How to Train Your Dog to Stop Food Aggression

Hard
1-6 Months
Behavior

Introduction

Many owners aren't aware their dog is possessive about food until something happens that wakes them to the fact.  It might be that you go about the daily routine, putting down the dog's breakfast and getting on with waking the house up. Then one morning it's you that gets a rude awakening. 

Imagine your partner puts the dog's food down, but you realize the dog wasn't supposed to eat. Perhaps the dog is due for minor surgery at the vet clinic and is supposed to fast. You've already booked the day off work and so it's even more important to go ahead today. Without thinking, you swoop down with the intention of removing the food bowl... only to have the dog growl and lunge at you. 

Shocked,  it now occurs to you the dog has been getting defensive over his meals of late. Then a horrible thought pops into your mind. What if the kids get between the dog and his dinner? 

This concern is totally valid, because dog food aggression can pose a significant risk to the unwary owner. 

Defining Tasks

Food aggression refers to a dog's natural instinct to protect important resources. For some dogs, this may be toys or territory, while for others it is food. Unfortunately, when a dog sees something as vital to his existence (such as food) then he may be prepared to do actual harm in order to defend it.

Such behavior isn't the dog being dominant, and it is a mistake to view it as such. Down this path lies the potential for an ill-informed owner to challenge the dog and forcibly remove the food in order to prove who is boss. This is likely to end with the owner being bitten and the dog erroneously labeled as aggressive. 

Instead, it is better to correct the problem using dog psychology. This relies on changing the dog's perception of people as a threat to his food, and instead help him view people as providers. 

Getting Started

Never rush this training or place yourself in danger.  Also, be prepared to take baby steps and only progress once the dog has been relaxed on at least 10 consecutive meal times. If you force the pace, at best all your good work will be undone in an instant and at worst you may get badly bitten. 

Also, know that prevention is better than cure. The methods listed below are also ideal to use with a new puppy so that he gets off on the right paw from the start. 

You will need: 

  • A bland or boring dog kibble
  • Two identical food bowls
  • A stool or place to sit comfortably while you feed the dog
  • Some ultra-tasty food such as chicken
  • Time and patience 

The Empty Bowl Method

Most Recommended
2 Votes
Step
1
Understand the idea
Dogs guard their food because it is a precious resource and they perceive you as a threat to it. This method turns this perception on its head so the dog now views you as a resource provider rather than a threat. This teaches the dog to tolerate people being near their food.
Step
2
Feed bland food
It's helpful to start by changing the dog's diet to something that he's less enthusiastic about eating. This keeps feeding times calmer and less of a frenzy than when the dog is super excited about receiving a tasty food. It can also be useful to feed dry kibble since you will be handling the food.
Step
3
Start with an empty bowl on the floor
Have the dog's actual meal in a bowl on the countertop. Sit comfortably with this bowl in easy reach. Now place the empty dog bowl on the floor.
Step
4
Add a little kibble
When the dog investigates the bowl on the floor and finds it's empty, he'll look up at you. Praise him and drop a few pieces of kibble into the bowl.
Step
5
Repeat
Wait for the dog to look up at you again, praise him, and toss in some more kibble. You are teaching the dog to place less value on the bowl and see you as a source of food. This reduces his instinct to guard what's in the bowl.
Step
6
Give bigger portions
As the dog starts to relax and accept you close to the bowl, start giving slightly bigger portions. Progress in this manner, until the dog readily accepts you near the bowl.
Recommend training method?

