The Root of the Behavior
Some behaviorists believe that a dog who becomes food agressive is responding to his earliest experiences with food in a litter, where the mother feeds all of her young at the same time and the pups are clamoring all over each other trying to get their turn. This continues while the pups are raised together in that often multiple pups are fed from one bowl at a time. The pups that had to wait or got less may grow up to fear they will always have to fight for their food. They may be stressed at mealtime that someone is going to limit their resource and perceive anyone who comes near him, even the person who just gave him the food, as a threat. Another theory that is gaining popularity is that you, the owner, have created an environment that your dog is left to be fearful during mealtime. One ‘popular’ training technique of sticking your hand in your pup’s bowl while he eats, or taking his bowl away mid-meal to show him who is boss and in an effort to make him used to your hands in his food, may actually have backfired. Imagine eating at a restaurant where the waiter constantly hovers and often takes your plate before you feel you are finished. After several times, you will most likely hold on to your plate and snap at the waiter to leave you alone. In the dog’s perspective, you are that pesky waiter.
Other reasons your dog may become food aggressive includes the type of food that you give to him. If you provide him with high value foods, he may feel the need to protect them more than your basic kibble. Foods that last a long time, such as rawhide, may also present a problem in that he can become fixated on the item since it is around a while. In addition, since he can carry it about, it can more easily be moved or touched by someone else and he can see that as threatening. Feeding in high traffic areas, where your dog can get bumped or sense others approaching him while he eats can make him anxious and protective over his food too.
Encouraging the Behavior
One suggestion is to stand a safe distance from your pup’s bowl and toss him high value treats into his bowl. If your dog tenses at three feet away, start at four feet away. When he is finished, you toss a few more. The goal is to have him associate your standing near him while he eats with treats, thus making your presence a good thing. It is important that he remain relaxed. The minute he tenses up, you have gotten too close and you should retreat. Make sure you can recognize when your dog is calm and when he is tense. Signs that he is calm may include a relaxed posture, normal breathing, eating at a normal pace, and tail wagging or wiggling. As long as he is calm, you are not too close and can continue the exercise. Be sure to walk away at times, as if this is no big deal to you. The calmer you are, the calmer he will be. Repeat the exercise during each meal, gradually getting closer each time while maintaining his calm reaction. Your goal is to get close enough to touch the bowl, rewarding him with high value treats each time. Please note that if your dog tries to bite you or you fear that he might bight you, it is best to employ the assistance of a trainer who specializes in food aggression and obsession.