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.

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§ 19 Responses to A battle of wills

  • Woman Wielding Words says:

    Big challenge! Good luck!

  • Tori Nelson says:

    Don’t lose hope. If you’d asked me before my son was born what I’d bet money on, I’d have told you I bet that Scout would eat or maim a stranger. She was hostile and crazy and completely (what we were told by several professionals) untrainable. We brought the boy home, and she’s been a timid thing ever since.
    Note: Scout’s version of timid does still include devouring door frames.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      That’s a relief, actually. I’m hoping that both Milt and Annie will see any future children as people to be respected in the house.

  • Bless your heart! Our Ralph has bitten me only when I’ve tried to restrain him from aggression toward dogs he doesn’t know. It happened twice when we here living in Vietnam. He seems to have calmed down considerably since then, but I understand your frustration! Hang in there!

    • Mrs. H. says:

      When Milton has bitten me, he always looks as surprised as I am, lol. It’s not really a habit of his, and anyone who knows him is just shocked when I tell them the way he behaves around food. But, you know, Cesar Milan says that no dog is perfectly predictable; even our “good” dogs can snap. This just happens to be one of Milton’s snapping points. But we are making progress, so that’s encouraging. 🙂

  • Tim says:

    Our roommate’s dog has some aggression issues, too (stemming largely, we suspect, from the fact that his master is unwilling to give him the exercise he needs), but mealtime is one of the few times he ISN’T aggressive. He may grumble if someone moves his bowl, but he doesn’t growl or threaten.

    Now, throughout the day he randomly gets into very belligerent moods, and he has bitten both Jen and our roommate hard enough to leave their arms numb (never hard enough to break the skin, thankfully). He has not done the same to me because, thanks to a bad experience in childhood, I do not like for an open-mouthed dog to be anywhere near my extremities, and he has learned that even the gentlest playtime nip will not be tolerated by me, as I grab and close his mouth and sweep him to the floor immediately to express dominance and displeasure. After the biting instances with Jen and our roommate, they have both been training him not to use his teeth, as well, but it’s more of a struggle with them, because the rules have changed mid-stream.

    We’ve been trying to gently encourage our roommate to exercise his dog more, and we occasionally do it for him to demonstrate how much better behaved he is after a good day’s exercise, but we’re reaching the point where we may have to lay down an ultimatum, since the gentle encouragement seems to result in, at best, one day of decent exercise, which is nowhere near enough for a husky.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      That’s a really great plan, Tim. Milton doesn’t get enough exercise, but because of the condition of his knees and hips (pre-arthritic, and his knee pops out when overworked). He’s been ordered not to exercise too much. But that doesn’t prevent us from going on the occasional walk. Honestly, I do need to walk them more regularly. My own back trouble and this diss have been excellent excuses not to exercise regularly, but it really doesn’t do the dogs any favors.

      Good luck with your roommate’s dog. Huskies really really need lots of exercise. It’s sort of what they do. (Do you ever strap a bottle of water or two to a doggy backpack so he has something to “do”? That sometimes helps working dogs feel better.)

      • Tim says:

        I didn’t even know doggy backpacks were a thing. I think we’ll suggest something like that. Maybe bearing a bit of load will help Dresden at least a little bit on the short walks his master gives him.

        Jen’s sister, Kelly, absolutely loves Dresden. Last time she was over, she took him out for three separate 30-minute-or-longer walks. Dresden zonked out, and was better-behaved than I’ve ever seen him the rest of the day.

      • Mrs. H. says:

        Oh yeah! Doggy backpacks exist: http://www.petsmart.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2753840

        According to Cesar Milan (who I love, haha), bigger dogs especially like to use these things because it gives them a responsibility. And for dogs who are bred specifically for pulling large hauls, it reaches deep down to instinct and gives them a kind of fulfillment that plain walking around just can’t.

