Food guarding 'dangerous behavior' in pets if not addressed, experts say

(File, MGN)

Last month ABC 33/40 reported on an Alabaster girl severely bitten by a neighbor's dog.

The girl had tried to pet her neighbor's husky while it was eating when it attacked her.

ABC 33/40 reached out to experts in animal training and behavior to learn more about preventing this type of horrific incident. With four million dog bites happening each year in this country, more effort is needed on the part of pet owners, according to experts.

With family and friends, including their children, at your home this holiday season, it's important to have this on your radar. Children five to nine years old are most at risk to be bitten. Over half of those injuries occur at home with dogs they're familiar with.

"When I have an owner who calls us at the first growl, it's usually so simple; fix that problem," explains Canine Behavior Consultant Abigail Witthauer with Roverchase in Pelham. Unfortunately she says too often that call comes after a bite.

While guarding behavior is normal in animals, experts say when it crosses over to aggression toward humans it should be addressed as "dangerous behavior." It's best to address this behavior when the dogs are puppies, as trainers believe they can have the most success working on these issues while the dog is young.

"They can resource-guard food, toys, territory. They're scared to death you're going to take their stuff," warns Veterinarian Dr. Jenny Biehunko.

She says to watch for warning signs: tensing, freezing, showing the whites of the eyes, the ears going back. Dogs rarely just bite out of the blue; they let you know when they are anxious and afraid. It's best to put your dog in a quiet room if crowds and unfamiliar people bother them.

Dr. Biehunko says training must be science-based, centering on positive reinforcement. Trainers advise never to strike a dog. Your hand must be viewed as "friendly." Simple strategies such as rewarding a dog with treats and praise for good behavior work best according to Dr. Biehunko. She says research overwhelmingly shows that is the right approach.

Children need to be taught the best way to interact with a dog early on.

"The safest way to pet them is under the chin... never on top of the head or with big hugs," says Witthauer.

"People don't like to hearing that dogs don't like hugs and kisses, but they don't," says Dr. Bienhunko. Most dogs, especially smaller breeds, bite out of fear.

Kids should stay away from pets while they eat. If you see any aggression from your dog while they are eating, such as growling or tensing up, it must be dealt with by a professional trainer, advises Dr. Bienhunko. She says that behavior could progress, and the dog could become vicious or even bite.

Training we're told costs less than most people realize. We found rates starting at $25 an hour. When you consider the potential for biting, it's a good investment.

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