They say you should never touch a dog while he is eating. And that is very much true. Dogs feel like it is their duty to guard their bowl.
They might think it is their last meal. Just try and take a bone from a dog’s mouth. And see what happens. Yes, dogs can be quite protective and aggressive towards people and animals trying to reach for their food. But what if the food aggression in dogs goes too far?
In stray dogs, food aggression is quite normal and common. Remember, stray dogs have to fight and search for their food. They will never know if they will have enough. As a result, they defend with the vigor of a dog whose life depends on it.
But when domestic dogs show this same type of behavior, it might be problematic. If not handled early on, this food aggression can lead to becoming possessive over everything. Same as children, dogs should learn to share.
What is food aggression?
Simply put, food aggression in dogs is a form of resource guarding in which your dog becomes very defensive when eating, using threats to force you the other way.
Usually, dogs protect their territory by flashing their teeth. The aggression can be directed towards other animals, humans, or both in some cases.
There are actually three degrees of food aggression. The trick is to notice it in the early stages and react accordingly. These are the stages:
- Mild, when the dog growls and may show its teeth
- Moderate, when the dog snaps or lunges when approached
- Severe, when the dog bites if somebody comes close to his bowl
One of the misconceptions is that the behavior is actually a show of dominance. But that is not the case all the time. In a dog pack, the alpha dog eats first, and then the other dogs get what is left according to their position in the pack.
For alpha dogs, food aggression is a form of dominance. However, for dogs with a lower pack position, food aggression is a sign of fearfulness. In the wild, dogs never know when their next meal will be. Domestic dogs sometimes carry the same natural instinct.
How to recognize food aggression in dogs?
When your dog is eating, his body will stiffen. He may keep his head down. This body language is a way of hovering over the meal and protecting it.
You can look for other signs like his eyes being visible, his ears held back, and the tail is lowered. Some dogs show one of these signs, others show all of the signs. And of course, there are signs like growling, lunging, and biting.
What can you do about it?
The first thing you need to do is assess your dog’s overall behavior. Is he showing possessiveness only over food? Or does this behavior extend to other things like toys, people, and resting spots in the home?
If the behavior is not limited to food, then your dog is showing general guarding instincts. You will need to use techniques to solve that particular problem. If it is only toward food, you need to use different techniques.
You should also assess your dog’s behavior and confidence. Is he a naturally dominant dog? If that is the case, you have failed as asserting yourself as the pack leader.
You have to do it in a calm and assertive way. However, if your dog is fearful, then you should build up his confidence and teach him that food is safe with humans around.
Last, you need to assess the level of food aggression. If the case is severe, you will have to consult a professional.
Techniques to combat food aggression
For easy and mild cases of aggression
This method is designed for easy dogs and works only if the food aggression level is mild. It can sometimes work at moderate levels.
- While your dog is eating, stand at a safe distance
- Toss bite-sized treats that your dog loves
- When he has finished with his bowl and has nothing left to guard, move closer and toss more treats to him or into the bowl
- Make sure to cut back on regular food if you are using too many treats
- Move a bit closer each day, but always staying outside of his defensive range
- Watch his behavior, if he growls or tenses up, you have moved too close and too quickly
- The key here is that your dog stays relaxed around the bowl, and learns that he will get treats from you
- If the method doesn’t yield some results within a week or two, try a mode advanced method or consult a professional
Work for food
Dogs love to finish tasks and expect rewards when they do it. One way to cut down on food aggression is to make your dog work for his food.
- Before you start preparing his food, command your dog to sit or lie down
- Train your dog to stay calm even after you place the bowl down
- Stand close to the bowl, and then release your dog from the sit/stay command
- Once your dog starts eating, you can move away
This method not only helps you reduce food aggression, but also build a special bond between you and your furry friend.
- Start your dog’s meal by giving him food by hand
- Then, use your hands to put the food in the bowl, and let him sniff your hands if he likes
- The goal here is your dog to get used to eating while your hands are around
This method is similar to the first one. The main difference is that you toss treats in the bowl, not near the bowl.
- While your dog is eating, drop his favorite treats into the bowl
- This method helps your dog learn that people approaching the bowl can be a good thing, and not a threat
- You can also put treats in the bowl when your dog is not eating to reinforce his mindset and connection that people near the bowl can be a good thing
What to do if you have multiple dogs?
Handling food aggression in dogs when you have one dog is already a challenge. But with multiple dogs, the challenge becomes even bigger. Competition among the dogs can become normal and common, and contribute even more to food aggression.
One way to combat this is to put the dogs in different rooms during feeding. Or work with them separately.
However, a more successful approach is to teach your dogs to share their food. Call your dogs, and give treats to all of them. Praise every dog as you are giving them treats. This helps dogs learn that each and every one of them will receive his food/treats.
It is vital that you have different bowls for each dog. Monitor them while eating. If you notice food aggression in any of the dogs, react.
We want to give you some bonus tips to ensure your dogs are calmed and relaxed around other animals and humans during feeding time. Let’s get started.
- Be consistent in your training, mealtime, and try to establish a routine. Dogs have an internal clock, and they learn easily when it is time to get up, go for a walk, and eat. Be regular in feeding to take away the anxiety
- Always feed your dog after a walk, not before. Doing so will fulfill his instinct to hunt for food. He will feel like he has earned his right to eat when he comes home
- Remember, pack leaders, eat first, and that applies to home as well. If you establish yourself as the alpha leader, you eat first, and then your dog