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May 25, 2022
Does your lovable pup suddenly turn into Cujo when someone tries to mess with their food? Do they snap at another animal getting too close to their food dish or growl when you reach for their bowl? These actions are examples of food aggression, and it’s vital to stop this behavior ASAP.
Food aggression in dogs is when a dog becomes territorial over their food, feeling a need to guard their resources. It can happen with their food, treats, scraps, bones, etc. A dog will show aggressive behavior toward any perceived threat to their food. Food aggression can range from mild to severe. Gradually getting your dog used to your presence during meal times and hand-feeding are some ways to curb food aggression.
Knowing what causes food aggression and ways you can address it is the first step to stopping the behavior. If your dog gets overly possessive of their food, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad pup. You just need to understand the reasons for your dog’s food aggression so you can start resolving the issue.
Food aggression in dogs is relatively common. A study published in Applied Animal Behavior Science showed that roughly 20% of dogs exhibit signs of food aggression. The behavior stems from dogs in the wild needing to carefully guard their resources. If they feel there’s a threat to their food (or anything they deem valuable), they will become hostile to protect it.
If you live alone with your pup, you might think this isn’t too big a deal. You’ll just leave your dog alone when they eat. However, it becomes a real problem when you have children in the house, hire a pet sitter, or get another pet. Therefore, if your pup shows signs of food aggression, it’s always best to resolve the issue.
Your dog can display signs of food aggression for several reasons. It could be that your dog had to compete for their food in a shelter or other household that had limited resources. In a scenario like this, food aggression becomes a learned behavior, perhaps going as far back as when your dog was a puppy. If your dog came from a puppy mill, they likely had to fend for their fair share of the food.
However, sometimes dogs can start off complacent about their food and become food aggressive later. This late development could be due to a traumatic experience like abandonment, losing their primary human companion, abuse, or even involvement in a dog fight.
Any of these events and similar experiences can cause your dog to become overly protective of their belongings, especially their food. Also, certain dog breeds, like Rottweilers or German Shepherds, might be more predisposed to food aggression because of their natural guarding instincts. However, just because you have a particular breed doesn’t mean you’ll automatically deal with aggression issues.
Any dog can show signs of food aggression, no matter the breed. Therefore, it’s critical to know the signs so you can nip the behavior in the bud before it escalates.
When your dog eats, stay alert for these potential signs that your dog feels a need to guard their food:
Of course, prevention is always the best medicine. So, if your dog isn’t yet showing signs of food aggression, you can make sure they’re used to others being around their food.
When your puppy eats, make a habit of picking up their bowl and putting it down again. Place your hand close to the dish and talk positively to your pup. Drop some tasty treats into their food dish to show them that humans around their bowl mean something positive.
These sorts of actions will ensure your dog is used to the idea of you fooling with their food. It also shows them that even though you may pick up their food, it doesn’t mean you’re taking it away. Additionally, if your dog isn’t already spayed or neutered, strongly consider it. Spaying or neutering your dog can help reduce aggressive behaviors.
But what if your dog’s already showing signs of food aggression? How do you ensure you can reach for your dog’s food bowl without getting a growl, snap, or bite?
Follow the steps below to put an end to food aggression:
Let your dog get used to your presence while they eat. Stand several feet away from your pup as they eat and talk to them. Don’t move toward them. Speak to your dog in a calm, positive voice. Repeat this step over several mealtimes until you notice your dog relaxing.
Get a tasty treat and as you talk to your dog, take one step toward them. Toss the treat to your pup, turn, and walk away. Repeat this each meal, getting slightly closer to your dog each time. Work up to getting about two feet away from your dog to toss the treat without your dog tensing up.
Now, you’ll repeat the previous actions but work toward getting next to your pup’s bowl. Drop the treat in, turn, and walk away. Continue to talk to your dog calmly and always wait for your dog to show signs of relaxing before proceeding to the next step.
Do the same thing you did in step three, but hand your dog the treat this time. The idea is for your dog to stop eating and take the treat from you. As soon as they do, turn, and walk away. Start several inches away when handing them the treat, gradually getting closer, within about two inches.
Keep everything the same as step four. But as you hand your dog a treat, use your other hand to touch their dog bowl briefly. Repeat this step for at least ten different meals before attempting to move forward in the process.
It’s time to try and pick up your dog’s dish. Raise it slightly off the floor, place a treat in it, and return it to the floor. As your dog gets more comfortable with this, lift the bowl higher each time you pick it up.
Once you can lift it to about waist-high without your dog showing signs of aggression, put it on the counter. Place the treat in it, then return it to your pup’s feeding spot.
After your pup is completely comfortable with this process, it’s time to let others try it. This step is critical, especially if other people in the home will feed your pup or when you have a pet sitter. If your dog starts to tense up at any time in the process, back up a step and keep repeating it until your dog is comfortable.
Also, never use punishment or intimidation to stop food aggression. Trying these techniques will likely only make the issue worse. If you’re having difficulty working with your dog’s food aggression, consider seeking professional behavioral help.
Although you might want to wait before bringing your dog with you to a restaurant, employing these tips can help significantly reduce your pup’s food aggression. For more helpful tips on pet parenting, check out the rest of our blog. You’ll find resources and info about caring for your pet and ensuring they’re healthy and happy.
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