There are many different facets to training your dog, whether you welcome a puppy into your home or decide to adopt an adult dog. One issue you might encounter is food aggression, where your dog guards his meals by growling, snapping or biting at people or other animals. This behavior can be troubling; however, learning to spot the possible signs and knowing how to respond can curb your dog’s food aggression, no matter his breed or background.
Dogs may either learn to guard their food or it may be instinct, especially in breeds that are conditioned to guard items, and over time, that tendency may become heredity. When this is learned behavior, there may be several conditions that trigger it, including:
Limited food resources in puppyhood
Shelter dog syndrome
Learned behavior from the mother dog
In the case of shelter dog syndrome, where the dogs may have to compete for toys, space and food, the longer a pet remains at the shelter, the worse his food aggression may become. He may also guard treats, chew bones or anything else you offer him. In most cases, there are several signs that you may spot right away.
Both puppies and adult dogs may show the same signs of food aggression. If puppies learn this behavior from their mother and littermates, you may see it as soon as they begin to eat solid food. Your dog may exhibit several signs of aggression or food guarding when you feed him, such as stiffening of the legs, lowering of the head, and grumbling or growling if a person or another pet comes near the bowl. Depending on the severity of the aggression, these signs may be mild, moderate or severe, but it is best to try and curb any of this behavior as soon as you recognize it.
Because food aggression can lead to your dog injuring family members and other pets in the household, it is important that you work to stop it right away. The aggression can be surprising or frightening, especially in a large adult dog, but there are training techniques you might use to safely modify your pet’s behavior. Before you begin training, ensure that your dog is spayed or neutered, as this may help reduce the production of certain hormones that may encourage food guarding habits.
1. Stay close at mealtime. Stand about three or four feet away while your dog eats and keep a relaxed attitude. Try to move a bit closer each day until your dog no longer growls or lunges at you.
2. Offer him a special treat with his meal and remain close to the bowl. At this stage, you can speak to your dog in a gentle, casual tone and mind his body language. After several days of this process, you should see his body language relax.
3. Offer your dog a treat and encourage him to take it from your hand. Some dogs engage in food aggression because they are fearful of human hands, so teaching him that your touch means affection and positive emotions may reduce the behavior.
4. Once your dog reaches this stage of training, you can start touching the bowl while he eats. If he regresses to any previous behavior, return to the former step and repeat it until your dog remains calm while eating in your presence and allows you to handle his bowl.
Remember to work with your dog daily and be patient, even if he regresses at one point. If the behavior was learned in puppyhood, then it may be more difficult to break. Positive reinforcement can foster a greater bond between you and your dog and allow him to trust you, which can be especially important with shelter dogs who might have had many owners in the past.
Your dog may display food aggression because he is unsure of his role in your family’s pack. Because dogs have this mentality, he will look to the pack leader to guide him. In the wild and in homes where there are multiple dogs, there is an alpha. In the case of your home, you are the alpha, and you can use mealtime to show your dog his role in your pack. Serve your family before you feed your dog, and this will teach him that you are the pack leader and have the right and position to eat first.
All dogs have a natural instinct to hunt, and you can use this to help curb food aggression. For example, you can work with your dog before a meal, such as taking him for a brisk walk or playing fetch with a ball or frisbee. Afterward, when you offer your pet food, use the “sit, stay” command before he is allowed to approach the bowl. This may help your dog understand that he must earn his meals from you and accept his position within the pack.
If your dog does not seem to respond to training and continues to show aggression, seek out the advice of your local veterinary clinic. The professionals there can offer you additional tips and examine your pet to discover if there are any underlying causes that make him guard his food in an aggressive manner.
No matter when and where a dog learns food aggression, time and patience can help him turn away from the habit. This not only makes him more well-behaved but also reduces the risk of harm to children or other pets during his mealtime.