Just like any pet, dogs can be territorial - especially when it comes to mealtime.
Food aggression causes dogs to exhibit behavior of being protective over their food. It can become an issue for a couple reasons: those living with the dog could be at risk of being bitten, and it could lead to your pup becoming possessive in other areas of its life.
There are ways to treat food aggression in dogs by properly training your pup and managing their behavior. You can also take steps to prevent it entirely. Read on to find out more.
What Is Food Aggression?
Food aggression is a territorial reaction a dog experiences when eating meals or treats, in which they use hostile behavior to guard their food.
Food aggression is quite common in dogs. One study reported that nearly 20 percent of all dogs show signs of food aggression.
This aggression is a form of resource guarding - a behavior passed down through evolution, when dogs needed to protect every meal or resource they had. Resource guarding differs slightly though - it describes a behavior that is defensive of any object they consider to be of high value, not just their food.
Typically, dogs only guard what they consider valuable. Because of this, the resources they guard can vary - though a very common one is food. This could be food in their bowls, food that has been dropped on the floor during mealtimes, scraps in the garbage bin or even food being prepped on the counter.
This defensive behavior can be an issue if a food-aggressive dog lives in a home with children. Children, especially younger ones, have a harder time recognizing the signals of guarding and may disregard them completely. This could potentially lead to a child being growled at or bitten.
It’s not just children that need be wary of this protective behavior; adults can be caught in the crossfire as well. It boils down to the dog’s confidence in being able to eat at ease, and being comfortable in their environment and around those that share their home.
There isn’t one simple cause for food aggression in dogs. However, here are a few common reasons:
- It can be learned in puppyhood - either by accidental training practices or by needing to compete over limited resources in a shelter environment.
- Dogs can also develop food aggression later in life as well. Trauma can be a massive trigger - something like losing a caretaker, physical abuse or neglect, natural disasters or fighting with another dog can bring on symptoms of food aggression. They become more protective over their resources... most importantly, their food.
- Some breeds are genetically predisposed to dominant or aggressive tendencies, and may guard food due to a pack-like mentality. Dogs like English Springer Spaniels, German Shepherds or Rottweilers are well-known for having hereditary guarding instincts - though these instincts typically apply to livestock or property.
While there can be a number of causes for food aggression in dogs, those that spent time in a shelter may be at higher risk to experience this resource guarding tendency due to competition for the available resources like beds, treats, potential mates or food.
Signs of Aggression
There are several identifying signs of food aggression that are categorized in three degrees of harmfulness: Mild, moderate and severe.
The mild degree of food aggression is best recognized by verbal signs. Your dog may growl when you approach their food, or them while they are eating. It may also bare its teeth or raise their hackles in warning.
A moderate degree of food aggression is characterized by a dog snapping or lunging when a person or other dog approaches them.
Severe food aggression can be dangerous to people or other pets, as the dog will bite or chase the perceived threat away.
How to Stop Your Dog’s Food Aggression
If your dog is displaying some of these signs, you can feel assured that this defensive behavior can be managed or even prevented.
First things first, consider spaying or neutering your dog. Hormones can be the cause of aggression, and spaying or neutering may help reduce these tendencies.
Another treatment option is training: many dogs that have food aggression can be put through a training sequence, laid out in seven stages, focusing on desensitization and counterconditioning to put your dog more at ease with eating near people. Try these seven steps to help put a stop to your dog’s food aggression:
1. Stage One: Get your dog used to your presence when eating
This step focuses on acquainting your dog with your presence when they are eating meals or treats.
Stand back from your dog by a few feet while they eat food from a bowl on the floor. The goal is to have your dog eating in a relaxed manner for ten or more meals in a row before moving on to the next stage in this training method.
2. Stage Two: Add a tasty treat, then step back
Build off the first step by adding a tasty treat to their bowl, and immediately stepping back to your original distance after placing the treat.
Consistency is key here. Each day, have a goal of moving forward one step. If you are able to stand two feet away after placing a treat for ten meals in a row, your dog is ready to move on to the next step.
3. Stage Three: Stand close, and talk to your dog
This step focuses on close proximity and conversation. While your dog is eating from their bowl, stand next to them and give them a special treat. Speak to them in a conversational tone - “What are you having to eat?” or asking about their food are both good options.
Turn and walk away from your pup after giving them the treat. Repeat this process every few seconds. If your dog can remain relaxed while eating for ten or more meals in a row, you can move on to the next stage of this training process.
4. Stage Four: Try hand feeding
Hand feeding is a large part of this stage. It is important for your dog to understand that you are not posing a threat to their food when they eat.
Approach your pup, speaking to them in a conversational tone - similarly to the last stage. Stand next to their bowl, holding a hand out with a treat to your dog. Instead of placing the treat in their bowl, encourage your dog to take the treat out of your hand.
After they take the treat, turn and walk away to encourage the understanding that you are not interested in their food. Each day, try and bend down further, until your hand is right next to their bowl as your dog takes the treat. After ten meals in a relaxed manner, the next step can be made.
5. Stage Five: Touch their bowl, but do not take food from it
This stage is similar to the last, except this time, stay near your dog after they take the treat from you.
Speak to them in a casual tone, and offer the treat with one hand. With the other, touch their bowl - but do not take food from it. This will help your dog become accustomed to your close presence during mealtimes. If your dog remains relaxed while eating for ten or more meals in a row, move on to the next phase of training.
6. Stage Six: Lift their bowl off the ground to give them their treat
This stage is massive when it comes to trust building, as here you’ll be lifting their bowl from the ground to give them a treat.
In a calm tone, speak to your dog as you pick their bowl up. Only lift it 6-12 inches from the ground to begin with, add the treat and set the bowl back down. Each day, you’ll have a goal of lifting the bowl higher until you can place it upon a table to prepare the treat. Repeat this sequence until you are able to walk a short distance away and are able to place your dog’s bowl back in the same place from which you picked it up.
This will establish trust between you and your dog, and they should become fully comfortable eating around you by the end of this step.
7. Stage Seven: Repeat this feeding process with the other family members
The final step is to repeat steps 1-6 with every family member in your house. As your dog begins to trust the people in your household around their food, their food aggression should wane or cease to exist entirely.
Note: While your pup may be comfortable eating around you, they may not be around other family members or guests that visit your home. In this case, try creating a safe environment for your pup to eat. This includes separate bowls for each pet, separating them at mealtimes, or providing a gated area for your pup to enjoy their food.
Your dog is a hungry one, and usually just wants to feel comfortable when enjoying a meal. If your efforts are not working, you can always consult your vet or a local trainer for advice on food aggression treatment.
Sometimes a consistent feeding routine is all you need.