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Food Aggression in Dogs

Like toenail clippings in the sink, dirty dishes on the table, or wearing muddy shoes in the house, food aggression in animals is an example of personal baggage that can come with your new special friend.  Food aggression includes many resource guarding behaviors, and it can spell disaster for a healthy pet relationship if not addressed correctly and quickly.  Related image

What is it?

Food aggression is one example of resource guarding in pets.  These types of behaviors can be seen in many domesticated pets, but the most commonly seen is in dogs.  This behavior can be seen in three different flavors:

Mild presentation: you can see your dog actively hiding things they see as valuable, like toys, treats, and bones.  If you approach them while they are eating their body stiffens and maybe nervous tail waves when you come closer.

Moderate presentation: this is slightly more serious behavior as you will see more growling, the whites of the eyes may show, and the dog may try to chase off other dogs or people when they approach the item they are guarding.

Severe presentation: this is all of the above and then some.  Here you will see added threats; active snapping when approached, if you attempt to wiggle a hand into the bowl you will be bitten.

While this behavior is completely reversible, if you feel in danger at any point when attempting to tackle this behavior, contact a professional trainer.

Who has it?

While this type of behavior can be seen in any animal, the most commonly reported species for food aggression are dogs as well as some cats.  Typically, the pet will be new to the family, usually adopted from a situation where food was scarce and guarding was an important trait.  This does not mean a pet raised from birth in a perfect environment cannot begin guarding, though.

A pet may also begin displaying this behavior if you have a change in the family structure or a new environment.  If you have a new pet, the addition of a child, move houses, or an adult who used to be dominant in the dog relationship suddenly starts working long hours.  All of these situations can result in a pet suddenly feeling that they need to protect their territory.

What to do about it?

This type of behavior can seem cute at first, such as a new pet ‘grumbling’ into a food bowl while eating, but if left without correction it can escalate until your pet dictates

many aspects of your home life.  A pet should be given about two months to get used to a new environment.  Often a nervous pet can relax negative behaviors once given a good example.  As soon as you start to see territorial behavior in your pet, start practicing the following tricks:

Develop a food routine:  There are some rules to always follow in order to give the best impression to your pet.  Always feed your pet after your family has eaten, not during or before.  When feeding, use your hands (if possible) to put the food into the bowl, and mimic eating the food from the bowl before giving it to the pet.  This asserts you as dominant in the relationship, and will make the pet more secure in his place in the family (they will also be less likely to be aggressive towards you).  Unless you have small children, do not clear out the room when the pet is eating, your presence should be associated with food.

Desensitization:  By staying with your dog when eating, they associate your presence as good (hey, they have food when you’re around!).  If you begin leaving them when theyeat because of the growling or stressed body language they begin to think they control your actions (something to avoid).  

Positive association:  When your pet is eating, bring treats.  Try to distract them with a juicier tidbit than is in their bowl, this way they start to feel safe not paying attention to their food all the time.  If they look away and can come back to it they start to leave it alone for longer.  Another way to do this is to drop treats into the bowl as the pet is eating.  Your pet starts to view your presence as a positive addition to their eating experience, not a threat to what they have.  As always, try to feed your pet treats from your hands outside of mealtimes, if possible.  In this way, you will always be associated with positive rewards.

Maintaining a positive relationship:  While you may notice your pet displaying negative actions only at the food bowl, these behaviors can be the result of other areas of relationship problems.  If you allow your naturally dominant pet to rule the roost, they will start to enforce this hierarchy in other areas.  Review how you relate to your pet in other areas of play and see if new habits need to be established.

As always, if you feel you or another member of your family is in danger from a family pet in need of correction, it is always the best practice to contact a licensed professional.  Speak with your family veterinarian or animal welfare society for a list of approved pet professionals.


Blog author Lauren Pescarus is an admitted Cat Person who admires all pets from afar.  She lives at home in Romania with her husband, and loves to buy things for the pets she will soon convince her lucky spouse to bring home.   For more information about Lauren’s writing services, follow this LINK.

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