        When we do walk around the neighborhood, it takes us at least 30 minutes. I figure that a 30-minute walk is beneficial for humans, so it’s surely beneficial for dogs too. I hope Dresden (such a sweet name) gets to go out on more walks soon! 🙂

      • Tim says:

        I hope so, too. When our roommate first moved in, he was only walking Dresden until he had a bowel movement, and he was actively trying to train the pup to defecate on command (especially in the mornings). Dresden was lucky if one trip outside lasted five minutes, and he was, consequently, having a LOT of accidents.

        He’s getting slightly longer walks now, but it still usually takes me or Jen walking him for his bladder to empty (my rule of thumb when I’m walking him is to at least keep him out until he can’t mark).

        Like I said, if he doesn’t start getting at least one LONG walk per day, we’re going to have to issue an ultimatum, because we don’t want to take responsibility for a pet that isn’t ours, but neither do we want to be party to his neglect.

  • How scary! And frustrating for you and Robert! Not that you are asking for advice and feel free to ignore me, but I found some helpful tips here: http://www.raisingspot.com/behavioral-problems/dog-food-aggression

    I don’t know if you’ve tried this already, but maybe if you try to earn his trust a little bit when he’s eating (feed him out of your hand, pet him while he eats, give him a treat while he’s eating), he won’t associate your approach with “no more food” and thus feel the need to protect his food, thus bite you. While these things may not quite make him more obedient to the “leave it” command, he may at least lesson his aggression toward you during mealtime.

    Just a thought, but regardless of what you decide to do, I wish you the best of luck! It sounds like a tricky and frightening situation and I hope that it turns out well!

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Thanks for the tip, Tawnysha! 🙂 For Milt, I really like the “bit by bit” idea. I might try that for dinner tonight. We do pet him while he eats, and he’s gotten a LOT better about that. In the beginning, if I tried to love on his ears or face while he ate, he’d just growl, and hunker down over the bowl (he’d stop eating and just wait for me to go away). Now, he lets me pet all over his face and ears–I can even stick my hand in the bowl. The only time he has bitten me is when I correct him for not obeying the “leave it” command.

      You know, the petting while eating thing has been one of my biggest concerns. Kids tend to want to pet dogs when they’re the most still, and dogs are pretty still (as in, hanging out in one spot) when they’re eating. I want my children, my nieces and nephews, and my friends’ children to feel safe petting Milton whenever they feel like it. So, we’re making progress on that front. Now I just want to get him to the point where his first impulse isn’t to use teeth. Annie doesn’t use teeth when she gets corrected. When she’s corrected, she gets “sad” and goes limp if she’s laying down. We’re trying to encourage that sort of behavior since she’s still a puppy. It’s harder for Milt since he’s 6 years old, but we’ll work until we get what we want! 🙂

      • jacquelincangro says:

        Tawnysha has a great suggestion. I’ve been studying to be a trainer and know of someone going through this very situation. He has kids. They’re not having a good time of it. You’re right to want to amend this behavior now, before kids.

        Consider this: He’s guarding because he thinks it’s going to be taken away, and really, he’s correct. (Put yourself in his shoes. What would you do if someone pulled your plate away when you tried to eat?) Meeting aggression with aggression, i.e. Milton’s snarling with an alpha roll only serves to ratchet up the fierceness with which he will defend his food. Milton should associate you with good things rather than bad things. Once he trusts you, he can let his guard down. Using some of the positive reinforcement techniques that Tawnysha suggested eliminates the need for “corrections.”

        Good luck!

      • Mrs. H. says:

        Thanks Jacqueline–I think Tawnysha’s got some great ideas, too! 🙂

        I don’t think Milton associates me with negativity. I only lift up his bowl every once in a while, but even then I only do it after he is sitting calmly away from the bowl. (You never know if there might be a time when I’ll need to scoop up the bowl super fast.) And I only offer a physical correction when he ignores a verbal command after several attempts. Hehe, I promise I don’t throttle him just for looking at me funny! 😉

        How cool that you’re working to become a trainer! I’m sure that’s going to be a very rewarding career for you. 🙂

  • Jack says:

    Have you tried any NILF (Nothing In Life is Free) training methods with the Milt-meister such as making him “work” for his food? While working with him on his “resource guarding” (the phrase you were looking for 😉 ) issues, it’s best to use the handle of a broom or mop to pull the bowl away before picking it up when you give the “Leave It” command, and he doesn’t listen.

