Dog Food Aggression: What is It (+HOW TO STOP IT)?

Dog food aggression is a fairly common issue, especially for puppies. It’s part of their genetic history.

In the era before domestication, protecting food resources was a basic canine survival skill.

Angry Rottweiler with bone on lawn showing signs of dog food aggression

However, even after centuries of living with humans, this natural behavior doesn’t seem to have evolved in some dogs.

Dogs can direct dog food aggression toward people, other dogs, or both. Mild dog aggression over food is often no more than an irritant. But it can be severe enough that it becomes dangerous, especially in homes with small children.

In fact, some shelters will euthanize dogs with even mild to moderate food guarding because with dog food aggression, biting is always a concern.

Thankfully, there are ways to manage food aggression in most dogs. But first we need to understand what causes it and how to differentiate between food guarding and other types of dog aggression.

Causes of Dog Food Aggression

While most dogs no longer demonstrate this primitive behavior, many still do. One reason is that, unlike other temperament and behavior traits, breeders make no concerted effort to breed out dog aggression with food.

Breeders tend to focus on qualities that make the animal “true to breed.” These are traits that are usually subject to testing in shows. Exhibiting zero food aggression does not happen to be one of these qualities.

Breed genetics also play a role in aggression in dogs. Statistics show that some breeds are more likely to be aggressive than others.

Food Aggression in Puppies

When it comes to puppies, breed is less of a factor. Competing for food is natural for puppies. They compete with their littermates from the time they are born. After all, Mom has a finite number of breasts and, at times, limited milk as well.

Breeders, too, can often unknowingly reinforce food aggression by feeding multiple puppies from a common bowl. This is a common source of dog-to-dog food aggression in multi-dog homes as well.

The more aggressive puppies often get more than their share, growing faster than the others. Pretty soon, a few pups are monopolizing the bowl because of their size and aggressive tendencies.

Food Aggression in Adult Dogs

In most adult-onset food aggression situations, the dog’s environment is the most likely cause.

Shelter dogs that are adopted as adults often come from abusive or neglectful homes where food was scarce. They may have been forced to compete for it.

The same is true for dogs who have spent significant time on the streets fending for themselves.

Another possible cause of food aggression in adult dogs is a previous history of punishment related to a food item.

Owner Inexperience

Whatever the cause of a dog’s food aggression, dog owners often make a food aggression problem worse with inappropriate interventions.

Cartoon of Dog Showing Food Aggression towards owner

These interventions can include:

  • Feeding a dog highly valued foods (human food, pig’s ears, etc.) that he feels compelled to guard.
  • Free feeding or feeding long-lasting treats so that he feels a constant need to guard.
  • Feeding a dog in a busy location—such as the kitchen during human mealtimes—which sets the dog up for food aggression.
  • Taking the dog’s food away as he eats, which can increase food anxiety and aggressive behaviors. Some dog food aggression training programs advocate this, but many experts don’t recommend it.
  • Confronting or punishing the dog. Any physical intervention such as yelling, hitting, or otherwise reacting strongly will interrupt the behavior in the short term. But it may make the problem worse in the long term. If your dog learns that mealtime means confrontation, he is likely to become more anxious and thus more dangerous.
  • Not dealing with dog food aggression toward cats or other animals in the household.

This potential for any of these factors to cause aggression to escalate is why owners need to educate themselves well on how to break a dog of food aggression before attempting a treatment regimen on their own.

It may be better for all concerned to consult a professional.

Preventing Dog Food Aggression in Puppies

To prevent food aggression in dogs, start when they’re puppies.

Dog food aggression training techniques with a puppy center around making her comfortable with people approaching her food bowl.

This technique is also helpful for newly adopted dogs. They often develop food aggression toward other dogs or people because of uncertainty related to a new environment.

These tips are good for preventing food aggression in both puppies and newly adopted dogs who don’t yet show signs of food aggression.

  • Hand-feed treats. Start by fussing over her with words and petting. Then, gradually introduce a few treats that you can initially place close to her (she should be able to reach them without moving). Finally, feed her by hand. Throughout, maintain your gentle, soft-spoken chatter and petting.
  • Introduce the food bowl. Hold the bowl in one hand while letting her feed from it. Pet her gently with the other hand while continuing to talk to her.
  • Approach with treats. She should now be comfortable eating food that is close to you. But she may still get aroused by somebody moving into her space when eating.
    In this phase, let her feed from the bowl. Gradually approach her, all the while maintaining a constant chatter, and drop a treat into her bowl. The idea is to get her to associate humans approaching her bowl at feeding time with pleasant things.
  • Repeat. Provide reinforcement by repeating the “approach with treat” technique occasionally—possibly once a week initially, then less frequently.

