Q: We have a new rescue puppy. She is 4 months old. So far, she has been great, we live on 10 acres so she is outside a lot. Our issue is she has food aggression toward our senior dog and has attacked her twice over food. She came from a place where she was not well fed so I’m assuming it derives from that. She is a mix between an Irish setter and a bouvier. Is this something you could help with?
A: Congratulations on your new rescue pup. Your new girl is lucky to have found her family and has all this space to enjoy. At the same time, I am sorry you’ve been encountering challenges between your pup and senior, so let’s deconstruct this situation and think about ways to make it work for all involved.
First, let’s address the behavior shown by your puppy. When working with clients, I urge them to look beyond behavior and set aside the tendency to label the behavior, in this case “resource guarding” or “food aggression,” and consider instead that these behaviors are symptoms of stress stemming from the way of life. Instead of this behavior being something wrong with the dog, it is a clue that we could do things better in the way of life.
Your pup being a rescue means it’s safe to say she’s endured challenges, and in this case, it appears that she experienced food deprivation. But what I see happen a lot in the world of rescue is that we tend to explain a dog’s present behavior according to events that happened in the past, sometimes a long time ago. Meanwhile, I know that dogs reflect the current situation and we happen to have control over that situation.
Let’s take a moment to consider what your new pup might be experiencing. She barely knows you, your family, your senior dog, and the environment. You mean well and give her lots of space to run around. When you say, “she is out a lot,” this suggests you have already included her with you and your other dog. She was deprived of food in the past yet is fed out in the open with the other dog (whom I repeat she does not know) nearby. How is she supposed to take this? Is it “food aggression” stemming from a past experience? Or is it the stress of being in this new place, without much structure, and eating next to a stranger? I would argue the puppy’s behavior is normal, considering her past and the present situation in which she finds herself.
How about your senior dog? Too often, we think puppies are good for seniors. In my twenty years of dealing with dogs in various capacities, I have yet to find a dog that’s 100% thrilled with a new addition, especially when the dogs are integrated immediately. All the old dogs want is peace in their golden years and here we ask them to take on a pup, and in your case, to deal with a pup that’s aggressive at mealtimes.
I hope you see by now that this situation isn’t fair to either one of the dogs. It also does not serve your relationship with your dogs and your credibility in their eyes. Both are confused about who they are to each other and especially about your role as their leader and guardian. When dogs misbehave, they’re doing one thing and one thing only: Asking us to get our act together.
You can easily fix this situation by creating separate schedules for the senior dog and for the puppy, allowing each to enjoy quality time with you that’s suited to their stage of development. Separate before you integrate; build a solid bond with each dog before putting them together. And even when you’re at that stage, be sparing and manage the situation so your puppy can flourish and your old dog can feel safe in her most vulnerable years.
Feed your dogs in privacy and not out in the open. I feed mine in their crates or separate spaces so they never feel tense around their food. Do not let anyone touch, talk to, or bother your dogs while they’re eating. If you only knew the importance of food for a dog, you would do everything to see to it that they get to enjoy at least this one pleasure in life. It’s easy to do and it means the world to them.