A few weeks back I had an interesting case of a canine with food bowl aggression. This patient has other anxiety issues but his food bowl aggression was something his caregivers needed to deal with on a twice daily basis, and hence it was really something that could no longer be ignored.
It had got to the point where the diminutive Shiba Inu, I am going to call Manny, would hold his caregivers prisoners while he ate. For twenty minutes around each meal time they needed to remain motionless. If they attempted movement, whilst he was eating, he would bite their feet. Sometimes he would abandon his bowl and come and lay his head, menacingly, on a foot, but if there was still food in the bowl it meant they should remain stationary or else he would attack their foot.
Both caregivers had been bitten several times by Manny. This creates a situation where a strong history of reinforcement exacerbates the behaviour. They are in a vicious circle. Biting people had resulted in them not moving whilst he ate – his goal. Manny wants to keep people still while he eats, probably because he is worried about what people might do. He finds the world a scary and unpredictable place. His aggressive responses are his attempts at gleaning control. It is bizarre and strange to require this much control over your caregivers’ movements whilst eating – especially as they are unthreatening and often just trying to stay away – but this is a good example of how such strange behaviour helps us to diagnose Manny with a mental health disorder. This is not a result of a lack of training. Needing to have such control over his caregivers movements is abnormal and is suggestive of a brain that cannot deal with the information it is receiving. He is neither an effective communicator of his needs or a fluent reader of the communication sent from others. Manny’s brain is acting on instinct – he is over reactive and seeks an abnormal level of control over his surroundings.
When dealing with a behaviour issue one of the first tasks of the veterinary behaviourist is to manage the behaviour so there can no longer be reinforcement – that means the practice and rehearsal of the unwanted behaviour must not be allowed to continue, as this only strengthens the behaviour.
It seemed difficult to create any safety whilst still using a food bowl with Manny – his caregivers had already changed the way they fed him on numerous occasions, and were now left with a series of no-go zones that all resulted in the same guarding and offensive behaviour.
A decision was made to hand feed Manny with very small morsels of food, no bigger than a small fingernail – nothing that was large enough to be taken away and then guarded – food would be fed at a fast rate so as not to create any frustration. During the consultation Manny had showed himself to be exceptionally smart, but also unable to deal with frustration (barking for attention) and any prolonged waiting for food might see the plan fail. It is always important to remember that a strategy has to be constructed for an individual, and although it would be ideal to teach Manny some impulse control, the first thing that needs to happen is that there needs to be a period of time (of around eight weeks) where there have been no aggressive events, and Manny has developed some calmness and reliability around meal times. After this time we might be able to introduce some more variables.
Thankfully this first part of the puzzle is working well and Manny’s caregivers report that hand feeding has been working well – so well that they are prepared to remain doing this for some time – as it was, they could not do anything with the time when he was eating – except wait while he “shark circled” – so the time taken to hand feed him is not onerous – but rather a chance now to build on trust and eventually they will be able to work on focus and self control.