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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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The What NOT to Do Method
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The More Advanced Method
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 10/25/2017, edited: 01/08/2021