Food ‘aggression’ is an easily identified, unwanted canine behavior, but it is really just one of several features of resource guarding, a host of behaviors driven by canine survival instinct. Resource guarding dogs control access to food, objects, people, or places, and sometimes more than one of the above.
For the purpose of this article let’s focus on the most common variant, food guarding. An aggressive stance to guard food is serious and dangerous, especially when there are children in the household. Moreover, it may lead to possessive behavior over more than food if not appropriately addressed early on. (Note: Dogs with deeply engrained, moderate to severe resource guarding that extends beyond food are best served by a seasoned professional.)
While mild food guarding can be successfully corrected through proper technique, preventing this behavior is preferable. The first key, as always, is to be calm, assertive, and consistent. Second, by simply putting food out for your dog you relinquish power and opportunity, both for training your dog and to reinforce your role as pack leader. You own the food your dog wants, so you may as well turn it into your advantage. The very first lesson all of our dogs learn is that they must work for their food—that once they have earned it, access will be given by YOU, their pack leader. And their food is given by our hands. This very simple principle for raising a puppy or welcoming an adult dog into your family feeds into the dog’s natural need for appropriate pack structure and will likely prevent problematic food guarding.
But what if your dog already shows signs of food guarding? First, you need to determine the level and extent that has been allowed to develop: Symptoms of only growling, raising hackles or baring teeth when someone approaches are considered mild. In contrast, the dog snapping, lunging or actually biting indicates more severe behavior that is best approached with experienced professional help. Needless to say children should never take part in any of it.
Following your instincts and backing away from the food bowl of a growling dog will let the dog ‘win’ every time, because that’s what your dog wants and he will self-reward with the food, reinforcing and escalating the unwanted behavior. Showing affection in an attempt to reassure your dog will also reinforce the problem behavior. Confrontation will increase the dog’s perceived ‘threat’ and the contested resource will be guarded even more. It also is a good way to get bitten. Like almost everything in dog training, change needs to happen in smaller, incremental steps, and in a way that looks at the problem through the dog’s eyes, not yours.
Rehabilitating a Food Guarding Dog
Two things have to occur for a food guarding dog to be rehabilitated. 1. The dog needs to be desensitized to people/members of the ‘pack’ approaching during meal time. 2. The dog needs to be counter-conditioned to associate people at the food bowl with good things happening. Before you start training your dog, consider your dog’s overall temperament and level of confidence. Also assess your position and demeanor within the pack structure. With a naturally strong and dominant dog you have to calmly assert yourself as the leader. With a timid dog, you need to slowly build up his confidence first. Once these foundations are set, you can progress to the next stages.
Step 1 — Change the Setting.
Begin by providing a new food bowl and a different location for feeding your dog. With a dominant dog you may vary feeding times in order to increase the positive ‘surprise’ factor, but with most dogs and especially timid ones establish a consistent feeding pattern. Start a ‘no free lunch’ policy by always feeding after walking/exercising or training to tap into your dog’s hunting instincts and to let him ‘earn’ food. And because pack leaders eat first, never feed before or while humans are eating.
Step 2. Change the Channel
Set the empty food bowl on the ground. Wait for your dog to look at you and toss a little food from your hands into his bowl. After your dog has finished, repeat the same a few times. Then, walk away from his empty bowl, go back and add a little more. Wait for the dog to eat, and repeat. Your physical approach and presence is then associated with the dog’s positive experience of receiving food. Over days, gradually increase the amount of food you place at a time until you can stand right next to your dog while he is eating.
Step 3. Trade up
Solidify the newly engrained behavior by approaching the filled bowl while the dog is eating and tossing a favorite treat into the bowl. This ‘trade-up’ gets your dog to stop eating his regular food to nibble the treat, further establishing that people approaching the bowl means something good, and that food will not disappear if dog’s focus is taken off his regular food. Then, elevate the game by walking by the empty bowl and putting some high value food/treat into it, provided that your dog has already accepted you being close to him as he eats.
If you notice any signs of aggression during the 3-step training process, you need to slow down, dial back the degree of your efforts and allow for more training time on that step.
A word of caution: If you are unsure whether your efforts are making progress, you may want to consult a professional because reinforcing poor behaviors (even if inadvertent) has a high likelihood of making matters worse very quickly.