The Do’s and Don’ts of Dealing With Food Aggressive Dogs

If you’ve ever tried to take the bowl away from your pup while he’s still eating from it and nearly lost your hand…that’s a food aggressive dog.

Varying feeding times and changing the location of where your dog eats, are two simple things to try. If the resource guarding behavior is more serious, this post is a step by step guide on what you can do that will make a big difference.  

The general term for this behavior is known as resource guarding, which occurs when a dog guards something he deems to be of value. A resource could be –

  • Food
  • Toys
  • Treats
  • His bed
  • People
  • Territory

In this post we are going to deal specifically with resource guarding food.

Why do dogs suddenly become food aggressive?

Sometimes this behavior can develop suddenly, but often it’s something that’s been slowly developing over time and you only notice it when it’s quite pronounced.

Changes in the environment

Have you recently welcomed a new four legged family member who is constantly sticking his nose in your dog’s food? He may have started off warning him with a growl, then escalated when it had no effect. He has now learned a new behavior and is applying it to anyone going near his food.

Evolving behavior

Guarding is normal behavior for animals, it’s the way they protect their resources in the wild. As your puppy gets older this behavior will likely develop, but not every dog will become aggressive.

Medical issues

  • Dogs are pretty good at hiding pain, so while they may not be crying, aggression is one way it can manifest.
  • Your dog could have a hard time eating because of dental disease
  • Arthritis or other joint problems makes it hard for him to stand or reach down to his bowl
  • A dog with vision or hearing loss can lash out because they can’t see or hear you approaching him
  • If you recently adopted a dog that was severely neglected and rarely fed, he could guard that food to the point of aggression when anyone goes near it

How to deal with a food aggressive dog

Do dogs grow out of food aggression?

No they don’t, in fact it can only get worse if nothing is done about it.

Things you should not do to a food aggressive dog  

Never, ever, ever punish your dog, because this behavior is not his fault. This statement holds true no matter what your dog has done that you’re not happy with. It’s down to a lack of training on the part of the dog parent, so if your dog is not behaving as you would like, I recommend you hire a trainer to help.

Don’t try and wrestle the food or bowl away from your dog.

Managing your dog’s guarding behavior

There are many things you can do to manage your dog’s guarding behavior. This is important for anyone going through the step by step desensitization training, because it can take several weeks to see results.

It is also an option if you prefer to manage rather than try and change this behavior.

◊ If there are others living in your household, please sit down with them and explain the purpose of the training, the steps you’ll be taking, and that no one (except the person doing the training) is allowed anywhere near the dog while he is eating.

◊ If you have a multi dog household, feed the one who guards in a separate room

◊ Separate the dogs when feeding them treats/bones…

Only relying on management to deal with your food aggressive dog is not the best strategy in every situation. If you have people in the house that won’t take these techniques seriously, you have children living in the house or who regularly visit, or your dog guards other resources not just food, then behavior modification in the form of desensitization training would be a better way forward for you and your dog.

How to stop food aggression in dogs

Vary feeding times

I have always fed all my dogs on a schedule, and it never fails – there’s always one dog whose clock goes off a few minutes before and they’re on high alert! Guarding has never been a problem in my household, but for a dog who guards his food that is a problem, because his anxiety is already starting to build in anticipation of what always happens. For that reason, try varying feeding times a bit so he never quite knows when it’s coming.

NOTE: When I say schedule I don’t mean to the exact second, but roughly the same times every day give or take a few minutes. 

Change the location of where he eats

Feed him from a new bowl in a different location so it breaks the pattern, and cycle, of his anxiety.

What the training will teach your dog

You want him to know he gets delicious treats when you approach his bowl, and he never has to worry that anything is being taken away.

Step 1

Pick up your dog’s empty bowl, make it look like you’re filling it with food, then put it on the floor. When he looks at you with that “what’s with the empty bowl look” praise him and give him a bit of food. Once he’s finished and looks at you again, add a little more. Repeat this until his portion for that meal has been eaten. Walk away, then come right back and add just a bit more.

You want your dog to see that good things happen when you approach.

Feed him each meal this way for about a week (longer if necessary depending on the severity of his guarding behaviour), and as he becomes more and more comfortable with you being so close to his bowl, you’ll add more and more food each time, until you can put down a full bowl of food and he will eat it with you standing next to him.

Step 2

Walk by his empty bowl and throw a high value treat in. A high value treat is something your dog loves, but doesn’t usually get. It could be chicken, ham, liver, hot dogs, cheese… Do that several times over the course of a week or so. Again, you want to show your dog that good things happen when you approach. Don’t wait for meal time, do it randomly during the day.

Step 3

Throw that high value treat in his bowl while he’s in the middle of eating a meal. He should be relaxed enough to eat with you near him.

If at any point he seems stressed or shows that guarding behavior again, you may have moved too quickly. Back up to the point where he was still relaxed, and progress a little slower.

