Saturday, August 27, 2011

Dogs have food issues too...

Aside from dog shows, I've been known to waste countless hours in front of the television watching episode after episode of X-Weighted, The Biggest Loser, and The Last Ten Pounds Bootcamp. It's probably because I used to struggle with weight myself, so I can relate to the stories of people trying to overcome their unhealthy lifestyles.

The common thread in all of these stories is food. Sedentary lifestyle aside, food is by and large the biggest demon against which many of us who have been overweight struggle. It is an easy and undemanding partner. It doesn't judge you because you messed up at work or because your purse and your shoes clash. It cheers you up, relieves your stress, alleviates your boredom, and even celebrates your victories.

There is, after all, a reason they call it "comfort food"...

People aren't the only beings who have an unhealthy relationship with food. I know this because I have ended up with a dog who has to fight a few food demons of his own.

Before we even met him, we learned that the Beast may have certain unhealthy food tendencies. More precisely, his Humane Society record indicated that he demonstrated food aggression. Yikes!! Watch an episode of The Dog Whisperer where Cesar helps a family deal with food aggression and you will understand my concern. A food aggressive dog thinks that he is the Alpha, and wants to control food and feeding. He will do whatever he can - growling, snarling, and even biting - to protect HIS food. This is a potentially dangerous behaviour, not only because it can lead to a serious bite, but also because it will hurt your relationship with your dog, leading to a never-ending cycle of aggression, fear and mistrust.

So yes, I was more than a little intimidated to hear that the dog I was being asked to adopt had food aggression. Our relationship almost ended before we even met. But the Beast's foster mom assured me that she had never seen any signs of it. He definitely liked his food - A LOT - but had never once growled, snarled or lunged at her or her other dogs when she fed him.

Queue the big sigh of relief.

Just as a precaution, though, we visited our dog trainer before we even brought the Beast home for some preemptive advice on claiming the Beast's food and teaching him that eating was our decision, not his.

When he came home, we were ready to claim that food bowl and to show him that we were the bosses! What we did not anticipate was the crazed hurricane of excited drool that whipped through our living room the first time that we reached for his food dish. He'd never even eaten from it yet but he just seemed to know that it was for food. This is how he earned the nickname "Tasmanian Devil" - because he kept jumping around and around and around and around in the exact same spot, over and over again, panting as though he had just run a marathon, ears straight up, pupils completely dilated, and mouth wide open in a ridiculous grin. I got dizzy just watching him (and when I tried to imitate it once to show a friend what he was like, I thought I was going to throw up). He would only stop his cyclonic dance long enough to try to put his nose in the dish while it was still in my hands.

I've fed a lot of dogs in my life, but I have never seen anything like this!

Still, there was no growling, no snarling, no baring teeth. We wondered if this was just a quirky puppy behaviour that he would grow out of with time. And truthfully, it was kind of cute to watch him throw triple axel after triple axel on our living room floor. We would have probably been willing to accept it had we not had this aura of Humane Society-observed food aggression hanging over our relationship. So we had to claim that damn dog bowl, no matter how much drool would puddle on our floor and no matter how many scratch marks would be left on the laminate.

I worked out a system where I would approach the Beast with the dog dish behind my back. This way, although he still jumped like a deranged kangaroo, he couldn't put his nose in the dish and try to eat everything. Then I would stand there - with all the calm energy that I could muster - until his ass would hit the ground. It wasn't a real sit, because he was bouncing around like he was having muscle spasms throughout his entire body, but it was as calm as he was capable of being, so it would have to do for now. Then I would lower the dog dish - still behind me - and use my body to block him from trying to get around to dive right into it (which he tried to do every time). Once he would "sit" again. I would step back, with a leg on either side of the dog dish, and let him eat while I stood over him.

He had no trouble with me being over him as he ate. He even ate some of his food right from my hand - supposedly a very good sign. But boy, did he ever eat FAST. You could stick a hoover hose in the dog dish and it could not have sucked up the dog food as quickly. All his ancestral and wild doggy instincts were screaming at him that it would be a long time before the next successful hunt, so he'd better EAT RIGHT NOW! I was convinced that he would choke himself the way that he was going.

