It is not uncommon for dogs, especially puppies, to exhibit food-related aggression.
It’s in their genes; its wild ancestor thrived, in part, because it protected its food resources successfully.
However, given today’s environment, dog food aggression can be a bit of an irritant at the very least, and downright dangerous when you have little children in your family. Here’s how you can deal with it.
No concerted effort has been made to breed out dog food aggression probably because breeders tend to focus on qualities that make the animal “true to breed”.
These are qualities that are usually subject to testing in shows and of course, exhibiting zero food aggression does not happen to be one of these qualities.
Puppies compete with their litter-mates 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 a bunch of pups off a common bowl.
The more aggressive pups often get more than their share, growing faster than the others. Pretty soon, a few pups are monopolizing the bowl by virtue of their size and aggressive tendencies.
Similar scenarios can play out with adults, particularly when they have lived for a period of time in shelters.
Diagnosing Dog Food Aggression
Aggression can be mild or full-blown. A food-aggressive dog will typically stiffen; it may also stop eating.
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, it may commence growling.
It’s hair around the neck and upper back will bristle. Ultimately, it may attack and bite the individual who is threatening his food.
Food aggression must be distinguished from “possession” aggression; the latter involves aggressive behaviour with any of the dog’s belongings, and is somewhat more difficult to treat.
Treating Dog Food Aggression
Don’t Let It Start
A new pup or dog that is not food aggressive could develop it because of the uncertainty related to his new environment. So, it’s important to nip those tendencies in the bud. Here’s how:
- Hand-fed treats. Start by fussing over him with words and petting. Then, gradually introduce a few treats that you can initially place close to him (he should be able to reach to them without moving). Finally, feed him by hand. Throughout, maintain your gentle, soft-spoken, chatter and petting.
- Introduce the food bowl. Hold the bowl in one hand while letting him feed off it. Pet him gently with the other while continuing to talk to him.
- Approach with treats. He is now comfortable eating food that is in close proximity to you. But, he may still get aroused by somebody moving into his space when eating. In this phase, let him feed off a bowl. Gradually approach him, all the while maintaining a constant chatter, and drop a treat into his bowl. The idea is get him to associate pleasant things when humans approach him at feeding time.
- Rinse, repeat. Provide reinforcement by repeating the “approach with treat” maneuver occasionally — possibly, once a week initially, then less frequently.
Some owners choose to deal with pure food aggression by sequestering the dog during meals.
He is either fed in a secure room or a location where he is unlikely to be disturbed.
Given that most food aggressive dogs are also inclined — it’s the same instinct at work! — to gulp down their food in a hurry, this strategy may work in many situations.
However, if your situation precludes employing such a strategy, then you must work on treating it.
The general idea is to change your dog’s reaction to being approached while eating. If everything goes as per plan, at the end of the treatment your dog will look up happily and in some anticipation of “good things” when approached during a meal.
It may be best to leave this treatment to a professional.
Here’s the gist of what the professional will do: using treats that your dog adores, she will gradually convince your dog that a person that approaches him during a meal could well mean a tasty treat.
Sure, he’s gotta leave his food for a bit, but it’s worth it. 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.
The penultimate stage is accomplished when your dog stops eating to allow his bowl to be lifted 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; the behaviorist is likely to be expensive. You could attempt to correct your dog’s food aggression yourself, but you must get completely familiar with the protocol and exercise great caution.
A Final Word
Dog food aggression is not uncommon among puppies, but it is relatively easily corrected.
It is important to distinguish food aggression in adult dogs from generalized possessive aggression; the latter is much more difficult to correct and, almost always, will require professional help.
Avoidance is a simple solution that may work for you; if you decide to “desensitize and counter condition” him, you will need to be extremely patient and careful.