Beginning in the mid-1990's and continuing to the present day, pet owners and care providers are experiencing a rapid revolution in the way we think about the food we provide to our canine companions . A newfound emphasis on raw meat diets for our pets, often supplemented withmoderate amounts of vegetables, has taken commercial dog food markets by storm. In considering the diets of my own two dogs, I began to wonder how raw food diets came to be so popular.
To understand this revolution, I found it helped to have some background on the colorful history of dog food. It was in 1890 that consumers saw the very first commercially prepared food made specifically for dogs. The man who came up with the idea? His name was James Spratt, and what he developed was a treat for dogs composed primarily of wheat meals, vegetables, and meat.
Fast forward to 1918, the end of the First World War. Canned horse meat is introduced and heavily advertised in the U.S. as a way of dealing with the number of horses that had died serving in the conflict. "Ken L. Ration", a brand owned by Quaker Oats, advertised their dog food as "U.S. government inspected lean, red meat".
As time went on, the 1930's saw canned cat food and dry meat-meal dog food brought to U.S. markets by the Gaines Food Company. By the end of the Second World War, the pet food industry was worth a whopping 200 million annually. By 1941, canned foods for pets held 90% of the market share, but there was a problem. The USA, entering the Second World War, had begun to ration both tin and meat products. This resulted in a wide-spread return to dry food (kibble).
In the 1950's, Spratt's is bought by General Mills, and other corporate players such as Nabisco, Quaker Oats, and General Foods, start using food production by-products in their pet food lines.
The Pet Food Institute, a lobby group for the enormous pet food industry, decided to run an advertising campaign in 1964 designed to convince even more pet owners to stop feeding their dogs anything but pre-packaged, commercially made dog foods. Three years later America entered the "Beef Wars", with each pet food giant claiming that their kibble has the most beef when compared with any other. By 1975, 1500 different makers of dog food had entered North American markets. The advertising was, very simply, a free-for-all, with companies claiming a multitude of unfounded, untested "benefits" to using their food.
It wasn't until the 1980's that these mega-companies returned to a focus on the nutritional value of the foods they were offering their consumers. By this time, the vast majority of pet owners were feeding commercial foods to their dogs.
In 1997, Veterinary Nutritionist Kymythy Schultze publishes "Natural Nutrition for Dogs And Cats: The Ultimate Diet", suggesting in no uncertain terms that the high volume of grains found in many dog foods leads to a whole host of health problems: from ear infections, skin problems, and joint issues, to malabsorption of food and digestive disorders.
Adding further insult to the commercial pet food industry, in 2007 industrial food giant and Canadian manufacturer Menu Foods initiated the largest pet food recall in global history. Over 200 brands were put on recall. In the first month, 845 pet deaths had been reported in direct relation to pet foods made by Menu Foods. By the end of the recall, more than 4,000 pets had died. The cause? Wheat gluten, imported from China and used in their manufacturing process, had been contaminated with high amounts of melamine and cyanuric acid. These chemicals caused acute renal failure in the vast majority of pets that consumed their product.
Increasing distrust of commercial food processing resulted in even more North Americans looking for fresh alternative diets not only for themselves, but for their dogs, too. The 2000's saw dozens of pet food recalls, resulting from problems like fungal toxins, salmonella, and listeria.
In this way, the alternative dog food revolution was born. It split into three categories: home-prepared meals for dogs, fresh/raw diets, and high-end commercial food.
Home-prepared meals for dogs emphasize a nutritionally balanced provision of fats, proteins, and calcium. Feeding a household dog in this way requires a very solid understanding of dietary requirements related to the dog's breed, age, weight, activity, and overall physiology. A responsibility that is not to be taken lightly, home-prepared meals are the ultimate labor of love for our canine companions.
High-grade commercial diets stress their use of "human-grade" ingredients, and dietary components sourced from North American markets. Their advertising includes emphasis on "natural and organic ingredients", insisting that their products are "naturally grown", use "natural preservatives", and are more often than not grain-free. They are also notoriously more expensive than their grocery store counterparts, and can be found primarily in specialty pet food stores.
Last but certainly not least, the raw food diet. Starting rather modestly in the early 1990's, the raw food diet for dogs was originally recommended by Australian veterinarian Ian Bilinghurst, who introduced pet lovers worldwide to the BARF diet. Consisting of raw meat, bones, and occasional vegetation, advocates of the raw food diet consider it "species appropriate", and insist that it mirrors the diet of the dog's closest ancestor: the grey wolf. Now commercially available, the raw food diet for dogs is a huge hit with dog lovers worldwide, who claim it is responsible for less stinky breath, a shinier coat, and generally fewer health problems in their dogs. All that said, the raw food revolution is not without its naysayers, who claim that raw food can be dangerous to our pets, and even ourselves. With concerns like bacterial contamination and food safety, alongside questions of relative freshness (particularly when compared with home-prepared diets) these arguments, while adamantly shut down by proponents of these diets, are not without some merit.
