Dealing with Dinner: How to Stop Food Aggression in Dogs
Mealtime should be a happy occasion, but sometimes dogs can get a bit defensive about their dinner. Food aggression can be a serious issue that leads to uncomfortable moments for both you and your dog. Let’s break down how to spot if your dog is dealing with food aggression and what you can do to stop this behavior.
What is Food Aggression?
Food aggression is a form of resource guarding where dogs get territorial about their food. Dogs can exhibit food aggression or get reactive over their food for a number of reasons, such as to show dominance or because they become anxious about people or other animals taking their food.
Regardless of the reason, food aggression can lead your dog to wolf down their food or even lash out to protect their meal. These urges can stem from natural canine instincts, so any dog can exhibit this type of behavior according to Professional Animal Trainer and TV Show Host Joel Silverman.
“I’ve seen it with just about every breed,” Silverman says. “Dogs that are more reactive or high prey drive are more likely to show signs of resource guarding. However, it can happen with any dog.”
One of the best ways to avoid these behaviors is to simply not bother the dog while he eats. However, there are instances where you’ll need to address potential reactive behaviors and aggression issues. Let’s break down how you can recognize these types of behaviors and what you can do to address the situation.
How to Recognize Food Aggression in Dogs
If you think your dog is guarding his food, it’s important to understand just how serious the situation is. There are different levels of food guarding, some of which are bigger issues than others. The best way to determine your dog’s food aggression level is to watch how your dog reacts when you approach him as he eats.
It’s important to understand that when you’re dealing any form of aggression that extends beyond reactive behaviors, your best option is to bring in some form of specialist who works with aggression. However, you’ll want to identify just how bad the food aggression issues are before you address the problem.
“Go ahead and put your dog’s food down and let him start to eat,” Silverman instructs. “Get about 12 to 15 feet away and slowly walk toward your dog. You’ll want to approach him as you normally do, so don’t hunch over, act concerned, or somehow tip him off that something is different. As you start getting about 10 feet away, what does your dog do?”
Your dog’s reaction will help you identify if your dog has any issues with food aggression – and how serious they are if they do. Silverman lays out four different levels of reactive behaviors and food aggression.
- Level one. As you approach, your dog glances toward you, but continues eating. You can walk all the way to him and even pet him.
- Level two. The dog continues eating as you approach, but he looks concerned and starts to eat faster. This level is most common level of reactive behaviors for dogs.
- Level three. The dog stops eating as you approach and looks directly at you. He’ll continue eating once you stop, but he’s clearly concerned. As you get closer, his hair might hackle on his back and around his shoulders.
- Level four. The dog growls when you approach, and may even freeze or nip at you if you get close enough.
If your dog is at level one or two, he’s probably pretty relaxed and is simply reactive over his food. Dogs at level three and four have some degree of food aggression issues. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to curtail food guarding and anxiety issues to help your dog relax and be less protective about his meals while you consult a specialist.
While you can train dogs at levels one and two, dogs at level three and four will likely require professional assistance. If your dog is already at the level where he’s growling, Silverman suggests bringing in an specialist who deals with aggression.
“There is a point where you need to draw the line,” Silverman suggests. “Really aggressive behaviors are not okay. If it looks strange to you and gets to a point where you’re not comfortable, bring in a professional. It’s best for both you and your dog not to mess around with that level of food aggression.”
How to Stop Food Aggression
Once you identify if your dog is dealing with food aggression, you can take some steps to address the issue. However, simply telling your dog “no,” physically stopping your dog, or using any other form of correction won’t turn out well for you and your best friend.
“You don’t want to ever use corrections with food aggression,” Silverman says. “A professional might be able to use moderate corrections, but they understand exactly what to do. If you correct the dog that is dealing with food aggression, you’re going to make it worse.”
Instead, Silverman suggests that pet parents use a combination of redirection and prevention to stop resource guarding behaviors. When dogs eat faster, stare down another dog, or complete any aggressive or reactive behavior, it only incentivizes them to do the same thing in the future. Redirection and prevention are useful training techniques that allow you to retrain your dog by stopping bad behaviors in their tracks and reinforcing something new.
Redirecting food aggression
The process of redirection involves using something to redirect your dog’s attention toward something that drives him more than the food he’s guarding. Once you’ve redirected your dog’s attention, you can retrain him that you’re not a threat to his food and make your presence a happy, positive experience.
The key to this process is to use a reward that your dog finds more exciting than his food. Typically, this reward will be a high value treat such as a Bil-Jac Dog Treat. As long as the reward is intriguing enough to attract your dog’s attention away from his food, you’re good to go.
Once you have your reward, you can start using redirection to train your dog. This process involves the following steps.
- After feeding your dog and letting him eat for a bit, hold up a treat a couple of feet above the ground and let the dog see it as you approach him while he eats. Make sure your dog’s head is up and watching you – it’s important that your dog isn’t focusing on anything else other than what you have. Once he’s paying attention to the special treat and not showing any signs of food aggression, give him the treat and tell him he’s a good boy.
- Once your dog is completely comfortable during the first step, approach the dog while holding the treat down low so that he doesn’t really see it. If he shows any sign of concern or reactiveness, immediately hold up the treat to pacify him. Approach your dog once calm and give him the treat.
- Over time, you can approach the dog without the treat. Once he allows you to come near without showing concern, pet him, tell him he’s a good boy, and let him eat.
With these steps, you can redirect your best friend away from his anxious behavior before it turns into aggression and help make eating a positive experience. Now your dog will associate your presence with a normal, happy experience and be less likely to guard his food in the future.
Preventing food aggression
Another powerful tool for addressing food aggression and reactive behavior is to prevent it altogether. The less opportunity that you give your dog to exhibit bad behaviors, the better. To do this, you’ll want to identify occasions where your dog may act anxious or aggressive when eating.
The most common interactions that will result in your dog guarding his food is when a person or another animal comes a little too close for comfort. In terms of people, the solution is simple – don’t bother the dog while he eats.
Once you put your dog’s food bowl on the floor, give him space to eat and he won’t have any reason to react or get aggressive. This is especially true for children who may not understand the concept of dog’s being reactive to their food. Make sure they know not to bother their furry friend while they eat and you’ll drastically eliminate any uncomfortable interactions.
Of course, this process isn’t quite as simple for other animals. Dogs will react or exhibit signs of food aggression to other dogs, as well as any other animal you may have at home. This can not only occur when another dog gets to close, but also if one dog eats faster and tries to take some of the other’s kibble. Either way, this type of situation is an issue.
“The completion of the bad behavior is a reward, so letting them play it out is reinforcement,” Silverman says. “If your dog is able to growl at the other dog or show other signs of aggression and the other dog backs off, he just won in his world. That means he’ll continue to do it again.”
According to Silverman, the best way to avoid these types of scenarios is to feed your pets separately. This separation will make it so a dog won’t feel the need to guard his food bowl or go after someone else’s dinner. Not only will this help prevent your dog from acting out bad behaviors, it’s more fair to any four-legged friends who take their time while they eat.
Make Mealtime a Stress-Free Event
With a little training and some loving support, you can help your dog become less aggressive or reactive about his food. Want to learn more about how you can help your best friend live a happy, healthy life? Sign up for the Best Friends Club to receive our exclusive monthly email newsletter for more dog care advice, nutritional info, and special members-only discounts on Bil-Jac Dog Food, Treats, and other products.