For puppies and adult dogs who are already showing signs of food guarding, you’ve already reached the food aggression treatment stage. You will need a more intensive—yet safer—plan.

But first, let’s be sure you’re dealing with food aggression and not a larger problem.

Diagnosing Dog Food Aggression

Food Aggression or Dominance Aggression?

Food aggression is a subtype of dominance aggression (also called possessive aggression). It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between them.

Some owners think that their dog has dominance issues because it guards its food. But the problem could be exactly the opposite.

Dogs with food aggression often guard their food because of fear or anxiety from past experience. A dominant dog, on the other hand, would behave with confidence and entitlement as he acts out his aggression.

If the dog shows any aggressive behavior with any of its other resources (toys, resting places, etc.), you are probably dealing with dominance aggression. This type of aggression can be more difficult to treat.

Depending on how severe it is, food aggression can be easier to deal with.

Severity of Dog Food Aggression

Food aggression can range from mild to severe. In its mildest form, the dog will growl or show its teeth when someone approaches his food.

With moderate food aggression, the dog will lunge or snap at that person.

In the most severe form, the dog will bite.

Interestingly, some dogs will only become aggressive with certain types of food (things such as human food that they perceive as having high value). Others will react to any food, and sometimes even an empty food bowl.

Dog Food Aggression Warning Signs

In nearly all cases of food aggression, there are warning signs to watch for.  A food-aggressive dog will typically stiffen when he feels his food is threatened.

If the threat is perceived to be worsening, and the food is mobile, like a bone, the dog may pick it up and move away.

Otherwise, he may growl. His eyes may dilate. He might show “whale eyes,” where he will be looking sideways, showing the whites of his eyes. (Whale eyes is always a warning sign of aggression.)

His tail may be stiff and tucked down. His ears can be pricked up or flattened back. The hair around the neck and upper back will bristle.

He will hold his head downward and hunch over his bowl, guarding it. He may remain in this position until he perceives the threat is gone.

When a dog is showing these warning signs, owners need to take it seriously. Without an effective treatment plan, the aggression could quickly escalate. The dog may ultimately attack and bite.

Clearly, you need a plan. Read on to learn how to stop dog food aggression.

Treating Dog Food Aggression

Avoidance

By far, the easiest way to deal with food aggression is avoidance.

Some owners choose to deal with food aggression by isolating the dog during meals. She is fed either behind a closed door or in a location where she is unlikely to be disturbed.

Given that most food-aggressive dogs instinctively gulp down their food in a hurry, this strategy can work well in many situations.

Jacqueline Neilson, DVM, writes for DVM360.com that some dogs will do well with lifelong avoidance only. It is certainly the safest route for everyone in the family.

She also recommends teaching (or reinforcing) the “drop it” and “leave it” commands. These commands will help with aggression over food that is accidentally dropped by humans.

But even for those dogs that need behavior modification programs, she recommends a period of avoidance of at least 4 weeks first. This is designed to alleviate any anxiety the dog feels around food.

Only then would she recommend beginning a behavior modification program. This is particularly important if you intend to try this without the help of a professional.

An anxious dog is less likely to learn and more likely to cause injury.

Behavior Modification at Home

While avoidance is the easiest way to deal with food aggression, it’s not the best solution for all dogs. For example, for families who bring their dogs out in public frequently, avoidance may not always be possible.

And for dogs with moderate to severe food aggression, avoidance will not solve the problem.

These dogs need behavior modification treatment.

Behavior modification is an intense training regimen for both you and your dog. With some dogs, especially those with moderate to severe food aggression, consulting a professional is the best choice.

If you’re dealing with mild to moderate food aggression, there are things you can do at home that can be very effective. Unless your dog has severe food aggression, you may want to try these before calling in the pros.

NOTE:

if you feel there is any risk that your dog will cause harm to you or a family member during this training period, do not try to deal with your dog’s food aggression yourself!

Say Please

The Center for Shelter Dogs at Tufts University recommends a program they call Say Please. This method can work very well with food aggression as well as other types of dog aggression.

The goal of Say Please is to train your dog to recognize that you are the source of all good things, i.e., the dominant leader. This is an effective way to “reprogram” your dog when dealing with any type of aggression.

It’s particularly effective if your dog’s food aggression is a component of the more serious issue of dominance aggression.

Here are the basics:

  • Your dog needs to know the “sit” command.
  • Your dog learns that he needs to sit (“say please”) before he gets anything he considers valuable.
  • You, as the leader, need to withhold attention from your dog when he does anything undesirable. This includes jumping, barking, or any attention-getting behaviors.
  • You ask your dog to sit anytime he is asking you to do something for him, no matter how small—putting his leash on to go outside, having you open the door for him, being greeted when you come home, going back inside, and most importantly, when you feed him his meals.
  • Don’t command the dog to sit before doing anything he doesn’t want to do.