Whether you choose high-grade commercial, home-prepared, or raw diets for your pets, it's no doubt that our dogs have come a long way from the table scraps they subsisted on for centuries. Much to their benefit and ours, as the diets we provide for their dogs become more sophisticated, we as consumers clearly want to understand where our dog's food is coming from. We demand basic core elements like freshness, wholesomeness, and completeness from the foods available commercially to our canine friends. We are beginning to comprehend that, like us, dogs are well deserving of a diet that meets their physical and mental needs, from the time they are a puppy, into adulthood, and throughout their senior years.
Handling toy and treat possessiveness when present in our furry friends requires a different approach from the one we use with food possessiveness. I generally employ one of two options when my clients come to me with a dog that is resource guarding his toys or treats.
The first is what I like to call the 'All-Or-Nothing' method, with a heavy emphasis on the nothing. With this approach, the dog is never permitted to have any treats or special treats for the rest of his natural life. Seem a little extreme? I'm inclined to agree, but for some clients who do not have the resources, either in available time or finances, to train these habitual behaviors into extinction (see my blog on extinction bursts and spontaneous recovery here www.alldogstoronto.com/the-all-dogs-blog/why-things-seem-to-get-worse-before-they-get-better), it's the only viable option.
Let's talk about method two, my personal favorite and the one I suggest first to any client with a dog that is resource guarding treats or toys.
We call it the "Exchange Game". Here's how it works:
Start with a hungry dog, some really stinky, tasty treats that you know he loves, and a toy that he plays with sometimes but is definitely not his favorite.
Offer your dog the lesser-valued toy (it helps if your dog knows "take it", and then immediately follow this up by offering one of those stinky, yummy treats in front of his nose. Your dog will invariably drop the toy in hopes of getting the treat. This is good! Offer your dog a string of these treats quickly enough that he does not go to pick up the toy again right away.
Note: If the resource guarding behavior is particularly severe and he will not allow you to get close to the toy, toss the treats to him from a safe distance one at a time.
It's really as simple as this, to start. Practice this repeatedly over many days. It is extremely important to never take the toy away from your dog by force until he's abandoned it himself and is in a calm, relaxed state of mine. When you're able to do the exchange many times in a row and your dog remains relaxed, progress to actually taking the toy yourself.
Holding the toy in one hand, wait for your dog to finish eating the treat you've delivered to him. Hold still until he says "please" by sitting (see my previous blog, www.alldogstoronto.com/the-all-dogs-blog/mine-mine-mine-part-one-food-possessiveness, for how this is done). Once he sits and looks at you, give the toy back.
Practice this literally hundreds of times over the weeks and months to come, implementing different objects your dog loves in different settings (for example, different rooms in the house, the backyard, the front yard, and during your daily walks together). In time, your dog will learn that life is much more enjoyable when he shares his toys and treats with you, because he always gets them back.
Food possessiveness is one of the most common habitual behavioral problems we see in our pet dogs. Regardless of breed, age, or temperament, all dogs are susceptible to developing impulse-control problems around the things they consider important. Today I'll talk about how to identify resource guarding behaviors around food in our canine friends, and what to do to modify these tendencies when present.
Resource guarding and the behaviors associated with it are usually very clear. "Whale eye" (the whites of the dog's eyes, which are large and around, are visible), curled lips, the baring of teeth, growling, barking, and even lunging are all part of the food possessive dog's repertoire.
So what do we do when we know our dog is food possessive? To begin, it helps to understand that this behavior is habitual, meaning that it will become more frequent, and more severe, if left unchecked over any length of time. It is also extremely important to note that food possessiveness is not an issue of dominance. Pinning a dog down, forcing a dog to 'submit' to the relinquishment of his or her favorite food or treat, or simply yanking it away, are responses that will unilaterally make the issue worse.
The following are two methods, or protocols, designed to combat the resource guarding of food. There is no right or wrong method here - use whatever works best for you and your dog. Don't be afraid to experiment with both methods.
Possessiveness Protocol #1: For Mild to Moderate Food Possessiveness
This protocol is designed for dogs at the early stages of the food guarding habit.
We begin the training work at meal time. While your dog is eating, from a distance of a few feet (you want to make sure you are standing far enough away that your dog is not yet exhibiting resource guarding behavior) toss her a steady stream (10-30) of small, one-bite treats near to the food bowl. This will encourage your dog to momentarily leave his food bowl, the first step in ending resource guarding behaviors.
Once the dog has finished eating and there is no food left to guard, move closer to your dog and toss a few more treats. It is important to cut back a little bit on the amount of food you are giving your dog at meal time when counter-conditioning resource guarding behaviors, to avoid weight gain. Every day, move a little bit closer to your dog and repeat this exercise, always certain that you are outside of your dog's defensive perimeter - in other words, that you are far enough away that your dog is not growling, or tensing up.