    Pinning a dog down, throwing them down to the floor, etc. to “establish dominance” will only cause additional issues in the long-run including further resource guarding of food and potentially moving onto other items (which is a big “no no” not only for pets but especially for pets around children.) I realize that Cesar Milan is all about body-slamming dogs to the ground and using forceful methods, but in the world of bully breeds, Cesar Milan is not too highly looked upon due to what you don’t see in his books or on his television shows.

    I’d recommend NILF methods with Milton as well as something to pull his food away. Through patience and NILF, he will learn that growling, guarding, or snapping over resource guarding is NOT tolerated, and if he wants something (even to move off a sit position,) he has to work for it.

    Here’s hoping that things work out well! He’s a big ole boy (though looks great with the weight loss!) but I have confidence that he can do it 🙂

    • Tim says:

      Interesting – I thought that expressing at least gentle dominance was a necessary part of training any dog (but, then, I’m decidedly NOT a dog person) – that’s what I do with my roommate’s dog when he acts up with me. It’s never a harsh thing – I wouldn’t be violent with an animal unless I thought someone’s life was in danger – I just sweep his legs, put him on his back, and use one hand on the head near the neck and another on the chest to keep him from moving for maybe 20 seconds. It doesn’t take much pressure or weight, and it seemed to work very well to teach him not to play-bite me.

      • Mrs. H. says:

        I do very similar things, Tim. I used to have to wrestle Milt to the ground, but that was a year ago or so. Now all I have to say is “lay down” in a stern voice and he gets down on the ground. If he’s laying down in a dominant way, I will point him in the direction I want him to go (I want that belly and throat partially exposed). I only hold him down while he’s in biting mode. That is more for my protection than to harm him, of course.

        I do ascribe a lot to what Cesar teaches. And at the foundation of his methods is the warning that you do what works best for your animal and you. If pinning him down doesn’t get the point across, then don’t do it. Never ever pull a dog off another dog, but your presence alone should be enough to break up the dog fight. That sort of thing. I’ve never seen him slam an animal to the ground. Anything that looks like slamming is often the animal writhing on his or her own volition.

        Because Milton is not a bully breed (he’s mostly lab, after all), most of our methods focus on breaking his excitement. Bringing him down from WAY TOO FOCUSED to oh whatever it’s dinner time. We do make him work for his food. His work takes the form of sitting and waiting patiently, or (something we’ve been doing lately that I am trying to wean him off of now) walking veeeerrry slowly around the house behind one of us, past his food bowl several times until he seems to not give a crap about passing his food bowl.

        What I’m personally dealing with right now (because he doesn’t dare do this with Robert) is him pushing the boundaries I’ve already established. He’s like a toddler right now. He knows the rules. He knows what happens when he follows the rules. And now he’s learning what happens when he breaks the rules. But Milton does not get to determine when Milton eats or how Milton eats or what Milton eats or where Milton eats. That’s what we’re working on now.

        In the cases of biting a human being, I do think it is absolutely appropriate to physically pin a dog. It doesn’t hurt them, and they learn that 1. teeth are not okay, and 2. the human is the dominant one. Milton actually relaxes pretty quickly now when he’s laying down and taking a time out. It really works, so I’ll keep up with it.

        Seriously, whatever works for you and your dog is always the best option.

  • Clare says:

    I’m not sure I put too much faith into that Ceasar guy. With all his alpha rolling and what not which is a rather outdated method of dog training… But from reading this it sounds to me as if the dog is worried that you’re going to meddle with him and his food. On one of my rottweiler forums they suggest to add treats to the food bowl and walk away. Leave him alone unless you’re doing something positive like adding treats. He’ll eventually get over it. But it will take some work.

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