Why so handsy with dog food?

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Streey eats in style
She does not seem to mind the filming as long as I am not facing her

A few days ago I put up a video of me feeding a streetie. She’s a very friendly girl who hangs-out outside our breakfast joint and generally goes around asking to be pet. Sometimes she’ll take cookies from me. But this is how she eats. She will sit with her belly on the ground, wait for me to walk away and then she takes her time with the cookies. People who interact regularly with street dogs know that many of them are like this. They need a bit of space. Not much. You can see from the picture that it is barely a few feet and they need you to look away.

…She will wait for me to walk away and then she takes her time with the cookies. People who interact regularly with street dogs know that many of them are like this…

It makes complete sense that dogs need this space. I’d imagine all animals need this space. I need it too. Sure, we are a species that eats socially, but we still have our way of defining some spaces and boundaries. It varies based on individuals and cultures, but it’s amazing how meticulously we define boundaries to enable communal eating huddling around a dining table. With animals, it’s easy to see that their need for space is a bit more. I recently took a big bag of chunky pieces of food to give away to some streeties. I did scatter them around because I knew that if I lumped them all together a fight is likely to break out.  Apparently my idea of scattering was not what these streeties had in mind. They each took their piece and walked further away. Not very far away, just a few feet, but they were definitely not choosing to all sit huddled and eating. I’ve seen little puppies do that, but as they grow, very quickly you see a marked desire to have just a bit of space.

I find dogs fascinating. I cannot imagine too many other animals being comfortable with the kind of space that’s between me and this dog in this picture. And yet, it seems we want to demand of them that relinquish even that last bit of space and be okay with us up in their faces, fingers in their food, talking to them, babies pulling their ears and tails etc…I am not sure I understand why we need to claim so much space from our dogs?

…We demand our dogs be okay with us up in their faces, fingers in their food, talking to them, babies pulling their ears and tails etc…

pangala
My grandparent’s home in a coastal village in India and a beach dog.

When I was growing up, I’d visit my grandfather on his farm in a village. Every summer vacation, the cousins would meet up, run around the farm unsupervised, climb mango trees, get bitten by big red ants and generally make a nuisance of ourselves. We were given good advice to stay away from sleeping animals, eating animals, ill animals and mommy animals. “Don’t poke the sleeping snake or dog”. “Don’t go near the eating cow or dog”. For some reason, this advice seems to have fallen out of fashion. It instead seems to be a requirement of dogs to relinquish all need for space. Period.

…When I was growing up, I’d visit my grandfather on his farm in a village. We were given good advice to stay away from sleeping animals, eating animals, ill animals and mommy animals…

Dogs are amazing, they truly are. They are incredibly accommodating of humans. Moving from a coastal village to a city like Bangalore, dogs appropriately shrink their need for space. I’ve seen it happen in cities, I’ve seen it happen in the smallest of indoor spaces too, where they’ve shrunk it further. Some in fact even need us around. Cheerwal is one of those dogs who needs company when eating. Some streeties need their guardians to hang around for them to eat. Makes sense. Eating is putting themselves in a vulnerable position and so having someone trustworthy stand guard makes sense. Cheerwal is like that too. Cheerwal gets fed in the kitchen and I need to stay there with her. If I do stay back, I am just about two feet away and she’s okay with that. Her only requirement is that I turn away, don’t pay too much attention to her and don’t move around a lot. It’s not hard for me to do that, that’s about how long it takes me to put up an instagram post and type out all those hashtags.

A dog like Nishi would take a bit longer perhaps. She’s also a dog with physical disabilities that make it challenging for her to eat and sometimes she needs help with picking up food. So we do need to stick around, but she too will throw a few dirty looks our way if we don’t sit a little away, turning away if possible and not interacting with her. If she needs help, she asks.

Some parents ask me about children around dogs and food. I do not see why the advice my grandfather gave us does not apply here – be it pet dogs, street dogs or other animals. In fact, why are we not teaching this in school at the earliest age possible so that our children do not put themselves at risk around our street dogs or snake or monkey or anything else they may encounter. I’ve actually had all these animals and a few more wander into my home. This is India after all and I love this about our country. But no reason we cannot teach our kids how to deal with it and be safe.

…why are we not teaching this in school at the earliest age possible so that our children do not put themselves at risk around our free ranging animals…

I was asked by someone my views on hand feeding to gain trust of a dog. I don’t find it effective enough. I’ve been trying to gain the trust of a pack of particularly skittish and suspicious streeties so that that I can get them spayed and vaccinated. I did try to see if they will take food from my hands and nope! “Drop, walk a few feet away and turn away”, seems to be the only way to gain trust and get them to come closer. The more I respect their need for space, the more they seem to be willing to trust me and that in fact seems like a better strategy to gain trust. Asking them to eat from my hands would be demanding so much trust of them, I don’t see why they’d give it or why I need it? I just need to get to a point where I can touch them and pet them, without it having to be my hands in their food. With that, I could help them effectively. Food seems to be where many dogs are drawing the line and that seems reasonable. If some get past that line and willing to trust me more, great. But do I get to demand it of my pet dog, simply because the dog is “my pet”?

Some people seem to use hands-in-food as a strategy to address food reactivity. We must remember that what we are doing here is working with a dog that is already very wired up and asking the dog to get comfortable with something that is so highly unnatural. This streetie in this video is the most friendly, chilled out dog I’ve met. I am still to come across pet dogs this chilled out and yet she needed that bit of space. It is a known fact that when we push stressed animals to do more and more of what stresses them out, they either snap or suffer from learned helplessness. Unfortunately learned helplessness looks notoriously similar to obedience or submission and it’s easy to believe that the problem has been solved.

…The question is, is it really so important to claim that space from them. What if we went the other way and figured out how to give them that space…

The question however, which Turid got me to ask of myself was if we really needed to be doing it this way.  Is it really so important to claim that space from them. What if we went the other way and figured out how to give them that space for that short duration of the day when they are wolfing down their meal. I’ve posed this challenge to upwards of a thousand clients and students and almost always if there was a will to pull it off, they have done it, irrespective of challenges like tiny space, too many dogs, too many people, young children, other animals etc…Most times, it’s easier to do than one would imagine, if one understood the need for it.

I once interviewed a few people who are regular streety feeders to write an article about the wonderful work they do. I asked them if the dogs fight a lot. They were vehement at correcting the misconception that these dogs are aggressive, but almost all of them admitted that if there was going to be the occasional fight, that’s perhaps around food or because of a female on heat. Almost all of them figure out that when feeding these dogs, it’s smart to create as much space as practically possible . This really is a big deal for animals, I’m sure our dogs would appreciate it if we understood that about them. They seem to be willing to be very accommodative of us. We don’t have to push it.

And before you go, we are relaunching our #livesofstreeties project on our Instagram handle where promise to bring you loads of pictures and videos of street dogs and educational campaigns that help us read and analyze these dogs behaviour and body language. Do not forgot to follow us on Instagram and Facebook.

About the Author
sindhoorchinna-3Sindhoor is a canine behaviour consultant, Galen myotherapist and educator in Bangalore, India. She is the country representative for Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE) and the founder of BHARCS, a premier canine education academy and Bangalore Hundeskole, a consultation service for holistic canine care.  Sindhoor also studies free ranging dogs in India and while she wears many hats, being mommy to two amazing dogs – Nishi and Tiggy, whom she considers her inspiration and her greatest teachers, is her favourite role.

 

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