The What NOT to Do Method

Effective
1 Vote
Step
1
Never take food away
Some people mistakenly advocate removing a dog's food bowl away, while the dog is eating, in order to prove you can. However, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. Removing a bowl with food in it only makes the dog more protective of their food, not less, and is likely to escalate food aggression rather than remedy it.
Step
2
Never leave a small child with a dog that is eating
Children are poor at reading canine body language. If a toddler approaches a dog that is eating, the youngster will not recognize body language warning that the dog is protecting a precious resource (food). If the toddler keeps approaching, even if the dog is usually placid, there is a risk of the dog growling or biting in order to protect his supper.
Step
3
Never tell a dog off for growling
When a dog guards his food bowl and growls as you approach, it is tempting to chastise or punish the dog. Do NOT do this, as at best it will inhibit the dog from growling. Growling is a useful indicator of a dog's inner conflict. Dogs that are inhibited from growling still feel the same protectiveness but now the owner has one less means of recognizing the dog's agitation. In a worst-case scenario, this could mean an owner approaches to remove the food bowl, and the dog bites without warning.
Step
4
Never allow children to retrain the dog
Food is a huge source of tension for a dog and food guarding is potentially very dangerous. Children are poor at registering danger signals from a dog and are therefore more likely to push the dog and get bitten. Never allow a young person under the age of 18 to take part in retraining a dog with food aggression.
Step
5
Never place yourself in danger
Food guarding is a potentially dangerous trait and can be extremely difficult to resolve. If at any stage the dog appears distressed or stressed, then stop and back off. If in any doubt, then ask for professional help from a registered animal behaviorist. Your vet will be able to put you in touch with a certified expert in the field.
Recommend training method?

The More Advanced Method

Least Recommended
1 Vote
Step
1
Understand the idea
Using the "Empty Bowl" method, the dog now regards people as a source of food, rather than a threat. The next step is to teach the dog to tolerate you picking up the bowl. This is done by placing something super tasty on top of the food when the dog allows you to pick the bowl up.
Step
2
Up the ante with tasty titbits
Proceed as for the "Empty Bowl" method, and once the dog is comfortable with you close to the bowl you are ready for the next stage.
Step
3
Offer treats while he eats
With the dog eating food from the bowl, throw a food that's tastier than his supper (perhaps chicken meat) close to the bowl. At the same time say "What have we here?" in a happy voice.
Step
4
Move closer
Once the dog's body language remains relaxed as you approach the bowl containing food, start to move closer. Offer the chicken a short distance from the bowl, while saying "What have we here?" Allow the dog to take the treat, and then carry on eating, while you keep still.
Step
5
Touch the bowl
Only once the dog appears relaxed, say "What have we here?", offer the chicken with one hand and touch the bowl with the other and then remove your hand. Let the dog eat the chicken and resume his meal.
Step
6
Raise the bowl
Only proceed if the dog was happy with the previous steps. Now say "What have we here?", show him the chicken and raise the bowl six inches from the floor. Immediately drop the chicken in the bowl and place it on the floor for him to eat. With enough repetition, the dog will learn to allow you to stand upright holding the bowl as he knows that something tasty appears in the bowl as a result.
Recommend training method?

Success Stories and Training Questions

Training Questions and Answers and Success Stories

Question
Chief
German Shepherd
3 Years
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Question
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Chief
German Shepherd
3 Years

Our 3 yr old German Shepherd is a very well-behaved, extensively trained, sweet boy. He has been through many training classes, has his Good Citizenship badge and is even Pet Therapy certified. This past spring we had our first child and Chief has done very well with the change. However, just a few weeks ago he started to exhibit food-aggression out of nowhere. He has even snapped at 2 family members. Until today, though, he has always recognized me as the Alpha and we have had no issues. This morning though he growled and snapped at me. Please help! We love him dearly but with a newborn in the house I have to make sure her safety is our priority. Thank you for any insight you can provide!