The do's and don'ts of dealing with food aggressive dogs

 

Here is another method to try, similar goal but with more steps and a slight variation

Step 1

While your dog is eating, keep your distance so he’s not in guarding mode. In a fun tone say something like “what’s that?” or “what are you eating?” or whatever sentence you choose, then throw a high value treat into his bowl.

Hopefully the distance you need to be for him to be comfortable and your throwing arm are compatible!! Don’t worry if it misses the bowl sometimes, he’ll find it so don’t you go get it. Do this a few times throughout the meal. Keep the pieces small, but not too small that he can’t enjoy what you’re giving him.

Keep this up each time your dog eats, and do not move on to step 2 until your dog has been relaxed eating in this manner for one week (14 meals). If at any point he’s exhibiting, or about to exhibit guarding behavior, you may be standing too close so take a step or two back, and just carry on.

It’s entirely possible that at some points during this exercise, your dog will leave his food and come to you looking for treats. It’s a good sign but ignore him. He only gets the treat when he’s at his bowl eating.

Step 2

Your dog has been relaxed with you tossing treats into his bowl, and you’re both ready for the next step. You’re doing pretty much the same thing as you’ve been doing – asking him what he has there and tossing him a treat, only this time you are taking one step forward, tossing him the treat, then taking one step back.

You see the difference?

In step 1 you remained in place when giving him treats, now you are taking one step forward, throwing it, then stepping back. Repeat this several times throughout his meal.

Every day take one very small step closer. If at any point your dog is starting to show guarding behavior, you may have progressed too quickly. Go back to the distance he was comfortable, and perhaps rather than taking a step closer every day, try every other day. You want to be within about two feet of him for about a week before you move on to the next step.

Step 3

By this point you should be able to ask him again what he has there, walk up to the bowl, drop a treat in then walk away. Don’t stare at your dog, be cool just walk over and do it. Do this for a week of meals, then you can move on.

Step 4

By this point your dog should be ready to take a treat from your hand, so let’s see how we accomplish that!

While your dog is eating, and saying that same sentence you decided on in step 1, take a treat in your hand, walk right next to your dog, bend over ever so slightly and encourage him to eat the treat from your hand. Once he does just turn around and walk away. You know the drill, repeat until he finishes his meal.

Repeat this each day, bending just a little bit each time. As you’re bending your hand is moving ever so slightly closer to the bowl. Keep doing this exercise slowly, until you are at the point where he is relaxed enough to allow you to give him a treat next to his food bowl for about a week. Once this happens, move on to the next step.

Step 5

Now that you’re able to bend down near your dog’s bowl and give him a treat, the goal of this step is for you to touch his bowl with one hand, while giving him the treat with the other.

As before, once the treat is given turn around, walk away and repeat several times. As always, remain at this step until you can touch his bowl during about a week of meals, while he is relaxed.

Step 6

Approaching him with your usual greeting, stand next to your dog, bend over to pick up the bowl and raise it just a few inches off the ground, drop a treat in it, put the bowl back down and walk away. Repeat.

Step 7

The same as step 6 but you’re raising the bowl higher off the ground to put the treat in, then putting it back down for your dog to eat. You want to be able to stand straight while holding his bowl before you move on to the next step.

Step 8

You are now able to reach down, pick your dog’s food bowl up and he’s okay with it. Now you’re going to walk over to the counter, put the treat in the bowl over there, then return the bowl to your dog and repeat.

Step 9

Everyone in the household has to go through steps 1-8, but do it one person at a time, not more than one person going through the steps at the same time.

How do you stop food aggression in dogs

I think I hear you groaning! Understandable, it’s a very lengthy process and does require your time and effort at each feeding. It has so many steps for a reason. The best way to help is to make it as gradual a process as possible. You will be changing your dog’s attitude from seeing you as a threat to his prized possession, to the giver of something wonderful whenever you’re near him at meal times.

It’s not your dog’s fault he guards his resource, and as our dogs’ guardians it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to help and this is one of those times, and one of those ways!!

I have no idea how aggressively your dog guards his food, but it’s best to take such baby steps to help your dog very slowly adjust. If your dog is not that aggressive, or is really responding well, you could do each step for 6 day, or even 5 rather than 7.

Remember, rushing training doesn’t benefit anyone.

How to prevent food aggression in puppies

It’s always easier to prevent a behavior from developing, then trying to change it after the fact. If you have a dog that doesn’t guard, here are some things that should keep it that way.

Step 1

Sit with your dog on the floor and hand feed him some of his meal. Speak in a really calm and pleasant voice, and occasionally pet him with one hand while feeding him with the other.

Step 2

If things are going well, hold the bowl in your lap while he eats, and once or twice speaking and petting him. 

Step 3

He will be eating out of his bowl that you’ve placed on the floor, so occasionally drop in a delicious treat.

Go in order of the steps, and don’t do it at every meal. The last thing you want is for him to get used to being hand fed, to the point where that’s the only way he’s willing to eat.

If he’s not happy with this, you may want to try the first 3 step training process above.

 

Sources

Food Guarding  

Resource-Guarding And What To Do About It 

 

For information about my virtual training and dog care consultancy service, and to book an appointment, please visit my services page.

 

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