November 23

How to handle dog food aggression

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Updated: November 23, 2021

Dog food aggression is a common problem when it comes to owning dogs.

How do you know if your dog is aggressive when it comes to the food bowl? If your dog growls, snaps, or nips at you while feeding time approaches.

Punishment is not the best route to take in order to handle dog food aggression.

Punishing your dog during an aggressive phase will only deepen the habit and confuse your dog.

What you can do is take the positive reinforcement route. Positive reinforcement is rewarding good behavior, and ignoring bad behavior.

Rewarding your pet when there is no aggression present will boost their morale and increase positive behaviors during feeding time.

The sad truth is, shelter dogs are the most likely to develop this learned aggression, primarily due to a lack of food(source), as is discussed further down this article.


Causes of dog food aggression


Why are our dogs aggressive? most of the time, it can be attributed to what they learned. 


Puppy resource guarding


Dog food aggression can start right from their early years as a puppy.

This usually happens when you have multiple puppies and need to share food resources (i.e. other puppies stealing their share of the food).

It could also happen by accidental training practices (such as in negative reinforcement, but unintentional)

Of course, if they learned it young, expect training dog food aggression out of puppies to be rather difficult, as it would have become a habit.


Learned food aggression


More commonly, dog food aggression tends to develop later in life.

A very common trigger for dog food aggression is of course, a lack of food.

This is usually the case in stray dogs, and those who grew up without any humans around.

Stray dogs in a pack have a hierarchy - the alpha dog always eats first, and the rest gets the scraps.

So a dog that always gets the scraps will see all food sources as precious and important, making food resource guarding an ingrained habit.


Another big trigger for dogs to develop food aggression is physical abuse and neglect.

This is a big one - and is the reason why a ton of dogs in shelters have this issue.

Imagine being a dog that was denied any food simply because you're the 'pet' - no doubt that when they get fostered, any and every amount of food is precious and must be defended, lest it gets taken away.


Breed specific food aggression


Another factor to consider is also your dog's breed.

Certain breeds are more likely to act on more aggressive and dominant tendencies, such as German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois.

These breeds are well known for these tendencies, and extra training and positive reinforcement is needed to minimize their resource guarding behaviors.

You might want to check out breed tendencies and traits before getting a certain breed for your home!


Also, remember that how your dog acts is a direct result of how you trained them.

If your dog was aggressive at the food bowl before, it is likely that aggression will persist if not dealt with properly.

If you never taught your dog any boundaries regarding feeding time, chances are they feel they need to protect their meal from you.

Once this has become habit, it's near impossible to change without proper training methods.

Your pet now associates feeding time with protecting themselves and their food.

So, how can we teach our dog we're not a threat to their food?

How can we be sure our dogs won't ever turn on us during feeding time again?

These are all important questions to answer when training a food aggressive dog, which will be discussed below.


Signs of dog food aggression


The signs of dog food aggression can be separated into three distinct categories: Mild, Medium and Severe.


Mild food aggression in dogs

Mild signs of dog food aggression include, but are not limited to: Crouching down, Tucked tail, Anxious expression, Backing away from the bowl.


Medium food aggression in dogs

Medium signs of dog food aggression include, but are not limited to: Growling, Howling/Whining, Snapping or nipping.


Severe food aggression in dogs


Severe signs of dog food aggression include, but are not limited to: Full charge, Biting.


If your dog displays any of these behaviors when you approach their feeder, stop what you're doing and wait until they calm down.


Once the aggressive behavior has stopped for a period of time go back to feeding them until they display mild signs again.



Handling food aggression in dogs


We separate handling dogs with food aggression into two categories, Prevention and Triggered state.


Preventing food aggression in dogs


Know the triggers for your dog's aggression.


Avoid situations that make your dog feel threatened and uncomfortable.

In this case, prevention is better than a cure.

If you got your dog from a shelter, the shelter should have some knowledge if your dog has any kind of aggression, and what can potentially trigger it.

This can be the single most important piece of knowledge for you - how to not expose that trigger to your dog, and slowly form a plan to work on it.



Exercise your dog


Give your dog plenty of exercise throughout the day to avoid pent-up energy that can lead to aggressive behavior.

A tired dog is generally a happier, more compliant dog for positive reinforcement training too!


Hand feeding your dog


After that, you can also hand feed your dog, instead of placing the food in their bowl.

This helps your dog to associate you with a giver of food, and that you're not going to take away their food.

However, if you're not intending to do this for the rest of your dog's life, you'll have to move on to placing food in their food bowl and start that training too.



Get your dog used to your presence


Get your dog accustomed to you being around when they eat. Of course, don't be so close that you might seem like a threat (at first)

The idea is to have your dog eating in a relaxed manner when you're around.


Next, you can also get closer to the dog bowl each day, and add a treat to your dog's food while doing so and step back.


If you're close enough, you can also begin talking to your dog when they're eating. Once you're standing beside them while talking to them, you can give them a treat, and then walk away.

This helps associate you with the treat and that you're not a threat to their food, further using positive reinforcement training on your dog.



Treats to teach good behaviors instead of punishment


As above, you can (and should) use treats to train and teach your dog about food etiquette, rather than punishing them.


Triggered dog food aggression state


Once they're in this state, it can be relatively difficult to handle them, as their animal instinct is active and will see everything as a threat.


If you can't avoid your dog's stressors, try distracting them with treats or toys until the situation passes.



Feed your dog in a crate to minimize food aggression with other stimuli


You should also provide a safe place for your dog to go when they're feeling anxious or stressed, such as a crate

If your dog is still very reactive to other dogs (or strangers) with their food, you can consider TEMPORARILY feeding them in their crate, which is their 'sanctuary'.

However this is a temporary solution, and you should eventually move toward your dog getting used to stimuli and teaching them that its not a threat.



Conclusion


Triggered food aggression is an unpleasant experience for both the dog and their owner, especially if you're not expecting it.


However prevention is better than cure, so try to know your dog well enough to provide them with a good life where they feel happy and safe!


If your dog displays any form of aggression when having its feeder around them, reward the calm behavior until the threat has passed. Don't punish after that point - trying to stop it once it's started will only make things worse!


If you can't avoid stressful situations, then provide your dog with a 'safe haven' (like a crate or their bed) so they can take cover elsewhere.


Also remember that this is likely something temporary - use positive reinforcement to train out their food aggression! 





about the author

Frank Harrigan

Frank loves tacos and dogs - the good, bad and ugly sides of dog ownership.


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