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
709 Dog owners recommended

Hello Miriam, Congratulations on the new baby! First of all, I would highly recommend finding a qualified trainer or behaviorist who is very experienced with aggression rehabilitation. Below is the protocol I would recommend that that trainer follow and teach you. Be very mindful of safety and utilize things like leashes and muzzles as described for safety reasons. Any dog can bite, especially one that is showing aggressive tendencies so it is important to take proper precautions while training. A qualified trainer will be better able to read your dog's body language and do the following safety and hand the training off to you. There are two sides to resource guarding. One is working on the dog's respect for you and the other is building his trust for you. Your dog needs to learn that he is never allowed to guard items. It is simply not acceptable. He also needs to learn that when you take his things it will not be a negative experience for him. Having food taken away can cause a lot of defensiveness and anxiety so you want to show him that when you take his food you might add something even better to it and you will give it back to him afterward. You also want to associate your approach toward his food with something pleasant. This will be especially true when your baby begins to be mobile. Start associating the baby being near him with good things now by giving him pieces of his own dog food whenever he is calm around her and very tolerant of her, to prevent more problems as she grows. I highly suggest getting him used to wearing a soft silicone basket muzzle in general, so that you can have him wear that while you practice laying food down for him. You also want him to be wearing a fitted prong collar with a leash attached, with slack in it the majority of the time. You want to practice placing his food and bones down while he is wearing the muzzle and on the leash. Have him wait for permission to check the item out, then tell him "Okay", and let him sniff it. While he is sniffing it and interested in it tell him "Out", then go to grab the item. When he growls or acts aggressively, while wearing the muzzle, then correct him with the leash, and remove the item so that he sees that his aggressive behavior does not get him what he wants. Repeat this over and over again until he will let you take the item without aggression when you tell him "Out". After you take the item, then place the item back down and have him wait until you say "Okay" before you let him go back to it. When he waits for permission and lets you take his food without acting aggressively, then pass several tasty treats through his muzzle for him to eat. When he will allow you to take his food and begins to calm down and relax when you are near his food because you are rewarding his correct behavior and correcting his aggressive behavior, then while he is not wearing the muzzle, but is on a loose leash with a prong collar that is attached somewhere secure nearby, then walk up to him, just out of his reach, while he is eating and toss treats by his bowl if he does not growl when you approach. After you toss the treats walk away again. If he growls when you do this, then go back to practicing with the muzzle so that you can safely correct him with the leash for growling. You can also connect a second prong collar and leash to him that you can hold while out of his reach and correct him with that leash if he acts aggressively when you approach. That way one leash will keep him from being able to get to you and bite you while you correct him from a safer distance. Make sure that the prong collar that is tethering him somewhere secure will not break and is also secured to a normal buckle collar as a backup. Also make sure that what he is connected to is secure and will not release him. Because of safety reasons and more things that can go wrong in this scenario I recommend you only do this with the assistance of a trainer though. Eventually, you want to work up to him letting you take his bowl when you say "Out", waiting to eat until you say "Okay", and being able to walk up to him while he is eating and toss treats into his bowl safely. Whenever you take his bowl without him acting aggressively, reward him by giving him a treat or letting him see you drop treats into his bowl before giving it back to him and giving him permission to eat again. I would highly suggest hiring a very well qualified trainer who can follow the above method and tailor it to your dog's reactions to help you implement all of this safely. Here is a link below for part of the protocol that you will be following. This shows you how to correct and make the dog wait. It does not include the added rewards or tossing treats into the bowl though. I like to add the rewards because sometimes resource guarding is also a trust, insecurity issue and the rewards addresses that as well. It is almost always partially a respect issue too though. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWyAA-7hedo Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Ben
Australian Shepherd Dog
18 Months
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Question
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Ben
Australian Shepherd Dog
18 Months

My Aussie has had some aggressive behavior towards other dogs when there is food around. He has never been aggressive towards humans, but if there is another dog and I am messing with his food (taking it out of the bag, packing it for a trip, etc.) or about to feed him and the other dog he freaks and has snapped at other dogs and even started a fight with my friends dog before. I make him sit and leave it before every meal so he doesn't get too excited about eating but I'm not sure how to curve this problem. I don't want it to get worse because we are around a lot of other dogs often. I also don't want it to progress into being aggressive towards humans.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
709 Dog owners recommended

Hello Zoe, First, I suggest feeding pup meals in a locked crate away from other dogs so that pup's stress and feelings of needing to guard food while eating goes down. You can also crate pup first, then go scoop the food, so that fights are prevented to begin with. Second, when you are ready to proactively train I suggest hiring a professional trainer to help you practice desensitizing pup to other dogs being around food in a structured way. Work on commands like Place, with pup on a back tie leash that has enough slack they won't feel it when they are obeying, but it will stop them from getting off if they respond poorly. Practice having the dog's stay on Place - using self-control, and reward the dog's for staying on Place while the other dogs are also on other place beds and you pack food. Pay attention to body language. Interrupt tensing, staring the other dogs down, and early signs of possessiveness. Reward calmness and tolerance. When pup can not only avoid a poor reaction but stay relaxed during the exercise - this will take a lot of repetition overtime, practice training another dog in the center of the room using food rewards while pup stays on place watching, and reward Ben for calm responses while the other dog is earning food - again pup should have a back tie leash for safety. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Biscuit
Labrador Retriever
3 Months
0 found helpful
Question
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Biscuit
Labrador Retriever
3 Months

How do I stop food aggression with people?
Biscuit is only aggressive with his food around people.

