What is food-related aggression? Is it serious?
Food-related aggression describes aggressive behavior when a dog is approached or reached for while eating. Since most dogs eat their food from a bowl, the term ‘food bowl aggression’ is often used. Dogs who exhibit food-related aggression may also exhibit aggressive behavior related to other valuable items such as chews, toys, and even favorite locations or people. The valuables that trigger the aggressive response are usually referred to as resources. Aggressive behavior displayed by a dog near a valuable resource is sometimes referred to as ‘resource guarding’ or ‘guarding behavior’. Aggressive behavior in this context relates to a dog’s attempt to maintain exclusive possession of something or someone valuable.
To a large extent, it is perfectly normal to want to maintain control of one’s valuables. Dogs can communicate using a range of postures and vocalizations that signal ‘do not approach’. A behaviorally appropriate dog may stare, freeze, put her chin or paw on an object, or even snarl or growl. Problems arise when these signals are not recognized or heeded. Failed communication, such as when the oncoming person (or pet) does not back away, results in frustration, which motivates the dog to intensify one of her signals.
Dogs quickly learn that lower-level signals to ‘stay away’ are not helpful; instead, they use a more effective behavior, which unfortunately could be a lunge or bite. Preventing this escalation requires early identification of subtle signals so that an effective management and behavior modification strategy can be applied.
"If you notice an aggressive threat, regardless of the intensity or level, it is critical that you do not attempt to confront your dog."
If you notice an aggressive threat, regardless of the intensity or level, it is critical that you do not attempt to confront your dog. Under no circumstances should you scold, hit, or reach for your dog or its valuable resource. Quietly walk away. It is time to make a behavioral plan to change the behavior over time. Before you meet a behavior expert, use good management to avoid approaches too close for comfort. For the short term, you and your other pets may need to stay away from the area when your dog is eating, avoid valuable chews and toys, and give your dog space when she is sitting near a particular person or in a valuable resting place.
What are some signs that my dog does not want to be approached when eating?
Subtle signs that your dog is uncomfortable with you or another pet near her food dish may include:
- Speeding up eating, swallowing quickly, or gulping
- Stopping eating
- Stiffening or becoming still
- Staring at or watching the one approaching
Never ignore these signs; they are essential. Recognizing signs when they are subtle and intervening early is vital for success.
How can I manage food bowl guarding?
Proactive management is a good strategy for preventing food bowl guarding. Sometimes, you need strategic management is all that is needed to create a lifetime of success. Some management examples:
- Pick up empty food bowls after meals.
- Never remove a food bowl or the food in it while your dog is eating.
- Feed meals at designated times instead of ad-lib feeding.
- Use care when changing the diet as a novel food could be perceived as more valuable.
- Feed your dog in an area away from people and other pets, using a crate, baby gate, closed door, or another barrier to prevent accidents.
- Place the food bowl in a low-traffic area where your dog will not feel social pressure while eating.
- Teach children never to approach a dog while eating (children should also learn never to approach a dog while resting or in possession of a valued chew or toy).
How can I use training to help with prevention?
If your dog is growling, snarling, snapping, or lunging when you are near the dish, consult with a behavior professional before trying the following exercises. Preventative exercises are designed to be used before signs of aggression develop. Prevention relies on teaching your dog that an approaching person predicts something wonderful. Before starting any training program to prevent or reverse food bowl guarding, consult your veterinarian to ensure your dog is a healthy weight and has no illnesses that can contribute to increased hunger or irritability.
"Preventative exercises are designed to be used before signs of aggression develop."
Whenever you are near your dog while she is eating, watch for the subtle warning signs described earlier. If you see any warning signs during training, stop and seek guidance from a behavior professional.
Example: ‘All Good Things’ Game for Prevention
Part 1: When your dog eats, walk by at a generous distance—far enough away that there are no subtle warning signs. As you pass by, maintain that comfortable distance as you roll a delicious treat higher in value than her food. Ideally, the treat should land close to the bowl but should not startle your dog. Continue walking away without lingering.
This exercise helps the dog understand that someone approaching means wonderful higher-value treats appear and someone moving away means higher-value treats stop appearing.
Part 2: If your dog is comfortable and free from the signs of concern mentioned earlier, repeat this exercise a few times weekly. Gradually decrease the distance you pass until you are close enough to toss the high-value treat into your dog’s dish as she eats. Always continue walking away after you deliver the treat.
If that goes well, you may add a small duration by remaining near the dish for a few seconds before giving a treat. Do not stare at your dog or reach down. If your dog freezes or stares, drop the treat and walk away—you are too close. If your dog eats comfortably with you standing nearby, deliver another treat every one to two seconds while you are near the dish, then calmly walk away.
What if my dog is already showing food bowl aggression? How do I reverse it?
If your dog is already exhibiting food bowl aggression, professional guidance is recommended while you work through exercises to avoid unintentional miscommunication that can cause aggression to escalate. Your behavior specialist might suggest modifying the ‘All Good Things’ exercise to ensure safety while working to reduce aggression.
Meanwhile, use the management suggestions described earlier to prevent accidental conflict between yourself or your other pets and your dog. Safety first!
A modification of the ‘All Good Things’ exercise might include using a physical barrier such as a gate so your dog cannot bite you if you accidentally get too close. Another modification might be to add a verbal cue, such as ‘here I come,’ before you toss the treat so your dog can be prepared for the upcoming snack. You can later use that verbal indicator without the barrier.
Will hand feeding or having my dog work for his food help?
There is no scientific evidence that feeding your dog from your hand or asking your dog to follow a long series of cues before delivering her meal will help treat or prevent food-related aggression. Your dog may experience increased frustration while waiting for her food, which can lead to increased aggression.
Should I practice taking my puppy’s food bowl away?
Puppies should not be disturbed while they are eating. If you continually reach for your puppy’s food simply to remove it, even if you give it right back, you are teaching your puppy to be on guard when people are nearby as her meal might disappear. Imagine if someone suddenly snatched away your dinner plate while you were happily eating! You would not appreciate the disruption, even if the person put the plate back down again. Next time a potential food-stealer approaches, you might stare or ‘growl’ using your words to indicate that you would like them to step away. Similarly, being petted mid-meal represents an unwelcome disruption when your puppy is hungry.
It is OK to practice the ‘All Good Things’ exercise with your puppy so she learns that your approach signals something wonderful, or you may go about your business and keep an eye on your puppy to be sure she is eating calmly while undisturbed. Just be aware of the subtle warning signs described in this handout.