This article is for informational purposes only and not a self-help guide. DO NOT try to resolve food aggression in dogs yourself unless you are an experienced dog trainer. This is dangerous and can result in serious injury or even death. Please hire an experienced dog trainer to assist in this process. Besides myself, I only recommend Training without Conflict™ Certified Professional Dog Trainers for this work.
When I was a less experienced trainer I always thought of food aggression in dogs as an issue of poor pack hierarchy in the home. I know many dog trainers continue to believe this. Today I know better. I wasn’t completely wrong back then, my knowledge was just incomplete. Food aggression in dogs can certainly be a rank issue but most of the time it just isn’t.
We generally distinguish two types of food aggression in dogs: a genetic predisposition or a learned behavior. The former is more common and has to be managed and the latter is less common but can be resolved.
But before we dive in, please understand food aggressive dogs are not automatically bad dogs. In fact, they are often great dogs aside from food aggression. This particular challenge is easily managed and not a reason to give up on your otherwise amazing dog.
Food Aggression in Dogs Due To Genetic Predisposition
The key indicator to determine if your dog’s food aggression is genetic is that it only shows aggressive guarding behaviors with food items and nothing else. If your dog also aggressively guards other resources, it’s most likely a learned behavior which we will discuss later.
Pure food aggression in dogs is usually a genetic trait. Unfortunately, too many macho trainers who marvel at the greatness of their own existence think they can fix anything. They end up leaving dog owners with a false sense of security after a seemingly successful training program. This can have injurious consequences for the family.
You can end up with a dog that fooled you into believing it was responding to the training approach but then one day the evolutionary instincts kick back in. The low growl starts again and you're back into fighting with your dog, maybe getting bit in the process. Winning a few battles with a dog over food items doesn't change its evolutionary instinctive behaviors.
If the food aggression is only mild, the right training could theoretically reliably suppress the aggressive behavior, but it's impossible to know if the dog actually changed and for that reason management is still the better option.
When the intensity of the displayed food aggression is high enough for it to be a serious problem, we are almost certainly dealing with a genetic predisposition. Obviously, no amount of training can “fix” a dog’s genetics.
Genetic food aggression in dogs is also not misbehavior. From an evolutionary perspective, the guarding of food has a lot of benefits for a dog. It assures survival, results in more food, finding better mates, and so on. It's a strong instinctual disposition, not a pathological problem. Consequently, resolving such food aggression in dogs is usually impossible and the strategy should be to manage it effectively to keep everybody safe.
In addition, it’s inherently unfair to dogs trying to change them because they were born with a strong, genetic program to protect their food. You wouldn’t send a person to a training camp to change their eye color either. This is the same thing. It’s a genetic trait.
Accepting that genetic food aggression in dogs must be managed and can’t be changed will avoid frustration for all involved. Some people we know or live with also need special considerations. The same can be true for dogs. This is one such scenario.
Food Aggression in Dogs As a Learned Behavior
Dogs do what works. If a dog is a punk and likes to get its way, it may learn along the way that aggressive behaviors get it what it wants. In such a case aggression is a strategy and not a genetic predisposition. However, such a dog is usually also guarding other items and not just food. Possessive aggressive behavior over a variety of things is an indication that we are dealing with a more general resource guarding issue, which is a learned behavior. We have a much better chance of resolving that than with pure food aggression in dogs.
Regardless, proper management may still be the safer option, depending on the circumstances and the people involved. This will be an individual decision. Just because we can, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. For some families, effective management of resource guarding behaviors can be the better option. It all depends.
The good news is that with a learned behavior, we can change it. Often times the learned behavior is driven by a poor hierarchical structure in the home. It is usually a rank issue. Dogs are pack-oriented animals no matter how much some ignorant animal rights groups or uninformed veterinary organizations want to convince us otherwise. Maybe the study of ethology should become mandatory for people working with animals—but I digress. In the dog’s mind, it feels it’s in charge and we have no right to interfere with its ownership claims. This is dangerous behavior and may manifest in more than just the guarding of food or toys (e.g. water, sofas, people, locations, and so on). It tends to branch out into more and more areas over time, making the problem greater.
But despite its apparent broader scope, this is actually quite straightforward to resolve and in many aspects a much better problem to have than genetic food aggression in dogs. It just must be dealt with appropriately through the correct training approach. Please don’t assume that the simplistic ideas of pack leadership, that are floating around the internet and dog TV shows will address this properly. These ideas only scratch the surface of the solution but there is more to it as you will read in the training section for food aggression in dogs below.
Signs of Food Aggression in Dogs
Dogs with resource guarding behaviors and especially food aggression usually give clear warning signs and show that they are uncomfortable with what you are trying to do. Typical signs include:
- Low growl
- Showing teeth
- Stopping to eat
- Stiffening up
- Eating faster
- Trying to bite
If a dog with food aggression bites, the bite is typically a quick bite and not a full attack. Its goal is to get you to back off and not start a full-blown war.
Dogs with food aggression usually also know that they shouldn't bite you but as the behavior is driven by instinct they can’t stop themselves.
