I recently started using more food and treats when training my dog. I am very happy with the results except I am concerned because my dog has started to become possessive of me. I work in a dog daycare and have been training at work (I figured it was good distraction practice) and yesterday a very docile dog walked past me and my dog tired to start a fight with him! My dog is a 3 year old female pit bull mix, and we have been working on some leash reactivity issues but have been making good progress. Do you have any suggestions?
Thanks! ~ Emily H.
Thank you for taking the time to write me. The first thing I would recommend to you is to always be very cautious using food for training in groups of dogs. I run a dog daycare and I am often training dogs that are with us. I am very careful about which (if any) dogs I allow out into the group while I am working with a dog. The reason is too much excitement for some dogs can cause them to act differently – it may causes issues with the dog you are working or a dog who is simply in the area.
Having food around or toys may be too much for some dogs. In this case, it sounds like the food may be increasing your dogs arousal level, and this is causing her to act aggressively. It’s also possible she is doing a bit of resource guarding of you and/or the food you are carrying. Some dogs are prone to over arousal, and adding food to the mix just tips them over the edge and causes them to act in ways we find concerning.
The first thing I would do, if you are not already doing so, is train your dog with the lowest value food she will work for. I find with other dogs around most dogs will jump at the chance to work for kibble. The higher the value of the food the more it is going to raise her arousal.
Secondly, I would not use food or toys for training any exciting/stimulating activities while she is out with other dogs. You can, however, use food rewards for calm behaviours such as group place and stays. It will be valuable for your dog to learn to be calm and have self control when there are food and other dogs present. It would be a good idea to reward your dog and then also reward the other dogs, so your dog sees you giving food to the other dogs while she is in a calm stationary behaviour. If she breaks her position calmly place her back where she has been asked to stay. If your dog does not have a solid place or stay behaviour, teach them this at home before trying at the daycare.
Last, but not least, you will want to spend some time working your dog through the arousal issue surrounding food. I would recommend doing a lot of activities that will teach impulse control around food, such as: It’s Yer Choice, Leave It, No Mugging, and other games that will work on impulse control. You could also try some guided relaxation which will help to condition your dog to be calm around food.
When your dog is doing super with these steps you can start attempting to add in small amounts of more stimulating training around other dogs. If at any time your dog shows any of the negative behaviour mark this with a non-emotional ‘time out cue’ – this is a word of simple phrase that will consistently indicate to your dog they will get a time out – such as ‘oops’, ‘too bad’, or ‘time out’ and calmly lead them to a short time out in a crate. Your dog should start to understand that displaying this behaviour is going to end up in her being taken away from you and the food – which is the exact opposite of what she wants! It’s important to note that a time out should be a back up, think of it as emergency brakes, it should not be your main mode of teaching. If you do have to give your dog a time out please re-evaluate your training as you have likely asked too much of your dog in that moment. I would also consider getting guidance from a qualified professional trainer in your area to help you with this.
Thanks so much and happy training,