Overcoming Canine Food Aggression

Posted by  on June 8, 2010

Dogs are born with several basic, primal drives:  prey and food being primary among them.  These two drives are somewhat related, as dogs in the wild needed to catch their prey in order to eat. To satisfy these twin drives, dogs will resort to nearly anything to make sure they get their food.  What’s a dog parent to do when this drive turns to aggression?

Signs of food aggression

Food aggression manifests itself just as any other type of aggression.  You need to monitor your dog for his or her reactions to challenges.  Clear signs of aggression include:

  • Tension of the body
  • Leaning forward when standing
  • Raised lips / wrinkled muzzle
  • Growling
  • Raising of the hackles, the fur on the back
  • Lunging
  • Biting

Sources of food aggression

In the wild, many predators may eat from the same carcass after one or more of the pack have brought down a prey animal.   If the predators are very hungry, they may not be as willing to share, and each of the members of the pack will attempt to horde and guard as much of the food as possible, rather than ration it equally as humans might do.  Any time a dog feels that he or she is in a situation where others might steal his or her meal or treats, food aggression can result in fighting.

Although your dog no longer lives in a wild pack, he or she may or may not realize that another meal is just around the corner.  This is particularly common in dogs rescued after living on the streets.  They were never sure where their next meal would come from, and they have a hard time adjusting to regular meal times with plentiful food.

Food aggression is yet another way in which a dog may try to assert himself or herself as the leader of the pack.  It is a serious problem because it can result in injury to the dog as well as to others who happen to be around, as shown in the medical report below.

Debbie Y. presented to the Emergency Department with an infection in her right big toe.  She reports she was feeding two dogs a snack when she accidentally dropped one of the dog biscuits on the floor.  In the ensuing battle to get the cookie, one of the dogs mistakenly chomped down on Debbie’s toe.  She has been on antibiotics for a week, but the toe continues to swell and is warm to the touch.

Intravenous antibiotics were administered in the ER, and the patient was admitted.  When the infection had not resolved six days later, she was scheduled for surgery to clean the wound.  Dog cookie crumbs were found embedded in the wound.  Although the toe was able to be saved, the patient was in the hospital for 10 days and subsequently under home nursing care and on strict bed rest for three weeks.

Even without multiple dogs in the home, your dog may guard his or her food against all comers, which might include you or even your children.  Without training specifically targeted at removing this dominance, it will only get worse.  You must provide clear communication to tell your dog that this behavior is not acceptable, then provide training to teach the dog alternate ways to respond to his primal drives.

Clear Communication

If your dog growls at you, and you back off to prevent being bitten, the dog perceives this as a victory.  His or her behavior is therefore reinforced and rewarded.  This doesn’t mean you don’t need to take steps to keep yourself safe, but it does mean that you have to think about the message you are sending to your dog when you do so.  Do not respond with aggression.  This simply reinforces that aggression is desirable and appropriate.  If the dog growls and you raise your hand as if to hit, the dog will become more aggressive, driving the level of the battle further and further upward in a spiral that will soon become out of control.

Every member of your family who is old enough to understand the problem needs to be part of the solution.  If Tommy thinks it’s cute when the dogs growl at each other at mealtime, the dog will interpret his laughter as reinforcement and the behavior will be reinforced and repeated.

Your dog needs to understand a couple of things about food and his or her place in the family pack.  First of all, you need to be the leader of the pack.  Therefore, your dog must earn his or her food by sitting nicely before the bowl is set down.  Next, the dog should always be fed after the family eats, letting the dog know that people are placed ahead of animals in the pack.  Never, never, never feed the dog from the table.  Doing so blurs the line of food ownership and pack order.

Finally, your dog needs to understand that it is good to have people around while he or she is eating.  People who pick up food bowls before they are empty or who take away really fun chew toys like checkbooks and chicken carcasses are often seen as a threat.  To break the impression that you are a threat, you may have to feed your dog a small handful of food at a time, continually adding to his or her bowl as it becomes empty.  This will show the dog that you are a helper, not a threat to his or her food supply.

Training Techniques

Although there are several techniques you can use to help break your dog’s aggressive tendencies toward food, the one overriding concern is safety.  Do not allow anyone near the dog who doesn’t understand how to train a dog, and if necessary consult a professional as you begin your training plan.

The ultimate goal of overcoming food aggression is to get your dog to the point where you can actually put your hand in the food dish without your dog growling, raising his or her hackles, or showing any other sign of aggression.  Until you have reached this point, your troubles are not over.

