Canine Behavior/OES Food Agression
I rescued a 2 year old Old English Sheepdog this past Sept. She was in very bad physical and emotional condition. She was very emaciated and had a terrible skin condition. She also had a really bad ear infection in both ears. She was a surrender from her owner to a local animal shelter. I was not able to obtain much history on her other than there were children at the home. I have since deduced that she must have been the "baby" and then a baby came along and she was put outside. She was no longer cared for and was exposed to the elements. I have also learned that they must have used a spray bottle to discipline her, and she was not allowed to play with toys, because she didn't seem to have any concept of how to play with a toy.
When I first brought her home and began feeding her she was ravenous. I made sure that she ate the recommended amount of food at regular feeding times. Even though she was 2 I started her out on puppy food, because I knew the fat content was higher and I also thought she might benefit from the nutrients found in the puppy food. I also occasionally mixed up some pumpkin in her food to give it a little more bulk and help her to feel more satisfied. (She is now on adult food.)
She has a habit of taking a mouthful of food and laying down near the dish and eating. After she began to put on some weight she began losing interest in her food and I had to coax her to eat. Sometimes it takes her all day to eat her breakfast. Then, in the evening she is more than ready for supper and will eat it all up. Other times, she just seems disinterested all day and I can hear her stomach making noises.
In March we rescued a little Cocker-Scotty breed that is very friendly and playful. They hit it off right away. However, the OES is still very protective of her food. She still lays by the food dish all day long and if anyone moves around the area and she thinks that they might go near her food she will jump up and run over to the dish. I have tried to pick it up and put it out of sight so that she could relax and go about her business without worrying about the new dog getting it. But, that just seemed to make her more anxious and aggressive when it was down. If the other dog goes near her food area (she eats in another part of the house) sometimes she will go after her. She has jumped on the little dog a few times, not really hurting her, but establishing boundaries. I really don't know what to do to get this situation resolved. I may not be doing the right thing, but really am not sure. I thought she would relax in this area after a period of time, but it doesn't seem to be changing much. Sometimes she will let the other dog come up and get water while she is standing by the dish, but that doesn't happen very often.
Other than this food dish issue, they get along really well together. They cry if one has to go to the vet or somewhere without the other, and they get treats together without any aggression. At first the OES would not let the little dog touch her or lay down near her, but now they lay together and sniff and lick each other. However, when the little dog plays with a toy the OES will bark and run over and try to take the toy away. If she does get the toy she will take it and go lay down with it. I cannot tell what that is all about, because her tail is wagging, but she barks and runs over to stop the play. She doesn't seem to want to play too.
Any suggestions that you make will be more than appreciated.
Thank you for your question. Kudos to you for taking in a dog who was in such dire straits. It is a testament to your commitment to her that she has put on weight, healed and come out of her shell, even learning to get along with the newest furry addition to the family.
What you're describing - protecting her food bowl and occasionally the water bowl, and the toys - is called Resource Guarding. It's actually a totally normal suvivial skill that all social animals have to some extent. Some more than others, to be sure, but it is a normal behavior. It is the act of protecting items that the individual deems valuable, that they believe is at risk of being stolen. I've known dogs who guard all sorts of things from food to toys to their people to leaves and sticks, doorways, entire rooms, etc. I point out the normalcy of the behavior because it's important to understand the motivation behind the behavior in order to address it.
Our instinct is typically to punish such acting out - even if only scolding the dog, or temporarily kicking them out of the social environment for a "time out." I don't know if this is what you have done in these moments, but the problem with that response is that we are actually telling the guarding dog that they're absolutely RIGHT to fear losing their treasured thing or place within the family/activity. They are telling us "I'm afriad you may steal this, go away!!!" and we promptly take away, separate or otherwise show our dissatisfaction with their behavior and they leave the encounter thinking "See!!! You are going to steal my thing or keep me from being involved! I was right!!!! Next time I'll warn you away earlier or more intensely."
It can become a vicious escalation of undesired behavior if we're not careful. I should note at this point that my Rainbow Bridge dog resoure gaurded her food and certain toys for nearly all of her 14+ years. So I'm quite familiar with this situation.
