Food Aggression in Dogs : Prevention and Fix Mild Cases

Food Aggression in Dogs : Prevention and Fix Mild Cases

A food aggressive dog can be pretty intimidating.  The dog stiffens up, starts growling, and maybe even starts snapping or biting at you.  This dog simply believes that they are guarding their food.  A dog can be doing this for several different reasons such as: it may have had a related bad experience in the past or it may just be natural instinct as many dogs in the wild need to protect their food from other animals.  Young puppies can similarly develop this problem as they start off fighting for a limited amount of food provided by the mother. 

The problem is that the dog is associating people or other dogs coming near their food, or other resource, as a bad thing.  To fix this we must condition our dog into viewing people coming near their food as a non-threat and perhaps even as a good thing.

Food aggression in dogs usually starts at a young age and if allowed to continue, the problem may get harder to fix as the dog gets older.  For this reason, it is best to prevent the problem before it occurs.  Sometimes the problem can get very severe and in that case, I recommend searching for a local dog trainer who deals specifically with aggressive dogs.  Remember, always do you research to make sure that the trainer you choose is an authentic dog lover and uses the gentlest methods possible.  More and more trainers are starting to use positive reinforcement training methods even for aggressive dogs.  This post, however, is going to deal mostly with food aggression in puppies and mild cases of resource guarding.

Resource guarding is a broader term for food guarding, as the problem tends to stem to things other than food, like dog toys.  Whether the dog is aggressively guarding their food or a toy, this behavioral no-no can be corrected by using the same gentle techniques.

Preventing Food Aggression

If you have just gotten a puppy, one of the first things you should do is start conditioning them to the fact that you are not a threat to their resources.  We want them to feel really comfortable with us being close to them while they eat and even comfortable with us taking food out of their mouth.  This is especially easy with puppies and if properly trained and conditioned, you won’t have to deal with a food aggressive dog in the future.

Doggy Dan The Online Dog Trainer has a pretty good short video demonstrating a good exercise to do with your puppy before the food aggression starts or has gotten out of control.  This technique involves feeding your puppy directly from your hand or with a few pieces of food at a time. 

If you do this with very young puppy, it will teach them right away to associate your hand near their eating space is non-threatening.  They learn that the food comes directly from you, and you know what they say “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”  This is a much easier concept for dogs to learn as a puppy and greatly eliminates a chance of resource guarding in the future. 

One of the first things I like to teach a new dog is the “leave-it” command.  Teaching your dog leave-it will help because it will get your dog to understand to drop and leave an object even when you are near the dog.  This makes it almost impossible for the dog to be food aggressive to begin with because you have already taught the dog that if they leave what they are currently eating or chewing on, then they will receive an even greater reward.  This teaches your dog that they get to eat on command and also leave the food on command.  This can be strengthened starting from dry kibble, to lunch meat, all the way to greater distractions such as leaving a cat or squirrel.

Let’s use an example and say that your dog is aggressively protective of their food bowl.

  • Find a higher quality reward than what it is your dog is already guarding.  For some dogs this may be: cheese, real meat, or maybe even a really high quality dog treat that they love.
  • Start by tossing a piece of the better reward on the floor next to your dog and walking away.  Do this several times to get your dog use to you standing closer to them, as they will realize that you aren’t a threat to their food.
  • Once your dog is more comfortable with you getting closer to them, start luring them away from their guarded resource (in this case, a food bowl) and then handing them the reward.  You don’t have to lure them far away, even just a step or two is fine.  Reward even for a short second of no growling.
  • Touch the food bowl with your foot as you hand them the better reward.  Once comfortable, start to touch the food bowl with your hand at the same time you hand them the reward.  Do this several times.

This is teaching your dog that it is actually a good thing that you are in their space and even touching what it is that they are guarding.  You are adding value to their food. 

Keep in mind this will take a good amount of time and dedication.  You must work on it every day about three times a day for fifteen minutes each. You should have success in about 1-3 weeks of solid consistency.  You should also save this high quality reward specifically for this training process only, until the the dog is no longer food aggressive.

