how to stop food aggression

How to Stop Food Aggression

Food aggression is a type of resource guarding. It can occur at the earliest stages when your dog is only 5 months old.

While a lot of dogs have this instinct to protect their food from you, it is not a genetical behavior. Food aggression is learned when the puppy is still with his littermates.

It is a serious condition and many dog owners have been growled at, snapped at and even bitten. Those are the three stages you will have to look out for.

Why Do Dogs Have Food Aggression?

It is wolf behavior to protect its food from intruders. An alpha wolf will defend his food against pack members that are lower ranked than him because he eats first.

This is a sign of dominance but most dogs are not dominating over food. It is a natural and pure survival instinct. Those who can successfully protect their food will survive. If resource rivalry has happened in the litter, your dog will be prone to protect his food later in his life.

Most dogs are simply scared that their owners will take their food away from them. Early signs are when your dog goes into another room to eat his treat or bone.

But how are little puppies reinforcing this behavior? One or two puppies will always want to eat more than others. This also means that there will be a few puppies that are weaker because they get less of the share, especially if the puppies have been fed out of the same bowl.

A puppy that has had the bad experience that others will steal from his food, will eventually start eating faster when you approach him or even growl at you because he has learned that this is the only way that he will get enough food.

Experts recommend to use more food bowls then there are puppies, so instead of reinforcing a conflict, you are providing them with alternative food bowls. If you have a litter of six puppies there should be about nine food bowls to prevent this behavior. When one puppy has eaten its share it should be removed from the feeding area.

Symptoms of Food Aggression

Symptoms can vary depending on the past experience that the puppy had. They can be mild and easier to treat or severe and might require professional help.

  • eating faster when approached
  • leaving the room when receiving a treat like a bone
  • growling when approached
  • looking out for everyone that walks past
  • the whole body stiffens
  • lunging at someone that tries to take away food
  • biting anyone that comes too close

If your dog shows one or several of these signs, he is probably experiencing food aggression. But you will want to rule out any medical issues first and take your dog to the vet. If your dog is in pain or has ear or eye problems this could also cause his guarding behavior. Joint or dental issues will cause him pain while eating.

How to Prevent Food Aggression

Preventing food aggression is the best treatment. There are a few steps that you can take immediately once your puppy arrives at his new home.

Start with a Routine

Dogs love routines as they will learn when they go outside, take a nap and most importantly when they eat.

This will give them confidence and provide a secure environment without any big surprises. Your dog will be much calmer when it’s food time and he doesn’t have to be stressed over it.

You will have to be very consistent with this routine for you to see results.

Hand Feed Your Puppy

To prevent and solve the food aggression you can start hand feeding your dog. This will build trust and show your dog that you are the important source of food.

You can also control how fast your dog will eat. You don’t have to feed him his complete meal, just a few times before and in between will be enough.

After a while, you can also try to take away his food bowl while he is eating just for a second, so he can learn that nothing bad happens.

Let Him Work

I trained my puppy from day one that she has to “work” for her food. I will let her do a few commands, like sit, down or stay.

It is a nice way to also control impulses and concentrate on the commands.

I will also always let her sit before and releasing her with a release command so she can start eating. This will not only show her that I have control over the food but that when she is released, she doesn’t have to rush eating as I won’t be taking it away from her.

Teaching Leave It

Teaching the “Leave it” command will put control into your hands. It especially works best for dogs that are dominating over their food.

You can teach your dog that he doesn’t decide when to eat or what to eat but you can.

Just put your hand between the food and your dog and say “leave it” when he lunges for it if he backs up you can praise him and give him the treat you were covering.

If he still tries to get it just cover it completely with your hand and wait until he goes back.

Preventing food aggression can be a long process until your dog gets used to a routine and builds more trust with you.

Pack Leader

Always remember that you are the pack leader in the house that rules with respect and understanding.

To establish this order, you and your family eat first and then the dog. It also reinforces a schedule as the dog knows that after this he will get his own food and he doesn’t have to fight for it.

How to Stop Food Aggression

You will have to take very little baby steps in this training and bring in a lot of patience especially if you are handling a severe case.

