In the wild, dogs – as carnivores and pack animals – instinctively had to be territorial over their food, protecting what they had in order to survive. However, food possessiveness by a dog should never be allowed in a domestic situation. Not only is there a danger of other dogs or humans in the house being bitten but over time it can lead to the dog becoming possessive over more than food.
What is food aggression?
Food aggression is a form of resource guarding. A dog becomes defensive over his food when eating and uses growling threats to keep others away. It can be directed at other animals or humans. It could be fairly mild with growls, or moderate with snaps, or lunges at anyone approaching. Biting is a severe form of food guarding.
Food aggression should be taken seriously, even in a puppy. It is not “cute” behaviour and should not be tolerated.
How to recognize food aggression
Watch for telltale signs of aggression at the food bowl. When you move closer to where the dog is eating, if he has developed possessiveness over his food, his body will stiffen and he will lower his head over his food, covering it as if to block you from seeing it.
You may see his hair stand up on his neck. His tail could become rigid and moving and you may see the white of his eyes. The dog may show some or all or a combination of these signs. All these signs are aimed at telling you or another dog: “Stay away, this is mine.”
What to do about it
Firstly, you need to determine if his food aggression is mild, moderate or severe. Is he only showing possessiveness over food or does it extend to other things, like toys or sleeping place or position in the pack.
If you have more than one dog and the aggression is aimed at another dog, and not at you, then the situation is somewhat simpler to resolve.
Also it is important to assess his overall confidence and behaviour. If he is naturally a dominant dog, then you need to assert yourself as a calm and assertive pack leader. If he is timid or fearful, you need to build up his confidence and teach him that his food is safe with humans around.
The key to successful discouragement or elimination of the behaviour lies not in disciplinary measures but in patient retraining of your dog. It is important to remember, that dogs will not attack without first giving a warning which may prevent injury to people and other animals.
For severe cases, consult with a professional until you can get him cooperating at a more moderate level.
Feeding dogs at the same time every day and establishing a set routine is a good way to create calm at feeding time.
Before you begin to prepare the food, the dog or dogs must sit or lie down some distance away from where you are preparing the food. He or they must stay down even after you have placed the bowl down. Stand close beside the bowl before releasing each dog from the stay:
Never feed the dog that is excited, dominant or pushiest first. It only creates competition. This also applies to the oldest or favourite dog. The calm dog eats first and sets an example for the others. Dogs should be in the same state of mind before being allowed to eat.
When a dog is able manipulate you into feeding him by barking or jumping up on you, he is telling you that he owns you and the food. Be aware of this warning sign.
A particularly aggressive dog should be kept on a leash until the others have eaten so that he can see that the other dogs are not going to be allowed to steal his food and then when he is calm he will be allowed to eat his food.
Food aggression can actually be made worse if you back away from the bowl, because that is what the dog wants. For every time that you walk away when the dog shows aggression, the dog wins. The reward is the food and this just reinforces the aggression.
When a dog exhibits food aggression toward you, you must be very careful when you attempt to redirect the behaviour. Since food and mating are the two strongest drives in all animals, a dog with food aggression can cause serious harm to a human who interrupts him. Leave him and get help from the professionals! Also, you don’t want to show aggression yourself in cases with moderate or severe food aggression, because that is a good way to get bitten. However, you can recondition a dog so that he learns that he wins if he allows you near his food while he is eating.
Hand feeding: Start by giving him food by hand, and use your hands to put food in his bowl, which will give it your scent. The aim is to get the dog used to eating while your hands are near his face and not to become aggressive if your hands are near the bowl while he is eating.
Add treats: Drop his favourite treats into the bowl while he is eating so that he will learn that people approaching the food bowl is a good thing and not a threat. Add new treats when he has stopped eating. This reinforces the connection that people near the bowl is good.
Upgrade food: When your dog is eating his regular food, approach him with something better like chicken or sausage or a special treat. The idea is to get him to stop eating his food and take the treat from you. This teaches him that no one is going to steal his food if he looks away from it. By removing his attention from his food, when people are around, leads to a reward.
Vertical lift: As the food aggression diminishes it should be possible to remove his food by lifting the bowl up vertically. Hold it for a moment and then put it straight down. Removing the bowl towards your body will draw the dog towards your body which can be dangerous.