Stopping Food Aggression
By Honor Tarpenning, NextDayPets.com Staff
Food aggression, a subcategory of Canine Possession Aggression (CPA) is defined as territorial behavior regarding foodstuffs in the form of growling, snarling, snapping, or aggressive posturing. This type of behavior can be avoided with proper training of puppies, and should be immediately addressed in dogs already exhibiting aggressive behavior. Food aggression is not something dogs grow out of, and if the behavior is allowed to continue, it will only get worse. Dogs who are food aggressive are unbalanced, unaware of their place in the family “pack,” stressed out by the assumed pressure of leadership, and are more likely to become violent and dangerous.
The process of conditioning your puppy against food aggression and training food aggression out of already aggressive dogs are basically the same. However, if a dog is already displaying aggression, contact with the dog while eating should be made carefully and very, very gradually to avoid outbursts. If your dog has been continually snarling or snapping at you or your family, it is a good idea to visit your vet to make sure nothing is physically wrong with the dog, and to contact a professional trainer to help you to overcome this problem in the safest way possible.
First of all, if you have a multiple-dog home, competition among the dogs may be contributing to food aggression, so put your dogs in different rooms at meal times and work with them separately.
Food aggressive dogs see humans and other animals as a threat to their food source. The goal is to teach your dog that you and the other humans in your home are providers, and in control of the food. He has to please the humans, who are all above him in the pack, in order to get food. When you’re finished, he will associate having people around during food times with the positive feeling of being provided for.
In the wild, dogs have to wait for the pack leader to eat his fill and allow them near the food before they get to eat; use this mentality to your advantage and assume the leadership role. To start, do away with your dog’s food bowl for a few weeks. Sit quietly with your dog at pre-established mealtimes and feed him with little handfuls of kibble. Take turns feeding the dog with everyone in the family so he associates all the humans in the house with good feelings regarding food. Before you give him a handful of food, make him sit, lay down, shake, or perform some other small, simple task so he knows he has to work for his food.
Once you’ve done this for a few weeks, you will have established firm control of when and how your dog eats. Now you can start feeding him from a bowl again, at the same pre-established times. However, before you put his bowl down, ask him to sit and wait. Then put down the bowl, wait a beat, and say “ok.” If he lunges for the food before you give him a release command, pick the bowl up and try again. A hungry dog will work hard to figure out what he needs to do to get you to leave the bowl on the ground, so it should only take a few tries to get him to wait for your command.
While your dog is digging into his newly acquired bowl privileges, stay next to him, talk to him, and pet him gently. If he reacts with any kind of posturing or growling, take the bowl away. Feed him the rest of the meal by making him do simple tasks for each handful of food for the next few meals, then try the bowl again. If he continues to be rude, take the bowl away again and go back to hand feeding. If the dog snaps or displays excessively aggressive behavior, stop and contact a dog behavior expert to help you so nobody gets hurt. Also, never react to your dog’s aggression with aggression of your own. This will only escalate the situation.
Once your dog has won back full bowl privileges, walk past your dog’s bowl from time to time when he’s around, and drop in an especially tasty treat, like some pieces of hot dog or cheese. This will help your dog associate your proximity to his bowl with yummy snacks, and he will welcome your closeness at meal times.
It will also help your dog’s aggression, especially in male dogs, if you have him neutered, and if you participate in structured obedience training. Both of these measures will result in a more balanced, mellower dog. Also, make sure your dog is getting plenty of exercise; at least two nice, long walks every day. A well exercised dog is much easier to work with, and generally just happier. Enforcing proper walking etiquette also helps you show your dog that you are the leader of the pack.
Make sure you aren’t promoting aggressive behavior, or a feeling on your dog’s part that he is above you in the pack with games like slap boxing or wrestling. If you have a big boisterous dog and like to play rough and wrestle around the yard, there’s nothing wrong with this, but wait to take part in this kind of behavior until your dog has a solid and complete understanding of his place in the order of things. Avoid playing tug-o-war with your dog until he understands that you are the pack leader, and even then, make sure you establish a “drop it” command and always “win” in the end.