Understanding Your Dog’s Mealtime Behavior

The short answer to why your dog is guarding her food is that it values its food and doesn’t want anyone else to eat it. The longer, more complicated, answer has to do with your dog’s overall demeanor and your behavior.

In extreme cases, some dogs may actually attempt to bite anyone who attempts to approach them during mealtimes. Most dogs that exhibit food-guarding will show less obvious “symptoms,” such as body language that indicates stress, wolfing down food not just out of hunger, and subtle to not-so-subtle growling. Such dogs tend toward defensive or aggressive behaviors, which owners can often control.

One thing you don’t want to do is to remove your dog’s bowl while your pet is still eating, according to Linda Case, author of Canine and Feline Behavior and Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends. Doing this teaches your dog that you are, at least in that moment, an adversary, so it may resort to defensive tactics. Along the same lines, if you punish your dog for food guarding, it will also potentially see you as an enemy.

Train your dog to sit and stay before you offer food. Case advises that you feed your dog two to three times a day in a secure location, such as in a room with the door closed or within a gated corner. After it has finished its meal, let your dog out to do its business. At this time, remove the food bowl. You can follow the same procedure if you have a multi-dog household, feeding each dog separately. Reinforcing these nondestructive behaviors should help to resolve most mild cases of food-guarding.

The Reason Behind a Barking Dog

The United States Postal Service reports that thousands of urban and rural mail carriers are bitten each year by dogs. It’s such a serious problem that the U.S. Postal Service helps spread the word about National Dog Bite Prevention week every May.

Certain territorial dogs are very disturbed by mail carriers. Think about it from your dog’s perspective: An individual shows up daily, so he or she means business and poses a potential threat. The carrier often comes right to the door. The carrier may even slide scary objects through the door, invading your dog’s space.

Some dogs even become conditioned that their bark helps to ward off the carrier. Each day the mail delivery person comes, your dog barks and the carrier leaves. To the dog, that means its loud technique is working. Better socialization of your pet, such as through training classes, can improve its behavior around all people, including your dutiful mail carrier.    

Keep Your Dog Safe From Starting Fires

“When pet owners go out to run errands, the majority of them leave their dogs alone in the kitchen, which is the No. 1 place dogs accidentally start fires,” says American Kennel Club (AKC) spokeswoman Lisa Peterson. “Not many pet owners realize that their pet can actually be the cause of a devastating fire.”

Dog owners Chris and Kay Wardlow of Oklahoma know this all too well. After leaving their home for a short while, their dog, Lucy, accidentally hit a stove knob, turning on a gas burner. Within minutes, the Wardlows’ entire home filled with smoke, which was fortunately put out thanks to their smoke detector and home security system, ADT. Would you be so lucky under similar circumstances?

Dogs and Fires
An analysis conducted this year by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) determined that 1,000 house fires are started annually by dogs and other pets. Dogs tend to be frequent culprits simply because they are inquisitive, larger than other animals and capable of doing things like turning knobs.

How to Prevent Your Dog from Starting Fires
The American Kennel Club and ADT offer the following tips:

  • Remove stove knobs. According to the NFPA, a stove or cooktop is the No. 1 piece of equipment involved in your pet starting a fire. To help prevent this from happening, remove stove knobs or protect them with covers before you leave the house.
  • Extinguish open flames. Your curious dog, when given half a chance, will likely investigate cooking appliances, candles or even a fire in your fireplace. “Puppies that don’t even know what ‘hot’ is are especially prone to such self injuries,” says Peterson. Ensure that your pet is not left unattended around an open flame and that all open flames are thoroughly extinguished.
  • Invest in flameless candles. Halloween candles in jack-o’-lanterns can be dangerous if dogs rub up against them or knock over the pumpkin. Instead, seek out flameless candles that contain a lightbulb. A small flashlight can also be placed into Halloween pumpkins.
  • Protect wiring and holiday decorations. Many homes now contain a sea of electrical wires, used to power everything from the TV to Christmas tree lights. Puppies and other playful dogs may play and chew cords. “This can short-circuit the electrical system and may lead to a fire,” says Peterson. She advises that you place a baby gate or other decorative barrier between the dog and the wiring.