If your dog already shows signs of food aggression that you will first have to determine these questions:

  • does your dog only guard food?
  • does he protect it from animals, humans or both?
  • is your dog very confident and maybe dominant?
  • is your dog anxious and fearful?
  • on what stage is your dog?

If your dog defends his food out of dominance than you will have to prove him in a respectful and calm way that you are the pack leader and not him.

If he is more timid than you will have to build more trust and boost his confidence. Show him that there is no need to protect his food from you.

If your dog is at the third stage and really tries to bite or has already bitten people, you will need to consult a professional dog trainer until he is more reliant.

Treat Method

Let’s start with the easiest method which works best with dogs that are eating faster when approached. We want to create a good association with us being around the eating dog.

The best way to do this would be to toss a very yummy treat into the dog’s food bowl every time we approach him. Start by validating when your dog’s food aggression gets triggered. Is he okay with you standing rather close to him or doesn’t he even tolerate you walking past him?

You will want to toss the treat into the bowl right before he starts to show some reactions. Also, pay attention to his body language. Dogs that have food aggression usually stiffen their body when the owner approaches.

This method is usually enough for many dogs and if repeated over several weeks you should see some great results.

Owner = Food Method

With some dogs, we want to emphasize that we are the ones in the first place that provide the food. I mean why would we want to take away what we just gifted them?

You will want to grab the most boring food for your dog and place his empty food bowl on the ground. This method works best if your dog is used to sitting before he gets his meals otherwise he will just jump right into eating.

Get your dog attention on the empty food bowl and let him look up to you to build this association that you are the food provider. Then slowly put some food in it and let your dog look at you again. Once he has looked at you praise him and continue on putting kibble in. If he is relaxed, you can reward him with a meal.

Desensitizing Method

If you have followed all the methods from above your dog should already be pretty comfortable with you being around. To take his trust even further you will want to remain present after giving your dog his meal.

Depending on his aggression level, you can stand or sit close to him while he is eating although I would recommend you sitting as this is a much more calm position for your dog’s perception. You do not want to look at your dog in the eyes as this could be seen as a threat by him.

Grab a book or something and just spend some time near him. If he reacts calmly you can praise him from time to time. Once you have established enough trust over a few weeks your dog should even be comfortable with you touching him while eating. If he is not, you will want to take a step back.

If he is uncomfortable with you just sitting there, make it a more natural routine and just move around him more often.

Stay Consistent and Patient

Every training method needs time and consistency. Don’t start mixing up different training methods and keep with one until your dog has successfully accomplished this step.

Training doesn’t only take a few days and depending on the past of the puppy and how you have been working with him it can take a long time. It is very important that everyone in the house sticks to the training so the dog doesn’t get confused.

Never let your kids near a resource guarding dog and advise them on how they should rather interact with him. Mild and medium cases can easily be trained at home so don’t lose your hope. Consistency will pay off!

What Not to Do

Never take food away – This one is a bit obvious but many people think that this will desensitize the dog. The dog doesn’t understand it if you suddenly pick up the bowl and it will probably make things worse. Putting your hand inside the bowl is also not necessary and you will only have success with this if your dog is highly tolerant.

Punishing for growling – If your dog growls at you the first reaction will probably to tell him “no” and maybe even punish him for that. But growling is not a behavior, it is a communication method and only a symptom of a problem. You actually want your dog to growl first as a warning instead of directly snapping at you. If you prohibit growling, next time he will simply take the next step.

Retreating from the bowl – If your dog does growl or snap at you, do not jump up and run away. This is actually a win for the dog and shows him that his actions result in what he wants. Running away is prey behavior. Instead, remain calm and confident and do not come too close to the dog next time.

Putting yourself in danger – Food aggression is not a mild condition and can get you in danger if your dog is prone to biting. If your dog has bitten someone before, get some professional help.

Do not let children close to the eating dog – Children react poorly do dog behavior and never act appropriately. Even if a dog has never snapped before, a child that is pounding his hands against the dog would be annoying for any dog.

When to Get Help

Food aggression becomes dangerous when your dog starts physically attacking you. Before more damage happens, get help from a professional trainer.

Behaviorists are specialized in helping with behavior problems. But many dog trainers also have experience with aggression and resource guarding. Make sure that you do your research beforehand and find a certified specialist.

I can answer more questions in the comments below as every case can be very different.

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