. In fact, when I go to mess with the food, she’ll sit without much of a command, although I do say “leave it” for good measure.). Milton eats in the living room. He can hear Annie’s license hit her metal bowl as she chows down, which I know upsets him more. But I couldn’t really care less about that. Milton has it in his head that the food in the plastic blue bowl is his food. We’re trying to teach him (and Annie, too) that it is our food that we are allowing them to eat.
Quick proud story: Annie always finishes eating before Milton, often before Milton has calmed down enough to eat in the first place. She’ll walk around the house, sometimes coming rather close to the plastic blue bowl. She will look at the bowl and sniff the bowl, but only twice has she actually snuck a kibble from the bowl. When I see her look at the bowl or sniff it, I command her to “leave it” because I want her to understand, just like Milt, that this is not “her” food.
Note: I say “I” a lot in this post, but I mean to say “we.” Robert is involved just as much as I am with this initiative. Although the biting tends to happen when Robert’s either not in the room or not in the house. I think it’s because Milt doesn’t respect me as a master the same way he respects Robert. But I fully intend to win this battle of wills.