Keep Your Dog Safe
The AKC and ADT say taking these additional measures will also help to safeguard your dog:

  • Keep your dog near an entrance when you’re away from home, with a collar and leash at the ready. Firefighters can then rescue your dog quickly.
  • Secure young pets behind a baby gate, in a crate or other safe spot if you need to leave them behind for a short while.
  • Install a smoke detector in your home. Detectors connected to a monitoring center are even better.
  • Affix a pet alert window cling. This is a list, which you attach to a front window, that contains the number of pets in your home, their names and general descriptions. According to ADT, “This critical information saves rescuers time when locating your pets.”

As a final tip, Peterson says it helps to think like your dog. “Get down on the ground at your dog’s level to see what hazards are lurking,” she advises.

How to Prevent Dog Bites

New York City graduate student Lacey Brown was walking her roommate’s German shepherd last fall when the dog lunged and bit an elderly neighbor on the wrist. “The dog had been growling at people when we were out together, something he never did when he was with his owner,” she laments. “I should’ve stopped walking him when the growling began.”

Dr. Katy Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Virginia, concurs: “You have to know your dog and what it’s capable of. This dog probably viewed his owner as the alpha, and the roommate as the beta -- the dog was protecting Lacey, whom he considered to be his. You have to make sure your dog knows you’re higher in rank to prevent incidents like this one from happening.”

The Facts on Dog Bites

According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year. Of those, one in five requires medical attention. Additionally, around 31,000 people need reconstructive surgery each year as a result of a dog bite.

Children are most likely to be the victims of dog biting incidents, as are people with multiple canines in their home. To raise awareness and combat dog biting, the American Veterinary Medical Association sponsors National Dog Bite Prevention Week each May.

Protect Yourself and Your Pet

In honor of National Dog Bite Prevention Week, Nelson offers the following advice on protecting yourself and your pet from strange dogs -- and protecting strangers from your best friend:

  • Don’t make assumptions based on breed. “Sure, pugs and golden retrievers generally have gentle temperaments, but every single breed is going to have an exception to the rule,” emphasizes Nelson. “I’ve seen everything from aggressive pugs to pit bulls who like to roll around on the floor kissing their owners.”
  • Ask permission. Never touch a strange dog -- or let your own furry friend approach another dog -- without first checking with its owner. “It dumbfounds me when people let their kids walk around my waiting room petting the dogs there, but I see it all the time,” says Nelson. Most people will be happy to tell you if their companion is good with strangers in general, and with children and other dogs specifically.
  • Proceed with caution. “Just because someone says their dog is great with people and other pets doesn’t mean they’ll be great with you or your pet at that moment,” warns Nelson.
  • Be aware of your body language. Dogs are more likely to bite when they are anxious. Approaching them in the wrong way can only exacerbate their anxiety. Nelson recommends sticking your hand out, palm facing up, for the animal to sniff. “If it’s a big dog, I might do this from a standing position,” she says. “With a smaller dog, I crouch down. If you move toward them with a non-aggressive posture, you decrease the likelihood of aggression coming back at you.”

Protecting Others From Your Dog

  • Know your dog. Be realistic and honest with other people about what your dog is capable of. If your dog is a biter, it’s up to you to prevent it. Know your pet’s telltale signs of anxiety and aggression: If its ears go back and its hackles go up, the dog is saying it’s uncomfortable and needs to get out of its current situation.
  • Teach your dog who’s boss. In her own home, Nelson has made sure her dogs know that her 2-year-old son is alpha to them. “It’s a daily thing in my house, showing them that I’m first, then my son and then them,” she says. Nelson does this by monitoring all dog-child interactions and quickly putting a stop to it if one of the dogs tries to challenge the boy.
  • Minimize your furry friend’s anxiety. If you know your dog gets excessively anxious in the presence of strangers or at the dog park, lock it up in your bedroom when friends visit, and don’t take it to the playground. Keeping your dog calm will minimize the chance that it will become aggressive.

