Food Aggression in Dogs: The Best Way to Handle It
Do you have a normally calm, sweet pup who turns into a snarling beast around food? Here's why it happens—and what you can do about it.
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The curious case of the suddenly crazed canine
No matter how many times it happens, it’s always completely mind-boggling: Your usually mild-mannered dog undergoes a complete Jekyll and Hyde transformation as soon as it’s mealtime. His happy-go-lucky demeanor vanishes, and he’s suddenly a growling, snarling ball of anger you hardly recognize. This can be intimidating and scary for any pet parent but especially for those who have young children in the house. The good news is that you’re not alone; food aggression in dogs is a relatively common issue. The better news is that it’s possible to retrain a dog who’s possessive of food and get rid of this problem once and for all. Once you’ve got this down, it’s time to address these other common pet behavioral issues.
Prepare yourself for the process
While food aggression in dogs is solvable, it probably won’t be a quick process. Undoing food-motivated aggression can take time, says Annie Grossman, owner of School for the Dogs in New York City. But don’t let that stop you from seeking help; this is not a situation that should be ignored. It’s necessary to be patient and consistent in your efforts to make sure everyone in your household feels comfortable around your pet. Don’t miss these 15 secrets dog trainers won’t tell you for free.
What causes food aggression in dogs
Before you tackle this frustrating issue, it’s helpful to understand why your dog is snarling, snapping, or even lunging at those who pass by when he’s eating. “Most aggression develops out of some kind of fear,” explains Grossman. In this case, it’s fear of going hungry. Fear of—and thus vigilance against—another animal taking their food is something that served our dogs’ ancestors well. After all, pre-domesticated canines never knew when (or if) their next meal was coming. Speaking of those meals, what should you be feeding your furry BFF? This is the very best diet for dogs, according to vets.
“Resource guarding” gone wrong
Dog trainers call this behavior “resource guarding.” (Interestingly, the same term is often used by psychologists to describe the angry reaction we humans often have when someone encroaches on something we value.) While it’s a natural reaction at its core, “the vestigial proclivity to this kind of fear can be misguided and breed the kind of aggression that lands too many dogs in shelters,” says Grossman. Most of the time, snapping doesn’t lead to the interloper being bit, especially if your dog is one of the 11 breeds less likely to bite. But any dog is capable of biting, and when it does happen, the pet is often given up, sadly.
Reassure your dog
Fortunately, there is an easy way to help reassure a dog that he is safe, says Grossman. And it works whether the resource they’re guarding is food, a favored toy, or the prime snoozing spot on that chair near the sunny window. “One [method] is to give him an extra goody while he’s enjoying the resource,” she explains. “This may mean, for instance, tossing delicious treats into his bowl while he is eating his usual dog food, so that he learns that great things happen when people are around his bowl.” If you think your dog could use dog obedience training, here’s how to find the best trainer.
Why this works
Most of the time, dogs can’t readily distinguish between what is theirs and what is not, and so they don’t understand why things they love (a piece of who-knows-what-it-was he tried to swallow on his walk, or extra-stinky socks he dug out of the laundry pile) are often taken away. So by making a habit of giving him appropriate things he can relish in addition to whatever it is he’s already enjoying, you’re teaching him that your presence makes a good situation even better. Luckily, when it comes to food aggression in dogs, this is an easy thing to do. Here are some more reasons behind your dog’s weird behaviors.
When to add a command
It can seem counterintuitive, notes Grossman, but you should take this approach even if your dog is eating something he shouldn’t, like a chicken bone (or your new silk slipper). The big difference is that, in addition to giving the treat, you firmly say, “Drop it.” Why? “The dog is going to have to open his mouth in order to gobble up the treat, and this will mean dropping whatever was in his maw to begin with, giving you the opportunity to take the forbidden thing,” explains Grossman. The key to success is to have already given the treat in the food-aggression scenario several times. That way, your dog recognizes the command as an aberration.
Try a “slow feeder” bowl
Another strategy in tough cases is to feed your dog his meals in a “work-to-eat” bowl, like the Outward Hound Interactive Dog Bowl. Then he has to channel his energy into actually obtaining his food. “Dogs like having a job, and if we don’t give them one, they’re likely to make up their own job,” says Grossman. It’s far better if he uses that penchant for purpose in this way instead of protectively guarding his food. This is also one of the smart ways to keep your pet busy while you’re at work.
What not to do
In short, don’t punish your pup for the food aggression. This is just as important as consistently applying the positive treat tactics mentioned above. The old thinking that forceful methods will elicit respect from a dog is one of the common dog myths everyone seems to believe, even though they’re false. “Yelling at, chasing, or scolding a dog who is doing something you don’t want him to do is only likely to elicit generalized fear, which is the very thing that leads to aggression in the first place,” emphasizes Grossman.
If all else fails…
If you’ve tried everything and your dog is still acting out aggressively, a trip to your veterinarian is in order. It’s possible that your dog is injured in a way that isn’t easily visible or is otherwise ill. In fact, uncharacteristic snarling and snapping is one of 13 warning signs that your dog is in pain.