Food aggression is a type of resource guarding. It can occur at the earliest stages when your dog is only 5 months old.
Although there are voices out there saying that your dog protecting his food from you is totally normal and natural canine instinct, that’s not quite true. Food aggression is learned behavior, even though it can occur as early as when your puppy is still with his littermates.
It is a serious condition and many dog owners are 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?
The behavior of protecting food from intruders can be observed in the dog’s ancestor, the wolf. An alpha wolf will defend his food against pack members that are lower ranked than him because he eats first.
Many interpret the same behavior in dogs as dominance, although it’s a natural and pure survival instinct in wolfs. Those who can successfully protect their food will survive.
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.
If resource rivalry has happened in the litter, your dog will be prone to protect his food later in his life. 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.
A breeder worth his salt will know that and look out for any signs of rivalry.
Some experts even go so far as to recommend using more food bowls than there are puppies. 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 his share, he should be removed from the feeding area.
Symptoms of Food Aggression
Symptoms can vary
- Eating faster when approached
- Leaving the room when receiving a treat like a bone
- Growling when approached
- Looking out for everyone that walks past
- 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 displaying 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 too.
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 (check out the linked article if you want to survive the first night with your pup -- there’s a whole printable puppy checklist included).
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 in order to see results.
Hand Feed Your Puppy
To prevent and solve the food aggression you can start hand feeding your dog. This will improve your bond and show your dog that you are
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 learns that nothing bad happens.
Advantages of hand-feeding:
- Builds trust
- Ability to control pace of eating
- Dog focuses on you instead of guarding
- Establishes you as the giver, not the taker
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 strengthen impulse control and concentration 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 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 (make sure to feed your dog a high-quality food and don’t skip any meals when you’re frustrated, of course).
Just put your hand between the food and your dog and say “leave it” when he lunges for it and 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.
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 pack 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, then you will have to prove him in a respectful and calm way that you are the pack leader and not him.
If he is
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.
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 evaluating when your dog’s food aggression gets triggered. Is he okay with you standing rather close to him or doesn’t he 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 that provide food in the first place. I mean, why would we want to take away what we just gifted them?
Grab your dog’s food 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’s 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 food in. If he is relaxed, you can reward him with a meal.
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 in your dog’s perception.
You do not want to
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 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 commit to 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 might 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 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 be to tell him “no” and maybe even punish him for that. But growling (check the link to see why some dogs even growl when petted) is not a behavior, it’s 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,
Do not let children close to the eating dog -- Children are bad at interpreting a dog’s body language 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.
If you have any experience with resource guarding, feel free to share in the comments below.