Food is a necessary resource for all living things, and dogs are no exception. In the wild, wolves often need to protect what food they have in order to survive. Your domesticated pup is clearly not in that position, but he still holds those inherent traits to protect what is needed to live. Being protective over his food is perfectly normal and quite common. However, if he seems obsessive or becomes aggressive you need to take measures to ensure that he does not harm anyone due to his behavior. A dog that is food obsessive, also known as food aggressive, can be retrained or accommodated to ensure there are no issues from his eating. There are also ways you can desensitize a puppy to create an atmosphere that will alleviate any stress he may have around protecting his food.
The Root of the Behavior
Food aggression is not a form of dominant behavior, but rather a sign of fear. In the canine pack formation, the alpha eats first. Protecting his food resource is not about his eating first, it is about protecting his food from others who may try to take it. He is being defensive, not dominant, and is trying to threaten anyone looking to take what is his. A dog with mild food aggression will growl and show his teeth. At the next level, he will snap and lunge at anyone who comes too close while he is eating. In extreme cases, he will bite the ‘invader’. While eating, a dog that has food aggressive behavior will keep his head down and his body may stiffen. He may raise his hackles, lower his tail, hold his ears back and the whites of his eyes will be showing. He is hovering over his food as if he is guarding it. Some dogs are only aggressive at mealtime, while others generalize to rawhide bones, chew toys, and treats.
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
Your dog needs to eat, but you cannot allow his food aggressive behavior to escalate to the point of harming others. Some owners find the best way to deal with food aggression is to give the dog his space. A dog who feels he needs to protect his food will relax if he knows he can eat undisturbed and in peace. Placing him in a room or gated area and not bothering him during meals is an easy way to make peace with the situation. This method, however, really only works for dogs that are food aggressive about the food in the bowl, it does not address the dog who obsesses about lasting chew toys or grabs food off of the floor. In addition, if there are children in the home, it is in your best interest to deal with the food aggression before it escalates.
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.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Prevention may be your best defense to the food aggression problem. Experts agree that hand feeding a puppy or new dog right from the beginning can work wonders. He needs to learn and know that there is plenty of food and that you will not take it away but also that you will always be gentle when giving it to him. Eating should be a relaxed and bonding time, with the two of you working together. Eating out of your hand can work wonders in easing his fears and setting the tone for future meals. You also need to train your dog to ‘sit’ while you prepare his food and have him ‘stay’ until you have placed the dish down. Knowing the routine helps him to feel secure that once the bowl is down, it is his until he is finished with what is in the bowl. Your approaching will not feel like a threat once you have established these rules with him. You can also teach him ‘leave it’ so when food drops from the floor, you can gently tell him to ‘leave it’ and thus not have a power struggle when you need to retrieve the food.
Dogs will naturally be protective of a necessary resource like food. Protecting what is theirs is common. When he becomes obsessed and aggressive, however, you need to address the problem. Do not respond with aggression or punishment, but rather work to alleviate the root of his obsession, which is fear. Teach him to associate your presence with his food as a good thing, and protect his need to be alone during mealtime. Train puppies right from the start to trust you with food, as well has a reliable routine for feeding time.
By a Black Lab lover Zoe Byer
Published: 03/09/2018, edited: 01/30/2020