Over the next few days and weeks, he and I settled into a routine. He laid down on his bed while I got his food ready. I put the food down on the ground for him so long as he was calm. Before he could eat, we would give me eye contact and then wait for my signal. As for the eating too quickly, I learned that if I walk away instead of hanging over him, he remains calm and eats at a reasonable pace. Stress-free feeding ritual! Yay! Success! I do NOT have a food aggressive dog.

Not so fast...

Kibble is one thing. Bones, on the other hand...

We thought fresh bison bones could be a nice weekly treat for the Beast, the same way that we often give ourselves food treats on the weekends. And since we had mastered the art of claiming his food, it shouldn't be so hard to master the art of claiming a bison bone.

But there is something more primal about a bone.

The Beast went through the entire feeding ritual with no problems. Lie down, stay calm, make eye contact, wait for the signal, get the bone. But this time, as soon as the bone went into his mouth, he growled at me. Then he snarled. Then he ran into his crate to protect the bone.

Well I wasn't going to put up with that, so I followed, and without thinking, down I went to pick up the bone. And what did the Beast do? He lunged at me, and came within millimeters of drawing blood. "Get away from MY bone," he said, and he meant business.

So he does have food aggression.

I'm truly not exaggerating when I say that my heart broke just a little.

The bottom line is that I do not want a dog with food aggression. I'm not experienced enough to know how to deal with it. I'm not very calm by nature, let alone when a dog is growling, snarling and biting at me. And I'm just not willing to have a dog try to position himself as kingpin in MY home. So what the f&$k was I going to do?

Well, I guess I was just going to have to get that damn bone back. So I picked up a corn broom and walked over to the corner of the back yard where the Beast had taken his prize while I recovered from my near-bite-experience. As soon as I approached, the Beast started to growl, low and guttural. I moved a little closer and he snarled, showing his long, sharp teeth. I put the corn broom down beside his snout, and he snapped at it immediately, which gave me the opportunity to cover the bone with the broom.

Frankly, I didn't know him well enough at the time to know whether he would lunge at my face next. Still, we spent the next five minutes staring each other down. He kept growling, snarling, and lunging at the broom, with every hair on his body standing on end. I stood as tall as I could under the circumstances, reminding myself to take deep breaths to calm myself down, even though I was seriously frightened.

And then, he gave it up. Just as suddenly as he had lunged at me 10 minutes earlier, he stopped growling, casually got up, and walked away from me, from the broom, and from the bone. As for me, well, I reached down, picked up the bone, threw it in the garbage, let out a huge sigh of relief, and then started to cry. I cried because I was scared. I cried because I was angry. I even cried because the thought occurred to me that we would have to give him back...

But then, as he so often does, my calm and logical husband stepped in to insert some reason into my frazzled state. He told me to stop putting so much pressure on myself to "fix this dog" right away. He told me that I couldn't be expected to know how to deal with every behaviour issue. He reminded me that I had actually just succeeded in claiming a victory over the dog and over the bone. And he reassured me that we would figure this out together.

He also told me to get rid of the bison bones.

The solution, of course, is not that simple. In the past three months, we've found at least one other food aggression trigger: his food puzzle that we use to crate him. Just this morning, the Beast tried to bite my husband when he went to take it away. We had to spend a few extra minutes with a hockey-glove covered hand (just in case) resting beside the food puzzle until the Beast backed away from it.

It still upsets me every time, although admittedly, it happens less frequently. And it hasn't eroded our trust or hurt our relationship. Partly because I am learning that there is a difference between having a food aggressive dog, and having one who just occasionally feels the need to assert his dominance in the household. The Beast is in the latter category. My job is to remind him that hubby and I are the leaders, and I can't do that if I am always freaking out about his eating habits.

I'm also learning to cut him a little bit of slack. After all, I turn to food for comfort every now and then. If I can have a few food issues, I suppose it's only fair that the Beast does too...