If a dog displays aggression to protect their food, it can become a severe problem. Not only does it pose a risk to other dogs or humans in the house, but over time it can cause the dog to become possessive over everything.
What Is Food Aggression?
Food aggression comprises a kind of resource guarding in which a dog becomes very defensive when confronted with others during a meal and resorts to threats to force others away. Food aggression can be directed toward other humans, animals, or both. The behavior is not just limited to feeding times but treats as well. There are three levels of food aggression to watch out for:
- Mild- the dog growls and may bare its teeth
- Moderate- when approached, the dog snaps or lunges
- Severe- the dog bites
While some people may assume that all cases of food aggression result from a show of dominance, this isn't necessarily true. Food aggression stems partly from inherited pack behavior. In a dog pack, after a successful hunt, the alpha dogs always eat first, with the other dogs eating the leftovers according to their position in the pack.
Food guarding is a form of dominance for an alpha dog, while for dogs of lower status in the pack, it can signal their fear or anxiety. Keep in mind that in the wild, dogs never know where or when they're going to get their next meal, making it an instinct for them to wolf down whatever food there is at hand whenever they have it- and also to guard it against anything that seemed to be a threat.
Recognizing Food Aggression
When a dog is eating, his body may stiffen, and his head may go down, displaying body language to "hover" around their meal and protect it. Some other signs to watch for:
- If you can see the whites of your dog's eyes
- If their ears are held back
- If their tail is lowered
- If their hackles may rise
A dog can display any or all of these signs. We've already mentioned how to gauge the severity of the situation through your dog's growling, lunging, or biting.
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What To Do About Food Aggression in Dogs
When you see that your dog is displaying food aggression, the first step is to assess your dog's overall behavior. Is he only being possessive with his food, or is the behavior extending to other things, like favorite napping spots, toys, or even people in the pack? If the behavior extends to more than just food, then your dog is displaying general resource guarding, and you may need to employ the techniques we list below; in any case, your dog is showing aggression over an object (not just food).
You should also take into account your dog's overall behavior and confidence. If your dog is dominant by nature, you will have to assert yourself as the Pack Leader assertively and calmly. If he is naturally timid or fearful, on the other hand, then you will have to build up his confidence by playing and working with him and letting him know that his food is safe with humans around.
Lastly, figure out whether your dog's aggression is mild, moderate, or severe. For serious cases, you may want to consult with a professional until you can get the dog down to a reasonable level of aggression.
Related: How To Help Your Dog Gain Weight
Techniques To Help With Food Aggression
Here are some techniques you can employ to help your dog deal with food aggression. If your dog's aggression stems from fear or anxiety over when their next meal will be, then make sure you're feeding your dog at set times every day.
Dogs have a reliable internal clock, and through consistency, they quickly learn how to tell when it's time to go for a walk, time to get up, or time for their people to come home. Mealtime isn't any different- be regular in feeding to ease their anxiety.
Has To Work For Food
Before you even start to make your dog's food, make him sit or lie down and stay, preferably right outside of the room you usually feed him his meal. Train her to stay even after you've put the bowl down. After you set the bowl down, stand close to it as you allow her to come to eat, at which point you can then move.
Always feed your dog after exercise, never before- which fulfills their instinct to hunt for food, so he'll feel like he earned his meal when you get home. Moreover, exercising a dog after eating can be dangerous, possibly even causing life-threatening conditions like bloat.
Pack Leaders First
When a wild pack comes back from a successful hunt, the alpha dogs always eat before everybody else does. It should be the same in your little human/dog pack. Always eat first before your dog does. Humans should always eat first, and when they're finished, the dogs can eat. Having this routine will reinforce your status as the pack leader.
"Win" The Bowl
If you concede to your dog and back away from the bowl, food aggression can worsen. Every time you walk away when the dog is territorial about their food, the dog "wins." Here are some techniques to recondition the dog to help them learn that they win when you come near her while eating:
- Treat tossing- Drop your puppy's favorite treats into the bowl while she's eating to teach her that people around the bowl is a good thing rather than a threat. Putting treats into the bowl when you walk next to it and she's not eating is also a good move. Your dog will thus learn that people near her bowl are good.
- Hand-feeding: You can start your dog's meal by feeding him by hand and giving the bowl your scent using your hands to put food in the bowl. Get your dog used to eating while your hands are around his face, and stop being aggressive if you put your hands in or near the bowl while he's eating.
- "Trade-up"- When your dog eats their regular food, give them something better, like a special treat or some meat. The goal is to interrupt your dog from eating its food and take a treat from you. This lets your dog know nobody will steal his food if he looks away and rewards him for removing attention from his food when people come around.