Interesting side note on female food aggression in dogs: The female dog will still feed her puppies, regurgitate food for them, and let them eat it. This is because it is an evolutionary instinctive behavior. Genetic food aggression in dogs is directed at third parties, not their own offspring. Evolution favors behaviors that assure the survival of your own genes, not jeopardize them.
Management Plan for Food Aggression in Dogs
Regardless of the reason for the food aggression. Proper management will be part of the solution. In case of a genetic predisposition, the management will be permanent in case of a learned behavior probably temporary until training is finished.
Managing genetic food aggression in dogs can be as simple as always keeping all food in the dog’s crate. Don’t bother it while it’s eating and collect the empty food bowl after it is no longer in the crate. Below are a few more things to consider for proper management.
Other Management Considerations:
- Put the dog in a crate when no one is going to bother it and let it enjoy its food or bone in peace.
- Don't bother your dog while it’s eating. Respect its time to eat. Don't even go near it, and don’t use fake hands or things like that to mess with it either. Leave your dog alone while eating.
- Trading out items you want to retrieve from your resource guarder for higher-value items can sometimes be part of a management strategy but it doesn't resolve anything. It depends on your dog if this is feasible or not.
- Hand-feeding (or feeding smaller portions incrementally) is not a good idea when dealing with food aggression in dogs. It can lead to a false sense of success. Often times it will simply not work. But if it looks like it’s working initially, it usually fails later when the dog has some time to get invested in the bone or food. While this approach would show your dog that you are providing food and not trying to take it away at that moment, it doesn’t generalize. If in another scenario the dog believes you will be taking something away, it will again respond the way nature tells it to when approached.
- Of course, we can suppress aggressive behavior through punishment at that moment. When done correctly, the dog will stop and we think we succeeded. But the problem with food aggression in dogs is not to suppress it at that moment. The problem is preventing it from happening again in the future. And if the reason for the food aggression is the genetic makeup of your dog, this won't work.
There are also training components that will help successfully manage genetic food aggression in dogs, which we will discuss below.
If you need more help, please hire an experienced dog trainer to help you devise a proper management plan.
Training for Resource Guarding
All of the outlined training components apply to both types of food aggression in dogs. For the genetic predisposition type, it won’t resolve it but will make management a lot easier and safer. For learned resource guarding behaviors, the discussed training steps will resolve the issue, when done correctly.
I am keeping this very high level for a reason. As mentioned before, you should not attempt to resolve food aggression in dogs by yourself. For your safety, please hire an experienced dog trainer to help you.
Teach Concepts Outside Context
Generally, you want your dog to learn important concepts in completely unrelated situations. Instead of facing food aggression in dogs head-on, you want to present similar situations with a much lower level of stimulation and lesser importance of value. This will allow you to teach the concepts of what you need to accomplish. Only after the concepts are understood, should you move on to the problem areas themselves.
Build Trust, Establish Rules and Create Cooperation
To be able to effectively influence a dog’s behavior, it must trust you. We don’t listen to people we don’t trust either, why would a dog. Food aggression in dogs is an intense problem so trust is paramount.
There has to be cooperation between you and your dog to work on anything. If your dog blows you off, that won’t go anywhere. This is done through the right motivation. Cooperation must have a benefit to the dog. We don’t cooperate with other people either unless we have a reason to. It is up to us to create the right motivation.
You must have understood rules of interaction. Your dog must understand what you accept and what you don’t. The parameters of your interactions have to be clear and predictable.
None of these things should be a surprise to anyone. This is no different for people. We all handle things the same way; so does your dog.
Play is by far the best way to accomplish all of this in the fastest way possible. When we are having fun together we are developing a good relationship. Subsequently, this allows us to set rules and shape the interaction the way we need to. Play becomes a game by adding rules. Play is a free-for-all but by adding rules it becomes more structured without forfeiting any of the fun. A game of basketball isn’t less exciting because you have to wait for the start signal before you try to catch the ball. Games are how we teach rules and cooperation in a fun, motivating way. It will help tremendously when working on food aggression in dogs.
For example, a game will allow you to teach your dog to let go of something when you say so without ruining the whole thing. Learning that concept will come in handy later when you are dealing with the resources your dog wants to guard. It will still be different from the real thing but now your dog at least knows what it is supposed to do and what the penalty will be for breaking the rules. Predictability and clarity change things for the better. This is critical when dealing with food aggression in dogs.
Games allow us to teach the concept of giving something up and stepping away from it. Teaching it directly with a bone or food bowl creates too much pressure and conflict.
Obedience training is also a must for resource guarding. This is less about the commands themselves but more about establishing authority with the dog through the training process. Authority is important as ethologically the weaker animal will surrender resources to the stronger one. That goes back to the pack orientation and the resource guarding being a rank issue.
The commands are secondary, but helpful commands when dealing with food aggression in dogs are: out (drop it), back (walk a few steps backward), leave it, and come.
I hope this overview on food aggression in dogs helps you better understand what you are dealing with. But again, please hire an experienced dog trainer to assist in this process. I recommend a Training without Conflict™ Certified Professional Dog Trainer for this work only.