The key here is to keep your dog calm and relaxed around her food bowl, and teaching her to expect even tastier treats from you. If, after a full week of implementing this method you are not seeing any measurable results (you are unable to get any closer to your dog than when you started), move on to Protocol #2.
Protocol #2 - For Severe Food Possessiveness
For more deeply ingrained guarding behaviors, we need to go back to basic obedience training and making sure our dog learns a few truly fundamental obedience cues reliably and quickly.
We start with my favorite, Say "Please" By Sitting. I came across this basic, life-altering obedience behavior while studying the work of veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin. Today, I teach it all of the dogs in my care, allowing me to foster attitudes of self-control and polite behavior in any environment. And frankly, it's deceptively easy to teach. Here's how:
How to Teach Say "Please" By Sitting
First, start with a hungry dog right around meal time. Before giving your dog her meal for the day, hold a delicious treat you know your dog loves in your closed hand and allow the dog to sniff it. Once your dog knows you have it, stand perfectly still and look away. Do not make eye contact with your dog, do not say her name, and do absolutely nothing. Eventually, not knowing what to do to get that treat from you, your dog will offer you a polite sit. Note! If your dog has the tendency to walk away from you even in the presence of a food reward, put your dog on her leash and secure it around your waist with a couple of feet of lead space.
The very instant your dog sits, give them the treat. Do this 5-10 times in a row, and continue teaching your dog Say "Please" By Sitting whenever you have the opportunity. In a couple of days, your dog will begin to 'ask' you for everything she wants by sitting nearby. Pretty cool stuff!
Next, we want to teach our dogs how to "Leave It". "Leave It" is another critical behavior our household dogs need to learn to avoid putting bad or unwanted things in their mouth. A solid "Leave It" command can save you thousands in unnecessary veterinary bills over the life of your dog. Here's how to do it:
How to Teach "Leave It"
Begin by holding a treat in your hand. Allow your dog to sniff, lick, and try to get the treat from you. Keep your hand very still. The moment your dog moves her head back for even a moment, open your hand, move it close to your dog's mouth, and let her take it. After doing this 5-10 times, she should have the idea that if she moves away from the treat you are holding, she will get it shortly thereafter. If your dog does not get it by this point, chances are your timing is off and you may want to get some help from an experienced dog trainer.
To bring the lesson home, hold a second treat in your other hand and place it near your forehead, while holding the first treat in your closed fist. The moment your dog moves her nose away from the treat held in your closed hand, give her the treat held in the hand near to your forehead followed closely after by the one in your closed fist. After 30-40 repetitions like this over a few days, your dog should be sitting back and looking to you for direction. You can then omit the hand near the forehead part of this particular obedience cue.
Finally, you want to ad the cue words "Leave It", but only when you are certain your dog will move his nose away from your closed fist. To really proof the behavior, add "Take It" as a release word when you give your dog her treat. You can also progress to using an open hand instead of a closed one.
Seems easy enough, right? Well, we actually need to take this "Leave It" training one step further and teach your dog how to "Leave It" with items on the ground. Here's how to do it:
Put your dog on leash. Toss the treat outside of leash range and stand very still. When your dog predictably goes for the treat and gets to the end of the leash, stand very still. She will realize that you are not moving, and come back to sit in front of you, since you've already shown her how to say "please" by sitting. The moment your dog says "please" by sitting and looks at you, give her a string of treats (4-5) from your hand to keep your dog's gaze on you and not on the treat on the floor. Take a break from giving treats for a second or two at this point. Then, walk fast towards the treat and allow your dog to have it. Once you've practiced this a few times with your dog, add the cue word "Take It". Be sure to practice!
Once your dog is proficient at specific automatic sits and the leave it exercises, you can begin to expect her to sit to receive her meals as well. Here's how:
Start with your dog on leash. Hold your dog's food bowl out of range and wait for her to say "please" by sitting. Put the bowl down outside of leash range and say "leave it". Here's the tricky part:
If your dog gets up, that's okay. Wait for her to sit again. Once sitting, give your dog treats, unhook the leash, give the release word (for example, "Take It") and allow your dog to have her meal. Once your dog is finished eating, slowly approach her with her favorite treat in hand and stand just outside of her defensive zone. Once she says "please" by sitting, give her the treat. If you make this her daily feeding routine, you will see a dramatic reduction in your dog's tendency to resource guard her food.
Good obedience training is the start of ensuring every dog's likelihood of success as a polite, well-rounded member of the household. Dogs are not born with the skills they need to fit in with our lifestyles, and teaching them these behaviors is our primary responsibility as pet owners and dog lovers. From these fundamentals stem our ability to successfully modify our dog's behaviors throughout their time with us, and it is only through their cultivation that we can thoroughly enjoy the companionship of our canine friends.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.