Alisha Smith
Alisha S., Dog Trainer
134 Dog owners recommended

Hi there! Food aggression at this young of an age probably has to do with some sort of experience he had before you brought him home. Luckily, he is young enough that this can be easily turned around. I am going to provide you with some starting tips. Be Consistent If the source of your dog’s aggression is fear or anxiety over when the next meal is coming, then be sure that you are feeding your dog at the same times every single day. Dogs have a very good internal clock, and with consistency, they quickly learn how to tell when it’s time to get up, time to go for a walk, or time for the people to come home. Mealtime should be no different. Be regular in feeding to take away the anxiety. Must Work for Food Before you even begin to prepare your dog’s food, make her sit or lie down and stay, preferably just outside of the room you feed her in. Train her to stay even after you’ve set the bowl down and, once the bowl is down, stand close to it as you release her from the stay and she begins eating, at which point you can then move away. Always feed your dog after the walk, never before. This fulfills his instinct to hunt for food, so he’ll feel like he’s earned it when you come home. Also, exercising a dog after he eats can be dangerous, even leading to life-threatening conditions like bloat. Pack Leaders Eat First Remember, when a wild pack has a successful hunt, the alpha dogs eat first, before everyone else, and it should be no different in a human/dog pack. Never feed your dog before or while the humans are eating. Humans eat first and then, when they’re finished, the dogs eat. This will reinforce your status as the Pack Leader. “Win” the Bowl Food aggression can actually be made worse if you back away from the bowl, because that’s what your dog wants. For every time that you do walk away when the dog is showing food aggression, the dog “wins.” The reward is the food and this just reinforces the aggression. Of course, you don’t want to come in aggressively yourself, especially with moderate to severe food aggression, because that is a good way to get bitten. However, you can recondition the dog until she learns that she wins when she lets you come near her while eating. Here are some of the techniques you can use: Hand feeding: Start your dog’s meal by giving him food by hand, and use your hands to put the food in the bowl, which will give it your scent. The goal is to get your dog used to eating while your hands are around his face, and to have no aggressive reaction if you stick your hands in or near the bowl while he’s eating. Treat tossing: Drop your dog’s favorite treats into the bowl while she’s eating so she’ll learn that people approaching the bowl is a good thing and not a threat. You can also put treats into the bowl when you walk near it and she’s not eating. This reinforces the connection in your dog’s mind that people near her bowl is good. “Trade-Up”: When your dog is eating their regular food, approach them with something better, like meat or a special treat. The goal here is to get your dog to stop eating their food to take the treat from you. This teaches your dog several things. One is that no one is going to steal his food if he looks away from it. The other is that removing his attention from his food when people come around leads to a reward. Please let me know if you have any additional questions. Thank you for writing in!

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Question
Rigby
Sheepadoodle
6 Months
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Question
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Rigby
Sheepadoodle
6 Months

We have been struggling with food aggression starting at the age of 3-4 months. Rigby use to not have any issues. all of a sudden he started growling and then bite me when I was walking by him. Ever since that day he grows and gets very aggressive if anyone walks anywhere near where he is eating. What method would you recommend.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
709 Dog owners recommended

Hello Teresa, Since there has been a bite I do recommend hiring a professional trainer to help you in person with this. As far as methods, I actually recommend all three. The Empty bowl method and the What NOT to Do methods can be done first at the same time. Once pup is good with the Empty bowl method, then you can progress to the More Advanced method to continue progress; however, I would not reach for the bowl with your actual arm at first - create a fake arm using something long and a glove. Start by rewarding pup for letting you reach for the bowl with that "arm", made to look like your arm with clothing on it. That way if pup bites, you won't be injured but can still work on desensitizing pup. It's also extremely important to move through the training gradually, only moving onto the next step when pup is actually relaxed and happy about you being near the food at the current step - moving too fast through this training before pup has learned to trust you with the current distance can lead to bites - which is also why I do recommend working with a professional trainer who specializes in behavior issues like aggression, for this need. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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