The best thing we can do is a two-prong approach. First, management, which you seem to be doing at least to some extent by separating the dogs at meal time. It's a really good sign that the dogs get along with each other outside of these specific situations. The other prong is retraining - helping reassure your OES that she has no reason to fear that the little one will steal her stuff, which I'll address in a moment.
The behavior you describe regarding the toys may seem conflicted on the face. She steals the toys and her tail is wagging, but she doesn't want to play with them. The confusion comes from the tail-wag. In actuality, tails wag for lots of reasons, not just out of joy or in play. Tails will wag with varying speed and in varying positon relative to the dog's spine (parallel to spine, above, very high, below parallel, pointed at the floor, tucked between legs, etc) based on their emotional state. Even a high tail base (the part closest to the body) which suggests great confidence can be a manifestation of fear in relation to resource guarding.
Your OES is stealing the toys and guarding them. This may be a matter of feeling overwhelmed by the play activity of the other dog and so she's trying to control the environment to feel safer (this is also sometimes why one dog will mount another during play), or it may be something like "I don't want to play with this thing, but I don't want you to play with it either...." My own dog had several toys that she had ZERO interest in playing with, but refused to allow my younger dog to enjoy either. My management for that situation was to have private playtime with the younger dog. We'd go into a separate room, play with those toys for 20-45 minutes, then either immediately before or after, or sometimes a few hours later, I'd take the guarding dog into a separate room for some private love time. If she wasn't interested in those toys, then we'd play with one she did like, or we'd just have a snuggle fest also for 20-45 minutes. It may not happen every single day, but I'd certainly try to do this several times per week. When I got a young puppy, I had to do this daily because the puppy had so much energy to burn and really required the enrichment.
So... you can give them treats without the OES becoming upset. The likely reason this is possible is because the treats are individual bites and hand-fed. You may try hand feeding her in another room, rather than in a bowl. Or you may try scattering her food on the floor so she can scavenge - that may or may not be a good idea for this dog in particular. You may want to try hand-feeding in a space she doesn't normally get access to; a room you can close off so she can't get in there outside of meal time. Or, if she guards that room all day outside of meal time, it may be better to feed her in the main living space or even while out on a walk. In fact, I often use meal time as a perfect opportuinity to train leash skills. Have a handful of kibble in your hand and put it to her nose while walking at a normal pace. Sometimes give her one kibble, sometimes giver her 8 or 10 kibbles one after the other in quick succession so she learns that staying near you and checking in with you (looking up at you) is a worthwhile thing to do because it means food. You can help her be successful at this by saying her name or asking for a Focus or Watch Me if she has such a command to look at you. Then, a quick walk around the block with perhaps a couple stops and asking her to Sit or Down or Shake, etc you can get through the whole meal in short order, without having it occur in an area that she's likely to guard.
I would also recommend the book Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs
by Jean Donaldson
This books explains resource guarding quite well and offers some exercises to help your OES become more secure in those situations. You'll have to modify the exercises a bit to work for dog-dog guarding rather than dog-human guarding issues. And, make sure that you pay just as much attention to the little one's stress/anxiety as you do to the OES. You have to go slow and keep enough distance when working that both dogs stay below threhold - that moment of explosion when they are compelled to react and can't think clearly or make good choices.
If you're not sure how to modify exercises to work with dog-dog guarding issues, you should seek the assistance of a local professional who utiizes positive reinforcement methods based on learning theory. DON'T work with anyone who suggests the use of choke chain, prong collars or (especially) electronic collars - either shock, buzz, vibrate or citronella. The resource guarding is essentially a FEAR based behavior and so any methods that are coercive, or aggressive will only serve to increase her sense of fear in this situation. Ideally the professional you work with is familiar with the book Mine and the suggestions in it - or is willing to read it to prepare to help you. Being familiar with Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) protocols would be helpful also. There's a book that you may find useful on this topic as well.
Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT for Fear, Frustration and Aggression
by Grisha Stewart
I hope some of this proves helpful. Please feel free to follow up if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist