Food Guarding & Food Aggression in Dogs

Food Guarding & Food Aggression in Dogs

With 20% of all dogs showing signs of food aggression, It is no surprise that owners from all over need help to control and prevent food guarding in dogs. Not only can it be difficult to feed your dog, with possible nips and bites coming your way. But it can also be very dangerous for children or other pets.

Food aggression in dogs is treatable and we will go through why it may be occurring, and how to prevent it. It takes patience and individual considerations to help your dog, but it is possible, so don’t fret.

What is Food Aggression in Dogs?

Food aggression in dogs can be defined as aggressive nature or possessiveness when a dog is around food. This comes from territorial aggression and over-protectiveness about the food. But where does it originate from? Well, some argue there is an evolutionary basis that comes from Gray wolves. After a hunt, each wolf would need to get their own section of meat from prey and guard this so it is not taken. Therefore, they had all developed this protective and aggressive nature over their food. This may have been passed over time to our domestic dogs and their nature.

So what’s the concern with food aggression if it is natural? Many owners think they should just drop their dog’s food and run and it’ll be okay. The first problem is the likelihood of you being nipped or bitten. Even just lowering a bowl or pouring food in can be an opportunity for your dog to feel like their food is being intervened with. This, in turn, can lead to your dog attempting to bite you. If you have a small dog and live alone, it may not be much of a problem. However, if you have other animals at home alongside this dog, or children, this can be a severe worry.

This can also impact guests coming round, especially if your dog’s food aggression can target your food. It may mean that a dog is taking food off of your table and then growling at you for trying to remove it from their mouth. This can result in a dangerous situation of either your dog trying to swallow food they shouldn’t be eating or someone getting bitten.

What Causes Food Aggression in Dogs

There are four main causes of food aggression in dogs which we have summarized below.

Learned Behavior

Any dog can learn food guarding from another, whether they are a puppy or from a shelter. Owners often think that new puppies will not be food aggressive because they have been raised in a gentle, non-competitive household. However, they can still become possessive over their food. If they had a mother who demonstrated food aggression then they themselves may also do so. This because your puppy may have learnt it from their mother and therefore mimics it. It can also be the case that you are accidentally teaching or inducing this behavior. Whether it be through allowing growling or biting when you place their meal down because they are small, or calling them cute and stroking them when this tiny ball of fluff raises its little hackles, it may be due to you.

On the other hand, dogs in more competitive situations are more likely to display this behavior. Those that have come from busy shelters or overcrowded homes may have had to be aggressive in order to make sure their food was not stolen.

Trauma

It can be physical abuse, yelling, or simply neglect that has caused this negative behavior to originate. A common reason is due to a dog suffering from malnourishment and being desperate to eat whatever food that they can get. This will make them very controlling over the food provided as they don’t know if they would get any more. But food neglect is not the only kind of abuse to induce this behavior.

If your dog has been through physical or verbal abuse, they will often become more aggressive and defensive within all areas of their personality. Their level of trust both generally and with humans specifically is minimized and therefore they do not want you to interact with what they deem as theirs. This means they may guard their meals, toys, treats, and even beds. So one traumatic experience or many can induce food guarding in dogs, which is why it is such a common problem in dogs from shelters.

Competition

Sometimes the feeling of vulnerability or the thought of another stealing your dog’s food can be enough to install aggression into them at that time. This is usually a situational-based reaction, but can be due to the members in a household as well. To elaborate, if you own two dogs and one often tries to steal the food of the other, it is most likely going to result in tension and even a bite. On the other hand, if you have a household with multiple dogs then your dog may always feel on guard. This is because they may always feel vulnerable to another dog taking their food and therefore be on the defensive.

With multiple pets in the household, it can create the idea of competition in your pet’s mind. With this concept, they will develop a defense just in case. So even if it is you or someone else that is interacting with their food or bowl, they may still have this defense.

food aggression cause
Competition can cause food aggression in dogs.

Genetic Disposition

Some breeds and individuals are more genetically disposed to behaving in this way. This can be because of having more aggressive, defensive, or even anxious traits passed down genetically. With these traits already prominent, your dog is more likely to develop food guarding because of them, but how?

An aggressive dog is more inclined to physical more quickly, this means that if a dog is trying to take their food, they could quickly nip as opposed to a more tolerable dog. Anxious dogs are also likely to develop food guarding as they may feel vulnerable when eating, and thereby feel they need to protect themselves and their food.

Some dogs have been selectively bred to have these specific traits for past or current working roles. Other individuals will have these traits from the parents, possibly increased accidentally by the breeder. Regardless of their origin, many individuals are affected by traits that simply make them more likely to food guard.

Is Your Dog Showing Signs of Food Aggression

The level of food aggression your dog is displaying influences how concerning it is and how quickly you need to treat it.

Mild – Your dog may be growling or barring their teeth at you when you approach their food or bowl. You will not be attacked with mild cases but they will be displaying behavior to signify to stay away.

Moderate – You may find your dog snapping at you, others, or anyone near their food. They may also lunge at those getting too near to try to deter them away. A dog snapping won’t cause direct injury, but it is threatening and could maybe injure someone by accident.