Lucky for Lacey Brown, her roommate’s shepherd only broke her neighbor’s watch -- and not his skin. “The man was angry, and I felt horrible, but it could have been worse,” she says. With Nelson’s advice, Brown doesn’t have to worry about the shepherd’s bad habits any more.

Are Dogs Like Human 2-year-olds?

Children go through the “terrible 2s,” a developmental stage characterized by whining, misbehavior and perpetual inquisitiveness. Dogs do something similar, only they never grow out of it. Canines aren’t quite as terrible, however, because they can’t throw a decent temper tantrum.

Numerous recent studies compare dogs to human 2-year-olds, both in terms of intelligence and behavior. Consider the following:

Dogs Do Math
Did you know that your dog is able to count up to four or five? Dogs also notice errors in simple computations, such as 1 + 1 = 1 or 1 + 1 = 3, based on research published in the journal Animal Cognition. Such studies on dogs use images or actual objects, not words.

Canine researcher Dr. Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, agrees that dogs are much smarter than we tend to think. “We all want insight into how our furry companions think, and we want to understand the silly, quirky and apparently irrational behaviors that Lassie or Rover demonstrate,” he says. “Their stunning flashes of brilliance and creativity are reminders that they may not be Einsteins but are sure closer to humans than we thought.”

Dogs Understand Words
The average dog can learn around 165 words. But canines in the top 20 percent of dog intelligence -- or “super dogs,” as Coren calls them -- can learn 250 words. Is your pet a super dog? Coren lists the seven smartest known breeds:

  1. Border collies
  2. Poodles
  3. German shepherds
  4. Golden retrievers
  5. Dobermans
  6. Shetland sheepdogs
  7. Labrador retrievers

Dogs Comprehend Our Complex Visual Signals
Another recent study in Animal Cognition tested dogs, as well as 2- and 3-year-old kids, on their ability to understand various pointing gestures. This was a workout for the scientific team, as they pointed with their elbows, legs, knees, arms and fingers. The dogs tied with the 2-year-olds.

Lead author Gabriella Lakatos, a research assistant at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, says her team demonstrated “that dogs can understand pointing gestures if a body part protrudes from the body silhouette.” If you want your dog to understand your finger pointing, outstretch your entire arm and point as if you’re playing to the back row of a large theater.

Dogs Copy Us, for Good and Bad
Your pointing can be productive. Coren said multiple studies show that dogs can solve problems by copying your, or a dog’s, behavior. For example, dogs can:

  • learn the location of valued items, such as treats.
  • figure out the fastest routes, such as the quickest way to get to a favorite chair.
  • operate mechanisms, like door latches and simple machines.
  • learn the meaning of words and symbolic concepts, sometimes just by eavesdropping.

Dogs can also deliberately deceive other dogs and people, usually to get a food reward. “And they are nearly as successful in deceiving humans as humans are in deceiving dogs,” warns Coren.

Why Two and Not Three or Older?
If dogs are so capable and intelligent, why are they likened to a human 2-year-old and not a 3-year-old or even an adult? The answer appears to be, coincidentally, twofold.

First, Lakatos explains that for her study, older children may have a more complex ability to realize the intention behind the pointing gesture. This gets into being able to imagine the mindset of others, which sometimes allows for predicting behaviors and developing a deeper understanding of that individual’s actions and more.

Second, it is likely that interactions during language facilitate understanding. Lack of linguistic ability, therefore, is an IQ-limiting factor in dogs. We humans have a unique propensity for language that, coinciding with brain development, really begins to blossom when we’re around 3 years old; dogs go through no such stage.

Humans and Dogs: A Poor Comparison
Even though it can be interesting to see how dogs rate on human-centric tests, Lakatos believes it’s a conceptual mistake to judge dogs based on criteria developed for people. “Any behavioral similarity or similar performance between dogs and children should be investigated separately,” she says. “To give you an example for a reverse case, nobody has tried to herd a flock of sheep with 2-year-olds.”