Dogs are incredibly smart, loyal creatures that make wonderful companions and bring tons of joy to families all across the world. Unfortunately, no one is perfect and certain dog behavior can cause more harm than good, especially when it comes to food guarding in a multi-dog household. If you have heard your dog growl or bare his teeth at you or another four-legged family member while eating, chances are he has developed food aggression. But with plenty of food to go around why do dogs get protective of their food and more importantly how can their pet parent prevent attacks from happening?
The Root of the Behavior
Food or resource guarding is a natural, instinctual behavior exhibited by wolves that is essential for their survival in the wild. The behavior of growling or even attacking is normal in the wild as resources are scarce and need protecting. Considering that our domesticated canine companions inherited a multitude of different traits from their wild relatives, the behavior is partly genetic and instinctual even if not required for their survival. Domesticated dogs do not need to hunt or fight for their food or resources and primarily rely on their owners for it.
Most domesticated dogs exhibit food aggression even when resources are not scarce because they are insecure and not necessarily because they are aggressive. They are threatened by other dogs around or even by people who they are afraid might take their meals away. This is usually caused by lack of proper socialization during their early development as puppies. The potentially dangerous behavior of resource guarding can be prevented by exposing your young pup to as many different experiences as possible and familiarizing him with all kinds of animals and people.
Another reason dogs get protective and aggressive over their food is that of common mistake owners make by giving and removing a dog’s food bowl as part of their socialization training. This practice is believed by many to get your dog used to having his food taken away and brought back. However, there is a different school of thought that believes this approach just confuses the dog and provokes resource guarding behavior. If the dog does not know why his food is being taken away at random, he will more likely try to rush to eat it and protect it as it may be gone for unknown reasons at a moment's notice. It also teaches your dog to guard his food from people and scare them away as they are the ones that take it, even if only to return it a few moments later.
Encouraging the Behavior
Other Solutions and Considerations
It is important to remember that though resource guarding is a natural occurrence, dogs attacking when eating is not something that can be tolerated. Make sure your dog is getting enough to eat and consult a veterinarian to rule out any medical conditions that could be making your dog more aggressive. No matter how old your dog is, it is never too late to get some professional support, though it is much easier to train a younger dog. Note that sometimes what may seem like resource guarding is just one dog trying to dominate another, especially if the two dogs fight over toys or get into fights unrelated to food from time to time as well. Either way, to avoid any dangerous situations it is important to act fast and do your best to reduce the aggressive behavior.
Though rooted in instinct, food aggression can be prevented through consistent training and proper puppy socialization. Regardless of breed, all dogs may exhibit some unhealthy behavior when it comes to their food and its protection. It is important to be proactive about bad behavior as it is key to mastering proper table manners and avoiding any dangerous situations in the future.