If you have more than one dog, you know feeding time comes with a routine. Perhaps it’s one bowl down for the alpha dog, then the other bowl. Or it might be bowls down at the same time. You could feed them in different rooms or at different times. Your little strategies have made it so that your dogs don’t fight each other for their meal. But what about those single dogs who will bark and growl at you for your food? You might feed them first, so while you eat, they’re eating too. Or you might feed them using the help of toys, like balls that roll around dropping out pieces of kibble. Other toys create a maze for dogs’ noses to search for food. Your dog seems to fight for his food and sometimes yours, but why does he do this when he knows his meal is guaranteed? Why does he want to bite the hand that feeds him?
The Root of the Behavior
Long before dogs were domesticated, they had to fight for their food. Alpha dogs always ate first. The alpha dog shows dominance by eating first, leaving the rest of the pack to accept the leftovers. With little left, the dogs had to fight each other for the scraps. Establishing dominance is a way of survival for dogs. However, for the non-alpha dogs, this situation is stressful and anxiety provoking, which is why they will fight for their food. It is their only way to survive. Despite years of domestication, this instinct is what leads dogs to become aggressive over their dinner. This situation can still be seen when a litter of puppies is born. The alpha dog pushes his way to the front and gets the most milk. The weakest struggles to get the nutrients he needs. Once the puppies switch to kibble, the owner will often put out one bowl for all the puppies, creating the long-standing experience of fighting for food. If you’ve adopted the runt of the litter, his food aggression could be from anxiety or fear. He had to fight for his food and probably didn’t get as much as he wanted. While you might be his only competitor who is merely placing his bowl on the floor, he’ll bark and growl at you if you come near it after it’s done. If you adopted the alpha dog, he expects to be first at the food bowl and will show food aggression. If you’ve rescued a dog, his past is uncertain. He may have had a bad or abusive owner or been on the streets and was fighting for food until you adopted him. This would explain any food aggression with you or other dogs. A lucky dog is one who knows his dinner will be in his bowl at 5 p.m. sharp. You’ve given him a stable home, and he doesn’t have to worry about much. Even if your pup knows his food is coming on time and he is your one and only canine, he might jump, bite, or bark as he hears the kibble hit the bottom of the bowl. He knows you’re not going to eat his kibble, but he still has an instinct to defend his bowl. This survival instinct is essential if a dog is roaming the streets, but if he’s in your home, it’s important to know where to draw the line.
Encouraging the Behavior
Excitement over food is natural. For humans, it’s when you don’t want to share your fries (we’ve all been there). For dogs, it’s their kibble. But the importance is how aggressive you’ll allow your dog to be. Snarling, growling, stiffening, lunging, and biting are indicators that this behavior is extreme. For your safety and the safety of the other dogs in your home, it needs to stop. If your dog is possessive of not only his food bowl but toys or spots in the house, mention that to a trainer as well. These are not behaviors you want to encourage. If you have to move the food bowl or take it away, but your dog doesn’t agree, you could have a dangerous situation on your hand. Remember, you’re the alpha in the house, not him.
If you have a dog who is excited and jumps, barks, or tries to knock the bowl from your hand, then the behavior is not as severe and is quite natural for a dog. However, you want to train your dog to be calm during feeding time. If you were to introduce a new dog to the house or had a friend feed your dog for a few days, this behavior could escalate and become problematic. For this situation, take him to a trainer to learn new commands and behave appropriately during feeding time.
Other Solutions and Considerations
The younger a dog is, the easier it is to train this behavior. No matter the age, it’s worth your safety to train your dogs to eat calmly. Your trainer and vet will be able to assess your dog’s feeding behaviors and find the best way to help reduce their food aggression.
One tip to consider is ensuring food security. When your dog knows he will regularly be fed, this helps reduce feelings of stress or anxiety toward food. Consistently feeding your dog is important. This means not just throwing him scraps of food whenever you feel like it; it’s important that there is a reason for his feeding. If you want to give your dog scraps of food, consider reward feeding. When you visit the trainer, ask about your behavior when feeding the dog. Also, your body language and tone communicate a lot of messages to the dog and will often say if you are the alpha or if he is. You are the king or queen of the castle, so you want to be sure you’re the alpha.
If you’re exhausted from doing the dinner dance, arranging bowls in such a way, or refereeing food fights, it’s time to get a trainer for your dog. Dinner time is important for everyone, but nobody should be fighting. You should be relaxed and so should your dog. Once this is accomplished, wish your dog a Bone-Appetit as you place his bowl down, and smile knowing meal time is enjoyable and stress-free for all.