By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
Food aggression is a form of resource guarding that occurs when a dog displays confrontational or defensive behavior towards people or animals around their food bowl or when food is present. It can manifest as growling, snarling, lunging, or even biting. This behavior is often seen with puppies competing over resources such as food bowls or toys with littermates; however, it can also occur in adult dogs if they feel threatened or uncomfortable by others getting too near their food.
There are several ways that a dog can communicate discomfort that may indicate food aggression. The most obvious sign is growling or snarling when someone approaches the food bowl while the dog eats. Other indicators may include stiffening of the body, hackles up (raised fur on the shoulders, back, and base of tail), lip licking, lowering their head over their food, and showing teeth. They may also avoid eye contact, give the "side-eye" (your dog's eyes are towards you, but their head is not), and even snap at family members or other animals who come too close to their food bowl. If you observe these behaviors in your dog during mealtime, it's essential to address them before the situation escalates.
Treating Food Aggression: What to Avoid
If your pup displays any signs of food aggression, there are several strategies you can use to mitigate this behavior. Some common methods for treating food aggression can exacerbate the problem. So first, let's cover what not to do.
Don't randomly stick your hands in your dog's food while they are eating.
Don't take your dog's food bowl away while they are still eating. Doing so increases your pup's anxiety that they will lose their meal when you approach them.
Don't punish a dog for growling, lunging, or snapping at you for getting near their food. This is the fastest way to make the situation considerably worse, even if it seems to "work" initially. Remember that aggression is communication. Punishment stops that communication, leaving your dog with even fewer ways to ask, "please stay back."
Avoid hand-feeding until your dog is more comfortable eating around others, and stick to consistent feeding times for predictability. Use some of their food as positive reinforcement when training and playing games.
Don't assume that food aggression is limited to specific types of food or dog treats; dogs can advance to guarding a mere crumb, and though they may not have seemed to display aggression around certain types of food before, they may begin to exhibit this behavior if their resource guarding is not addressed.
Treating Food Aggression: Doing it Right
To stop food aggression, focus on prevention. If you find yourself about to tussle with your dog the moment they are growling around food or a special treat, stop yourself. Effective training happens when you are being proactive - not reactive. Let your dog know you hear and respect them by leaving them alone with their food, and then follow these next steps to help prevent your dog from feeling the need to repeat the message with his teeth.
Here's how you can change tense and aggressive behavior to calm, relaxed, and even happy anticipation behavior as you approach their food.
This method involves counterconditioning - building a new, happy response to a previously triggering event. The repetitiveness of the exercise helps with desensitization; your dog gets used to what is happening, so you can trade that trigger for neutrality. That neutrality to your approach opens the door for counterconditioning with a new, positive response.
- Start by grabbing a large food bowl to give yourself an easier target to work through these exercises.
- Put your dog's food down in an open area with plenty of space to work 360 degrees around your dog and the bowl without getting too close.
- During mealtime, have high-value tasty treats ready to go, such as shredded chicken, duck liver treats, or freeze-dried turkey hearts.
- As your dog eats, do a drive-by at a distance from your dog's bowl while moving reasonably quickly.
- As you cross paths with the bowl and your dog, toss that high-value reward into their bowl and keep moving away at the same pace.
- Repeat these drive-bys through the entirety of your dog's mealtime.
- In future sessions, decrease the distance between yourself and your dog as you do your drive-bys.
- Also try slowing your drive-bys down by walking up to the bowl, pausing for one second, dropping the high-value treat, and then walking away. Over the next few mealtimes, based on your dog's behavior, work up to pausing at the bowl for 5 seconds before dropping your treat and walking away. Over time, you can work towards sitting next to your dog's bowl and adding high-value treats as they eat.
You'll know your dog is ready for the next step when you see those guarded behaviors transform into curiosity and interest each time you approach. Some indicators include their head coming up from the bowl more frequently, their ears perked, and a more relaxed body. Your pup might even pause during eating to see when you might be approaching again with another yummy treat.
More Tips for Addressing Food Aggression in Dogs
Practice in different rooms, using different bowls and even without bowls after you've mastered one bowl in one area. New dog behavior doesn't automatically translate to another environment because it can be situationally specific. Growing the locations and items used can help your dog generalize.
Try offering your dog a tasty calming treat 40 minutes before trying this the first few times to help your dog relax more during the exercises.
After practicing these techniques, layer in teaching your dog to wait to be released for food using "eat" or "chowtime" to help with impulse control.
Practice this same technique around their favorite toys or chews. Remember that food aggression is a resource-guarding behavior and that aggression translates to other high-value items for your dog.
For Multi-Pet Households
If you have another dog in the home, practice rewarding the dog for eating as the other dog approaches. Reward the approaching dog for giving space or moving away from the bowl. This exercise can be best controlled using a leash while practicing your drive-bys, where the eating dog gets a treat as you cross paths. The leashed dog receives a reward as you are past the bowl and moving away.
If you are adding a new puppy to your family, practice these drive-bys preventively to curb food aggression early on. Dog training with comfort, not confrontation, can significantly positively impact your relationship with your new best friend.
For Multi-Pet Parent Households
If you live with other people, get all family members (or roommates) on board with the dos and don'ts so that your dog feels comfortable around everyone while eating, not just you. Have everyone practice drive-bys and increasing time at the bowl before walking away.
Making it Stick: Banishing Food Aggression Once and For All
Be patient with your pup - remember that your dog's food aggression is communication. Although your dog doesn't want to hurt you, your dog feels the threat of losing something of value and they don’t know how else to express that to you. Pay attention to their body language and be prepared to respond in a supportive manner.
Food aggression is just one way our pups communicate with us. Whether they’re feeling anxious or just want to say how much they love us, our dogs are rich communicators - we just have to be good listeners.