You can start convincing your dog that your presence is a good thing by dropping a treat or two into your dog’s dish every time you walk past it.  Your dog will, of course, gobble down the treats, and you can praise the dog for his great behavior.  After your dog gets used to this routine, begin dropping in treats at random, but not every time you go near the dish.  Your dog has come to expect the treats every time, so now he or she will begin looking at you and begging you to give treats when you don’t. Again, this is showing him or her that you are in charge (the leader of the pack) and that having you near the food dish is something he or she should welcome.

As your dog begins to accept your presence near his or her dish, begin to stand near your dog at meal times, talking calmly.  You can flip in a few treats from where you stand while your dog eats his or her normal kibble, as an added incentive for his or her wanting to have you nearby.  Gradually decrease the distance between you and the food bowl until you get to the point where you can stroke the dog while he or she eats.  Continue to speak calmly to the dog all the while.

Next, try feeding the dog only about ¾ of his normal amount of food.  You will be close by the dish, stroking the dog, and when he or she has finished the food in the bowl, it is likely you will get a look.  When you get that begging look, give the dog the rest of the food you have held back.  Gradually increase the amount of food you are holding back until the dog realizes that he or she has to ask for a meal.  At that point, you will be putting the bowl down totally empty, and the dog must look at you in order to receive any food.

Finally, try calling your dog to you during the course of the meal.  When he or she gets to you, give lots of praise and a few treats, then allow the dog to go back to his or her normal meal.  Your dog will soon learn that there is no problem with leaving the food dish unattended for a few minutes, and that in fact it can be a pleasurable experience.

Feeding multiple dogs

You may never know what starts a food fight.  Some dogs have had to struggle with getting enough food their whole lives, whether as a result of larger pups in the litter hogging the mother’s teats, or as a result of having to dig in dumpsters for a period of time.  Regardless of the reason your dogs show possession issues over their food, chances are that these issues will lead to choking, overeating, vomiting, or swallowing everything in sight, which can lead to incredible vet bills to remove all the foreign objects that can’t pass through the intestines.  Another medical report:

Maggie is a 5-year old Golden Retriever presenting to the emergency clinic with complaints of vomiting and lethargy over the past two days.  An X-ray of the gastrointestinal tract shows what appears to be an unfolded paper clip in the stomach.  Immediate surgery was recommended, and the owner signed an agreement for the $1600 estimated cost.

Upon opening the dog’s gut, numerous non-edible objects were found including children’s toys, paper towels, toilet paper, and the aforementioned paper clip.  In all, approximately half of a one-gallon zipper bag was filled with inedible stomach contents.

The easiest way to prevent fights over food is to feed your dogs separately.  Whether you put their dishes in different rooms or crate each dog until his or her turn, keeping the dogs apart when food is presented is the safest way to handle the issue.

Make sure to pick up the empty food bowls before another dog has access to each dog’s feeding area.  Even having one dog lick another dog’s bowl for crumbs may lead to a problem.  You may also want to feed the dogs in different spots so that each dog doesn’t develop a habit of considering one spot in the home as “mine”.

If you are accustomed to leaving food down until the dish becomes empty, you may want to consider limiting the amount of time over which food is made available.  Your dog will soon learn that he or she is to eat when the food is presented, rather than leaving it for whenever it’s convenient.  Again, this lets the dog know that you, not the dog, are in charge of the food.  Even picky eaters can generally eat an appropriate portion of food in ten to twenty minutes.

If you have your dogs to the point where they can eat together in peace, you will still need to supervise mealtimes.  If a dog becomes sick or gives birth or even begins to feel the ill effects of becoming older, you may see aggression come back.

What about guarding/possessiveness of toys?

Most of the techniques described here can also be used to prevent toy guarding.  You want to have your dog get to the point where you can take a toy away without any signs of aggression from the animal.

Keep the toys put up and make the dog ask for one from you by sitting nicely.  Make sure your dog is comfortable with you sitting nearby while the dog is playing.  Then, begin to pet your dog during play time to get the dog comfortable with your being close.  Use tug toys to show the dog some attention during play time, which is always a welcome addition.  Take the toy away and give the dog a treat and lavish praise, then give it back.

Never chase a dog who has something that doesn’t belong to him or her.  This makes it a game and teaches the dog he or she can get attention by stealing shoes, baby toys, or other things you consider yours.  Instead, call the dog to you and trade the inappropriate object for a treat or an appropriate dog toy.

Because food aggression and toy aggression result from the same basic drive, make sure you work on both problems at the same time.  For dogs who have high food / prey drives, you may have to continue the lessons for the life of the dog.  Others may learn how to play well with others after a few lessons.  Continue to monitor your dog for any signs of aggression and make sure to extinguish the behaviors as soon as they appear by using the above techniques.