Dogs, like any other pet, can get territorial, especially when it comes to their meals.
Food aggression can cause dogs to exhibit some pretty protective behavior over their food, and this can become an issue for a variety of reasons:
- The owners of the dog can be at risk of being bitten
- It can lead to your dog becoming particularly possessive in other areas of its life.
Luckily, there are a few ways that you can treat this food aggression in dogs by properly training your pup and managing their behavior. You can also take some steps to prevent it manifesting entirely. Make sure to read on to find out more!
What exactly is food aggression?
Food aggression is categorized as a territorial reaction that a dog experiences when it is eating meals or treats, in which they use particularly hostile behavior to guard their food from others.
This behavior is quite the common occurrence in dogs, one study has even reported that nearly 20 percent of all dogs show some kind of sign of food aggression. This aggression is a sort of resource guarding which is a behavior that has been passed down through evolution, when dogs in the wild needed to protect their every meal and resource that they had. There is a slight difference though, as resource guarding describes a behavior that is defensive of any object that they consider to be high in value, not just their food.
Usually, dogs will only guard what they consider to be valuable, and because of this, the resources that the dog guards may vary, and a pretty universal one is food. This could include the food in their bowls, food that has been dropped on the floor during family dinner, some scraps in the trash bag or food that is being prepared on the counter top. Dogs sure love their food, don’t they?
This behavior can be quite the problem if a dog with food aggression lives in a home with kids. Children, specifically the younger ones, don’t understand and hardly recognize the signals of guarding and will, most of the time that is, ignore them completely. In the worst case scenario this can lead to the child being growled at or even bitten.
However, it is not just kids that should be aware of this protective behavior, some adults can be caught in the middle of it as well. It all depends on the dog’s confidence in being able to eat at ease, and being comfortable enough in their home environment and around those that share that environment.
What causes food aggression?
There is no simple answer as there is not only one cause for food aggression in dogs, but we can provide a few common reasons why.
- It is a behavior that can be learned when they are puppies, either by accident during training practices or by the need to compete over a limited supply of resources in a shelter environment.
- Some dogs develop food aggression in the later stages of life as well. One big trigger can be trauma over losing a caretaker, physical abuse or neglect, natural disasters or fighting with another dog to name a few, can all cause a dog to manifest symptoms of food aggression. They can become more protective over their resources and of course, their food.
- On the other hand, some breeds are just genetically predisposed to dominant or even aggressive tendencies and will guard their food due to their pack like mentality. Some dog breeds that have this predisposition are German Shepherds, Rottweilers, or English Springer Spaniels. They are all well known for having hereditary guarding instincts, even though they mostly apply to either livestock or property.
Even though there can be a variety of different causes for food aggression in dogs, those that have spent some time in a shelter can generally be at a higher risk to experience this resource guarding tendency due to competition for all of the available resources such as treats, beds, food or even potential mates.
The signs of aggression
There are many identifying signs of food aggression that are categorized in three degrees of harmfulness which are mild, moderate, and severe.
The mild degree of food aggression is recognized mostly by its verbal signs. As in, your dog may growl when you approach them and their food, or them while they are eating, in some cases even baring its teeth or raising their hackles as a warning sign.
The moderate degree of food aggression is often characterized by a dog lunging or snapping when a person or other dog or animal approaches them near their food.
The severe degree of food aggression can be dangerous both to people and other pets, as the dog will definitely bite or chase the threat away from their resources.
Ways to stop your dog’s food aggression
You happen to acknowledge your dog displaying some of these signs of food aggression, what’s the next step? Can this behavior even be managed?
Good news! It can both be managed and it can even be prevented from manifesting in the first place.
First off, strongly consider spaying or neutering your dog if you are not planning on breeding them at all, as hormones can be the leading cause of aggression, and by spaying or neutering your dog you can help reduce these tendencies.
One other treatment option is training them.
Many dogs that exhibit food aggression can be put through a training program, that has 7 stages, and is focused on desensitization and counterconditioning for the sole purpose of putting your dog at ease when it is eating near people. You can try out these seven steps to help stop your dog’s food aggression.
The first stage – getting your dog used to your presence when eating
The first step generally focuses on acquainting your dog with your presence when they are eating their meals or treats. Stand further back from your dog by a few feet while they eat their food from a bowl on the floor. The main goal is to have your dog eating in a more relaxed manner for ten or more meals in a row, all before moving on to the next stage in this training program.
The second stage – adding a tasty treat, then promptly stepping back
This is building off the first step by adding a yummy treat to their bowl, and immediately taking a step back to your original distance after putting the treat there.
The most important thing here is to be consistent, you need to have a goal of moving forward one step each day. If you are able to stand two feet away after placing a treat for ten meals in a row, then and only then is your dog ready to move on to the next stage.
The third stage – standing close while talking to your dog
This stage primarily focuses on conversation and keeping a close proximity. So, while your dog is eating from their bowl, stand next to them and give them a special treat, then promptly speak to them in a conversational tone. Ask them anything really, as long as it is about food.
After giving them the treat, turn and walk away from them, repeating this process every few seconds. And if your dog can stay relaxed while eating for ten or more meals in a row, you can safely move on to the next step of the training process.
The fourth stage – trying to hand feed them
Quite a large part of this stage is hand feeding, as it is very important for your dog to understand that you are not in any way posing a threat to them or their food when they are eating.
Slowly approach your dog, while speaking to them in a conversational manner, quite similarly to the last stage, and stand next to their while holding a hand out with a treat to your dog. But instead of placing the treat in their bowl, encourage your dog to take the treat out of your hand.
Only after they take the treat, turn and walk away to encourage the understanding that you are not in any way interested in their food. Do this each day, whole trying to bend down further, until your hand is right next to their bowl as your dog takes the treat. After about ten meals done in a relaxed manner, can you take on the next step.
The fifth stage – try touching their bowl, but not taking the food out of it
Quite similar to the last stage, except that this time, you stay near your dog after they take the treat from your hand.
While speaking to them in a casual tone, offer them the treat in one hand. With the other hand though, touch their bowl, but don’t take any food from it. This step will help your dog to become further accustomed to your close presence during mealtimes, and if your dog can remain relaxed while eating for ten or more meals in a row while you do this then you can move on to the next phase of the training process.
The sixth stage – lifting their bowl off of the ground to give them their treat
This step sure is a doozy, especially when it comes to trust building, as you will be lifting their bowl from the ground to give them a yummy treat.
In a soft, calm tone speak to your dog as you pick up the bowl from the ground. Only lift it up 6 to 12 inches above the ground as you start off, then add the treat and put the bowl back down swiftly.
Every day, you will have the goal of lifting the bowl higher and higher all until you can place it on table so you can prepare the treat. Repeat this until you are able to walk a short distance away from the initial position and are safely able to place your dog’s bowl back in the same place where you picked it up from.
This will make a trust bond form between you and your dog, and they usually become fully comfortable eating around you by the end of this stage.
The seventh stage – repeating the feeding process with the other family members
Last but certainly not least, you will have to repeat the six steps with each and every family member in the house, and as your dog begins to trust the people in your home around their food, their food aggression will start to go away and stop entirely.
It is important to note that while you dog may be completely comfortable eating around, they may not be the same with other family members or guests that are visiting your home.
However, in this case you should try to create a safe environment for your dog to eat in. This includes separate bowls for each pet, as well as separating them during mealtimes, or even providing them with a gated area so they can eat their food in peace.
Your dog just wants to feel comfortable while enjoying their meal, and if your efforts are not working, then you can always consult with your vet or a trainer for advice on food aggression treatment.