Your dog will learn fairly quickly that you are the leader. He’s less likely to display any type of aggression if he knows he’s not in charge of any situation.

Exercise

Adequate exercise is critical to resolving many behavioral issues with dogs. For example, an anxious dog benefits greatly from exercise to help him release pent-up stress.

Sometimes just letting a dog be a dog can go a long way toward helping him to relax. This is especially true when you’re in the process of an intense training program.

A long, leisurely walk (AKA sniff-fest) can do wonders. It’s a chance for your dog to “let his hair down” for a short time.

Others may need more vigorous exercise, such as a jog or a game of fetch in the yard. Whatever activity your dog prefers, it’s important that he gets it once or twice a day.

After all, he’s working as hard as you are to get this training thing right.

As a bonus, a more relaxed dog will be more cooperative with training and will learn faster.

Behavior Modification with Professional Help

If you’ve tried Say Please and exercise and are not seeing the results you’d like, it’s probably  time to call in the pros.

Professional treatment for food aggression involves a combination of desensitizing (“inactivating” a trigger) and counterconditioning (replacing a negative reaction with a positive one).

The general idea is to change a dog’s reaction to being approached while eating. At the end of a professional treatment plan, your dog will anticipate only good things when he is approached during a meal.

Here’s the gist of what a professional will do: Using treats that your dog loves, they will gradually convince your dog that a person who approaches him during a meal could well mean a tasty treat.

The process works by acclimatizing your dog to the prospect of a treat from a distance.

Then, gradually and judiciously, the behaviorist will sensitize your dog to smaller and smaller distances (between the behaviorist and the dog) until, finally, the dog is comfortable at touching distance.

Training is nearly complete when your dog stops eating to allow the trainer to lift his bowl for placement of the treat, then accepts its return with calmness.

Your dog is “cured” of his food aggression when you and members of your family can do the same.

This treatment can take weeks to months, and the behaviorist is likely to be expensive.

Again, you could attempt to correct your dog’s mild to moderate food aggression yourself, but you must be completely familiar with the protocol and exercise great caution.

It might also be a good idea to be in touch with your vet or behaviorist in the early stages, just for reassurance that you’re on the right track.

Choosing to Live with a Food-Aggressive Dog

There are situations where someone might choose to live with a (hopefully mildly) food-aggressive dog even when training doesn’t solve the problem.

One of these situations may be a home with no children. (We don’t recommend it otherwise.) Another is a fostering situation where a dog’s temperament is being assessed before the dog is released for adoption.

The Center for Shelter Dogs offers tips for living peacefully with a food-aggressive dog in circumstances such as these:

  • Don't approach the dog while he's eating.
  • Give high-value treats only when the dog is in its crate.
  • Keep all dogs in the household separated at meal times and when there are high-value treats or toys present.
  • To get something away from a dog that you don't want it to have, offer a trade for an especially valuable treat (e.g., chicken or roast beef). If the dog isn't interested in the trade, don't force it.

Dog Food Aggression Outside the Home

Something else to think about if you choose to live with a food-aggressive dog (or while you’re working on a treatment regimen): How are you going to deal with the issue if and when you take your dog out in public?

Anytime you are in an area where food is being eaten by either humans or other dogs, you will need to keep your dog away from the food and those who are eating it.

You will also need to be conscientious about this if you ever need to board your dog—for a vacation, for example. A dog with food aggression could be a problem in a kennel situation.

You will need to inform the facility of your dog’s food aggression with other dogs or people and request that they isolate him for feeding.

They may make you sign a waiver that you won’t hold the facility responsible for any harm your dog might cause. Some may even refuse to take him.

If you think you may need to kennel your dog from time to time, the risks in this situation alone may make professional training the smart option.

Where to Find Help

If you choose to take that route, there are two types of professionals to consider: certified dog trainers and certified dog behaviorists

A trainer can be an appropriate choice for mild to moderate aggression issues.

Behaviorists have more education than trainers and specialize in behavioral problems. For severe aggression issues of any type, a behaviorist is the better option.

For detailed information on how to find a certified trainer or behaviorist, please see Dog Aggression: How to Deal with Aggressive Dog Behavior.

A Final Word

Dog food aggression is not uncommon among puppies, but it is relatively easily corrected.

In adults, it is important to distinguish food aggression from generalized dominance/possessive aggression. The latter is much more difficult to correct and, almost always, will require professional help.

Avoidance is a simple solution that works well for many dog owners.

If you decide to try desensitization and counterconditioning to treat your dog’s food aggression, you will need to be patient and extremely careful.

If you’re dealing with a severe case of any type of dog aggression, your best (and safest) bet is to leave it to a professional.

RESOURCES AND FURTHER READING