- Aggression and reactivity are not the same — If your dog reacts to something while they’re eating, that’s not the same as being food aggressive.
- Food aggression and resource guarding aren’t breed-specific behaviors — Any dog, no matter how gentle their breed or how well they’ve been trained, can display aggression or guarding behaviors.
- Correction is not the key to minimizing or stopping food aggression and resource guarding — Telling your dog “no” or stopping them from accessing their food can make the situation worse. Counterconditioning, desensitization, and redirection are more effective methods for addressing this behavior.
What is food aggression in dogs?
Shelter, family, affection, and food are all important resources in the animal kingdom, and food may be chief among them. When dogs feel like their access to food is threatened, they may resort to resource guarding in the form of aggressive behavior. In fact, research suggests that as much as 20% of dogs display some form of food aggression. This is a reasonable and natural reaction to the threat of food being taken away, given away, or otherwise limited. Your dog’s ancestors would’ve fought hard to protect resources, like food, in order to survive.
That’s not to say that food aggression is necessarily passed down. Though, some breeds are more genetically predisposed to resource guarding than others. Food aggression can also be learned in puppyhood when the dog had to compete with its littermates for food or treats, or developed later in life because of trauma.
What’s the difference between fear and aggression in dogs?
Food aggression is a form of resource guarding and is often rooted in fear. Your dog may be afraid that their food will be taken away, that their access to more food will be limited, or even that this was the last opportunity for them to eat.
So, don’t think of fear and aggression as two separate reactions. Instead, think of them as cause and effect. A dog that is displaying signs of aggression around food is afraid more than anything else. Additionally, a dog displaying signs of food aggression is not necessarily an aggressive dog , they’re merely reacting based on fear.
Signs of food aggression in dogs
The levels of food aggression can range from mild to dangerous. Mild cases are fairly common, even in dogs who’ve shown no signs of food aggression before. It’s important to know how your dog typically acts when food isn’t around so you can easily spot any changes in their behavior during feeding times. To test for any signs of food aggression and to determine what level of aggression your dog currently has, look out for certain behaviors.
- Staring. Your dog is focused on your presence while they eat, even if you are standing a good distance away. This is often a mild warning.
- Eating faster. If you walk toward your dog while they are eating, they begin to eat faster. This is also considered a mild warning.
- Raised hackles. If you continue to approach your dog, the hair – or hackles – on their back stand up. This behavior is on the line between a mild and moderate warning.
- Growling. Getting closer to your dog and their food source causes them to warn you with a growl. This is a moderate warning and you should proceed with caution.
- Biting or chasing. If you touch their food source or remove it entirely, your dog tries to bite you or chase you away. This behavior is extremely dangerous for you and other humans and animals in the home.
Why dogs display food aggression and resource guarding
While food aggression is thought to be more common in rescue dogs, shelter dogs, underweight or overweight dogs, abused dogs, or dogs who were deliberately denied access to food, research has not been able to prove these correlations. In fact, little is known about why some dogs develop a guarding behavior around food. Motive aside, recognizing the behavior and taking steps to minimize or eliminate it altogether are important for the health and happiness of your beloved doggo and for the protection of family members, including other pets in the household.
How to eliminate food aggression in dogs
The signs of food aggression as outlined above break down guarding behaviors and rank them from mild to dangerous. Using those as a guide, determine whether you will take on the task of training your dog, or if you will need help from a professional.
It’s natural to think that correction would be the right approach to eliminating or lessening the occurrence of food aggression, but that’s where dog behavior experts would disagree. Yelling, telling your dog “no”, or taking the food or treats away can actually make the situation exponentially worse.
Instead, counterconditioning, desensitization, and redirection are key for establishing a better relationship between your dog and their food. If your dog is displaying mild signs of food aggression, these tactics can help eliminate the behavior altogether. But keep in mind that with more severe cases, they may only lessen the behavior.
🚨 The following techniques are for dogs who are not displaying moderate or dangerous levels of aggression. If your dog is already growling, biting, or giving chase, please consult a dog behavior specialist before attempting these steps.
The six steps below can help eliminate or lessen food aggression. It’s important to go through them in order, take your time, and practice them consistently so you can build trust with your dog.