5 Food Aggression Exercises

There are several other exercises that you can do with your dog to further build their trust and prevent resource guarding.  Fellow positive reinforcement trainer ClickerPets has made a nifty video demonstrating just that.  Have a look.

Note: Be cautious when practicing exercises 3 and 4. Putting your hands near a dog with food aggression can be dangerous. Use good judgement and don’t push the limits.

Caution: These exercises may not be safe to do with dogs who have more extreme cases of food aggression. Always be careful when working with a dog with food aggression. For more serious cases, contact a professional.

She reminds us “Never punish your dog for showing aggression in any way.  Over time, punishing your dog can result in your dog who not showing warning signs before biting, creating a dangerous and unpredictable dog.  It also creates fear and doesn’t solve the behavior, it just suppresses it.”

Punishing you dog can possibly cause the resource guarding to worsen.  The dog has the belief that it needs to protect its resources, so if you try to dominate it and forcefully take their food away, it will only strengthen that belief.  Using aggression to treat aggression just doesn’t make that much sense; and even if your dog feels dominated or fearful of you doesn’t necessarily mean he will show that same submissiveness to a young child or any other person. 

Remember, we want our dogs to trust us and associate us being around them, even while eating, is a good thing.  An aggressive and dominating approach is unnecessary and will weaken the bond between you and your pup. 

An Issue To Address

Some people leave their dogs alone while they are eating, feed their dogs in a separate room, or feed them in a crate, away from people and other pets.  This is a mistake because the dog never has a chance to get comfortable around people while they eat.   They never learn.  This can become a risky situation if a child lives in the house, because children usually don’t know their limits with dogs or how to notice early signs of aggression. 

Start building the positive and non-threatening association between you and their resources while your dog is at a young age and continue this throughout their lives.  You should be able to reach into your dogs mouth, without fear, and take out whatever object they have in it.  In-fact you will notice that your dog will try to avoid biting you, as seen in the video below.  My dog nibbles very softly (removes the pressure) when her teeth comes in contact with my skin;  this is a result of doing the exercises mentioned above since I adopted her as a rescued 5 month old puppy. 

If dealing with an older, aggressive, perhaps rescued dog, always leave it to a professional.

Food Aggression Towards Other Dogs

We can get the dog to associate people being around their food as a good thing by reassuring that we are trustful and that we may even reward them, but how does a dog associate another dog being around their food as a good thing?  Food aggression towards other dogs is much more challenging to deal with. 

Sometimes the best thing to do is control the situation as best as you can, whether that means feeding your dogs further apart from each other and not letting one dog go towards another dogs bowl (a leash helps), or exercising your dogs before meal time to try to burn out some of that excited energy. 

Supervise your dogs during feeding time and if you notice one dog going towards the others bowl, command them with a “stay” or redirect them away.  This, in time, will help your dog realize what you expect from them.

An aggressive dog is usually a stressed dog.  This dog is probably full of anxiety and insecurity and most likely has not been socialized enough with humans and other dogs.  Getting your dog less reactive to other dogs when they are near their treasured resources starts with desensitization towards other dogs. 

Desensitization is the process of making them less reactive towards other dogs, starting with the scenario that is likely to react them the least.  So for desensitizing reactivity towards other dogs, we would start off at a distance from the other dog.  You want to start off at a far enough distance to where you can still manage to get your dogs attention; usually by using their name.  Once they revert their attention back onto you, praise and reward them for the good behavior.  Shorten the distance very gradually, until you eventually make your way to the same eating vicinity.

Do not push your dog too fast or this will not be very productive; keep your dog below their reactive threshold as much as possible and if they react, simply go back a step.  We should do this with our dogs even if they are not aggressive, because it will help to avoid any problems in the future.  

It is important to know that you should not expect too much, too soon, from your dog.  Always try to make training a positive and rewarding experience, be persistent, and don’t get frustrated and lash out on your dog.  Remember, dog to dog food aggression is one of the most challenging problems to fix, even for the most knowledgeable and experienced dog trainers. 

Always contact a friendly professional if you feel like the problem is out of your control.

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