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Food Aggression: Preventing and Correcting It

Published: March 22, 2022
Home / Training / Food Aggression: Preventing and Correcting It

In the wild, a dog's survival depends on his ability to protect resources that are valuable to him, including food. If he does not guard his resources, another animal may take them away from him. Food aggression is a form of resource guarding, and while it is a normal behavior for dogs, it is not acceptable in a human home. 

If your dog is displaying food aggression, there are things you can do to discourage this behavior. If your pet is not yet displaying food aggression, there are things you can do to prevent it. 

Why Can Food Aggression Be Dangerous?

Food aggression can range from mild to severe. If your pet's behavior is relatively mild, you may be able to cope with it by feeding her in a different room so that she can eat undisturbed. 

Food aggression is dangerous when it is severe, e.g., when the dog is willing to bite a human to protect what is his. It is also dangerous when the dog guards food that is not supposed to be his, such as food on counters or even on the table. The most dangerous situation is when there are also young children in the home, as they may be too young to understand that the dog is not to be disturbed while eating and may not correctly interpret the warning signs that the dog gives them to back off. When food aggression is severe, you have to teach the dog not to display those behaviors, which may require assistance from a pet behavioralist. 

What Are the Signs of Food Aggression?

A dog with food aggression may react negatively when anyone in the house gets too close to her bowl while she is eating, whether humans or pets. In mild cases, the dog may merely growl. Moderate food aggression may cause a dog to lunge at others in an attempt to guard the bowl and possibly snap at them with her teeth. In the most severe instances of food aggression, a dog may actually bite anyone who gets too close to her food. 

You may also observe other signs of food aggression: 

What Can You Do To Prevent Food Aggression in Your Dog?

If your dog is not showing food aggression now, that is obviously a good sign. You want to make sure that he does not develop food aggression later. One way to do this is to hand-feed your dog his meal. You don't have to do this every time, but you should do it on a fairly regular basis. With one hand, you feed your dog his dinner one handful at a time. With the other, you pet him while you praise him and speak pleasantly to him. 

The goal of this exercise is twofold. First, you teach the dog that you are in charge of her food. Second, you teach her that she shouldn't feel threatened by your presence while she is eating. 

What Can You Do To Correct Food Aggression?

The most important thing to do is to maintain safety at all times. If you believe that your dog may bite or snap at you while he is eating, do not put yourself in a position where he would have the opportunity to do this. This means that you only try the hand-feeding exercise on a dog that does not show food aggression or one with whom you have made progress in correcting it. This should not be the first step in trying to correct it. 

If your dog shows severe food aggression, you should consult a qualified animal behaviorist about the problem. A professional can teach you a detailed, multi-step training program that you can do the correct the behavior. This is a gradual process that requires consistency. However, there are some things you can do to discourage food aggression in your dog, especially in cases that are mild to moderate: 

1.       Find out what is causing the behavior. Food aggression can be a sign of dominance, but this isn't always the case. A dog that is anxious may also guard food for fear that it will be taken away. These two issues have the same result but require very different approaches to correct. 

2.       Dogs are pack animals that live in a highly organized and stratified society. In a dog pack, the alpha members, i.e., the leaders, always eat first. Therefore, you should never feed your dog until after you have already eaten. This helps to establish you as a pack leader in your dog's mind. 

3.       Dogs have an instinctual need to hunt for their food. Pet dogs do not need to hunt for their meals, but taking your dog for a walk prior to mealtime satisfies this need. Therefore, you should always feed your dog after a walk, never before. 

4.       Command your dog to sit or lie down before feeding her or even preparing her food. This accomplishes several important objectives. First, it teaches her that she has to work for her food; she doesn't get it just handed to her. Second, it keeps her still until you are ready to feed her. Third, it teaches her that you are in charge of the food. Of course, for this to work, you have to teach your dog to obey commands to sit or lie down so that she knows what to do when you ask. Training aids help to make this more effective. 

If your dog's guarding behavior is mild or moderate, these measures may be sufficient to correct it. If it is more serious, consult with a professional rather than putting yourself in harm's way. 

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