Related: Dog Losing Weight But Eating
How to Stop Resource Guarding Step-by-Step
The best way to help your dog get over his food aggression is with a program designed for desensitization and counterconditioning. The program listed below is highly effective, but only if you follow each stage and take your time. It’s essential that you don’t move on to the next stage until your dog is completely relaxed and shows no aggression during the current one.
For each stage, you should use special treats that your dog loves and doesn’t get often. Small bite-sized pieces of beef, chicken, or cheese are perfect for this exercise. Here are the seven stages to help your dog get over his resource guarding and food aggression:
Related: Why Dogs Are Always Hungry
First, stand a few feet away from the food-aggressive dog while he eats his kibble from a bowl. Do not move toward him while he’s eating. Next, speak to him in a light, conversational tone and say something like, “Oh, what’s that?” and toss a treat in his bowl as a reward. Continue to do this while he finishes eating. Once you’ve repeated this exercise a few times, and he begins to relax while eating, you can move to the next stage.
The first part of stage two is talking to your dog and giving him a treat like in the first stage, but with one key difference: you’ll step toward him, toss the treat, and then step back. Keep repeating this while he eats.
Each day, get a little closer to his bowl while he eats until you can go within two feet of it without him showing signs of aggression. Once you can stand two feet away and give him treats without any problems, you can move to stage three.
In stage three, you’ll continue speaking to your dog and putting treats in his bowl while he eats, but you’ll stand next to his bowl, drop the treat, and then turn around and walk away immediately. Repeat this throughout his meal until he can relax and eat throughout the process.
Now, you’ll follow the same process, but instead of putting the treat in his bowl, you’ll give it to him from your hand. Stand next to him, repeat the phrase you chose in stage one, and offer him the treat, encouraging him to stop eating for a moment to take it out of your hand. Once he takes the treat, turn around and walk away. Continue this process throughout the meal.
Each day, get a little closer while handing him a treat, decreasing the distance by an inch or two each meal. Once you can hand it to him right next to the bowl without signs of aggression, and he can relax while eating for a few meals, you can continue to stage five.
In stage five, you’ll continue the process outlined in the previous stage, but while you’re offering him his treats, you’ll touch his food bowl with your other hand. Once your pup can eat ten relaxed meals this way, you can move ahead to the next stage.
Now, while your pup is eating, you’ll bend down, pick up his bowl, raise it about six inches off of the floor, put his treat in the dish, and return it. Continue doing this throughout the meal, and gradually increase the distance you lift the bowl until you can comfortably lift it to your waist without your dog showing any aggression.
Once you can do that, start picking up the bowl and set it on a table or counter, place a treat in it, and return it to your dog. If he doesn’t show any food aggression during this step, you’re almost done!
The final stage is to have anyone who will be present while the dog eats go through the previous six steps. He has to learn not to be aggressive with everyone, not just you. Do not skip this step if anyone else in your family will be around during mealtime.
This entire program is gradual enough to help your pup relax and anticipate what to expect during mealtime rather than becoming aggressive and feeling threatened when someone approaches him while eating. Over time, they’ll learn that the people near while they’re eating, aren’t there to take their food away.
If you’re having trouble with any of these stages, here are some tips:
- If for any reason you can’t feed him kibble, it’s essential to ensure that the treats you give him during this program are more desirable to him than whatever is in his food bowl.
- If you do feed him kibble, but he prefers other foods (like a raw diet or canned food), the best way to approach this program is by going through the stages with kibble first and then going through each step again using the other foods he prefers.
- If he eats quickly, and you don’t get many opportunities to offer the treats during his meal, you might want to consider getting a slow-feeder dish to help with his training.
Related: Benefits of Raw Feeding for Dogs
What to Avoid When Dealing With Food-Aggressive Dogs
One of the most important things to avoid when dealing with a resource-guarding dog is punishment. The reason most dogs have food aggression is because of their natural instincts, which tell them that the person approaching intends to take away their food. Some people will encourage intimidating or dominating your dog to show that you are strong enough to take away their food to keep them from guarding it, but this is dangerous and unnecessary. It can even make their resource guarding worse and damage your relationship with your pup. Conditioning them through the program listed above is a safer, easier approach that will build your bond with your dog rather than harm it.
There are many other techniques you can try to lower your dog's food aggression or prevent it from occurring. The key is to be calm, consistent, and assertive. Rogue Pet Science offers all-natural pet products to keep your pet healthy. Feed your dog top-tier food and treats with Rogue Pet Science today!
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