Serious – This could be a mild to severe dog bite with your dog even chasing others away and attacking them if they do not run fast enough. This case needs immediate help from a professional as the consequences may be dire

Precautions for Avoiding Food Guarding in Dogs

If your dog has a moderate to severe case of food aggression, it is best to consult a dog behavioral expert immediately. Especially if you have other animals or children in the house, this situation needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. The assessment and training won’t be able to be completed in a day though, so there are some precautions you can take.

Take your dog’s full bowl of food and put it into a room with no animals or people in. Step outside the room and allow your dog to enter, closing the door behind them. Give them a few minutes and open the door, allowing them to leave. Then remove their bowl once they have done so. This is just a precaution to deal with the safety of yourself and others, it is by no means a solution to the problem. Leaving food aggression is a surefire way to see it gradually get worse.

Dealing With Food Aggression in Dogs

If you have a mild case of food aggression, here are our recommended steps to help minimize and stop this behavior.

Step 1 – Stay a Few Feet Away When Your Dog Eats

You want to make sure that you are giving your dog enough space to feel comfortable and safe. However, you are also standing firm and telling your dog you are not leaving because of their growling. Be sure though that you or anyone else are not at risk and be sure to contact a behaviorist if the aggression appears to be increasing.

Step 2 – Come Closer and Throw a Treat and Step Back

Positive reinforcement is a sure-fire way to train and relax a dog. You’re showing your pup that you being there isn’t going to threaten their food, and it actually may mean they get more!

Step 3 – Stand Next to the Bowl and Throw a Treat Then Walk Away

After a few more sessions you want to be providing positive reinforcement again, but a bit closer this time. Be sure to note your dog’s behavior and don’t induce any chance of being bitten. You’re just trying to emphasize that your goal is not to take their food. So take the steps closer to the bowl in stages if needed.

Step 4 – Feed the Treat From Your Hand and Walk Away

Make sure to only do this step when your dog is behaving with no sign of aggression. Crouch down to their level during their meal and offer them a treat on the palm of your hand. Any signs of aggression you need to go back a step.

Step 5 – Touch the Bowl With One Hand Offer Treat With Other

This will begin to create an association that when you touch the food bowl, good things happen! Do so gently and always taking note of your dog’s behavior.

Step 6 – Put a Treat Inside the Bowl

Pick up your dog’s bowl, place a treat inside, then place it down for your dog. This begins to reinforce to your dog that the interaction of someone with their bowl is a positive thing and means rewards. This is the final step of the process and your dog’s signs of food aggression should be gone!

Notes

Be sure to repeat these steps with every family member. Otherwise they may only make the association with one person. Furthermore, note that there are some things you should never do when trying to stop food guarding. These include:

  • Don’t yell
  • Don’t punish

These actions will only make their food guarding worse and can also scare your dog and weaken your relationship with them.

Preventing Dog Food Aggression Early On

Try to get your dog used to training and feeding them by hand early on. If you have a puppy, be sure to do this from the day you get them. Good training and associations with feeding will help them for when they get older. If you own a shelter dog, be sure to discuss their food aggression with the shelter if possible and see if it is an existing problem. Take things slow and be sure to hand-feed when you can if you are worried.

early prevention of dog food aggression
Train your dog early on to get rid of food aggression.

Food Aggression in Dogs – FAQS

Here are the most searched questions concerning food aggression in dogs.

How do you stop food aggression in dogs?

If the food aggression is mild, it is about gradually positively reinforcing your presence and interaction with their food and food bowl. If it is moderate to severe, you need to call a behaviorist for help.

In order to treat your dog’s food guarding at home, you will need to gradually get them used to a presence when they are eating to start with. Try this gradually and make sure not to be too close initially. You can gradually get closer with each mealtime. Make sure your dog is not too reactive as we don’t want to scare them or make them aggressive. This progresses to feeding your dog from your hand, touching the bowl, and then moving the bowl. But refer to our steps above for a clear guide.

Why has my dog started food guarding?

Note if there has been any change in the household, such as a new family member or another pet has tried to steal food. If not, your dog may be feeling more vulnerable and anxious, which may require more research as to why.

There is not one reason as to why a dog may start to feel anxious. Even a change of routine could cause this, which can lead to food guarding. So to make sure you have thought of every cause for the behavior, look at any changes in their life, routine, your life, and even changes within themselves. Could they be ill, in pain, or be having hormonal changes?

How do I stop my dog from growling when eating?

This is a sign of food guarding. Therefore to stop it, you need to stop food aggression as a whole. Which will require patience, and gradual positive reinforcement. The key is to never punish your dog for growling. They are not doing so to anger or disobey you, there is a cause and that needs to be figured out. As your dog becomes more comfortable with you interacting with their food and being around them eating, they will stop growling.

Why does my dog guard his food but not eat it?

It may be that anxiety is causing your dog to guard it, but making your dog not feel well enough to eat. Some medical conditions may cause your dog to have a low appetite as well, so you may want to consult your vet.

Should I pet my dog while eating?

Avoid petting your dog while eating. Allow them to have their own space while eating and to feel comfortable and safe whilst doing so. Many owners think that petting dogs while they are eating can help their food guarding, but sometimes it can actually make things worse. As your dog’s space is not being respected, they may begin to show aggression to try to prevent the petting.

Food guarding in dogs is treatable and manageable. Be sure to consult a professional if you have any worries. If you do treat your dog at home, ensure you are taking each step slowly and not rushing anything. Any signs of aggression and you should go back a step.