- Stand near your dog during meals. Stand silently a few feet away at every feeding for a week. Once your dog is comfortable with you, have each member of the family repeat the exercise until your dog no longer reacts to anyone standing nearby while they eat.
- Add food to the bowl. Now that your dog is fine with you standing near their bowl, try adding a treat to it while they are eating. Over the course of a week, move from your spot to their bowl and drop in a tasty treat. Then return to your spot. Try moving closer to the bowl every day until your dog doesn’t react to you or the treat. As with the first step, have everyone in the home repeat this exercise until your dog is comfortable.
- Talk to your dog. This step combines the first two with the added element of your voice. Talk to your dog while you stand nearby, occasionally dropping a treat into their bowl. Practice this exercise consistently over a week while your dog eats until they aren’t bothered by your movement, proximity, or voice. Then, repeat with any other people in the house.
- Feed from your hand. Once your dog trusts you to be close, add food or treats to their bowl, and talk to them while they eat, try feeding them a treat from your hand to gain even more trust. As soon as they eat the treat, walk away from them to reinforce that you do not want to take their food.
- Touch the bowl. Speaking calmly as you stand near your dog, bend down and offer them a treat with one hand. With your other hand, touch their bowl. Repeat the process of offering a treat while touching the bowl for a week. Only touch the bowl, do not move it.
- Pick up the bowl. Now that you can touch your dog’s food bowl, it’s time to try picking it up off the floor. Lift it slowly, speaking calmly and reassuringly to your dog the whole time. Place a treat in the bowl and then put it back down. Try to lift the bowl a little higher every day until you can take a few steps away before putting a treat in the bowl. Put the bowl back down in the same spot from where you picked it up.
Consistency is vital to this process of counterconditioning and desensitization. Let everyone in the house go through each of these steps so that the whole house can build trust with your dog. Avoid punishments, intimidation, or strong corrective actions. Saying “no” or taking the food away entirely can make the situation worse. If your dog has a slip-up, try redirection instead by using a high-value treat to distract your dog from their bad behavior.
If you follow each of the steps to the letter and your dog is still showing signs of food aggression, another option is to feed the dog in their crate. Place the food in the crate first before the dog sees it. Open the crate door to allow the dog to go in then close the crate. This works well if a dog is used to being in a crate already and considers it their “safe” place.
With the crate door closed during feeding time, your dog should not feel threatened that its food will be taken away. After they have finished eating, open the crate door so that the dog can come out when it is ready.
🚨 Crates work well for many dogs but some can be aggressive when they are in a crate as they protect their domain. If your dog is showing any signs of aggression at home such as snarling, growling, lunging, trying to bite or biting, this is a dangerous situation. It is very important to reach out to your local veterinarian for help in addressing this behavior as soon as possible.
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Frequently asked questions
Why is my dog aggressive around food all of a sudden?
Even the most well-behaved dogs can experience a bout of food aggression out of the blue. Consider any recent changes to your or your dog’s life. Have you gotten another pet? Has someone moved out of the house or moved in? Did you change the location of the food bowls or change the type of food you are feeding your dog? The smallest changes can upset the balance (and larger changes can create even more stress). The good news is that the sudden onset of food aggression is likely temporary.
Are there any breeds that are more prone to food aggression?
While food aggression isn’t necessarily a genetic trait that can be passed down, some breeds with a closer tie to their wild ancestors may display the behavior more frequently than other breeds. In general, though, food aggression is either learned or induced.
Will spaying or neutering my dog resolve their food aggression?
There are some behaviors that can be resolved by spaying or neutering, but food aggression is not necessarily one of them. In fact, some dogs can become more aggressive after the procedure, though it’s usually temporary. Remember, spaying or neutering is a big change for your dog and it carries more positive benefits than negative. However, don’t rely on the procedure to curb food aggression. Contact a behavior specialist for guidance.
Is my dog too old to learn not to be aggressive around food?
Dogs are never too old to be trained. It just may take longer than it would to train a puppy. If food aggression has become a new issue or you’ve just adopted an older dog that already had food aggression, go through the six steps outlined above. With patience and consistency, you should be able to lessen the behavior or train it out altogether.