Food aggression in dogs can present challenge

August 2011 / Centre Daily Times / State College, PA

Many animals have a natural tendency to guard access to valuable resources, such as food, mates, and territory. Dogs are no exception, and when companion canines begin growling over the food bowl, this resource guarding can present quite a challenge for owners. 

Food guarding in dogs can be characterized along a continuum of aggression intensity. At the mild end, a dog may freeze or give a hard, sidelong glance to the owner who approaches while the dog is eating. She may eat faster as the owner approaches, or may lower her head deeper into the food bowl, holding her nose still and close to the food. Beyond these more mild forms of food guarding, a dog may growl, quiver a lip, show teeth, or snap. At the most intense end of the continuum, she may bite anyone who approaches her food bowl area. I have even had clients whose dogs will charge away from the food bowl and toward the owner, aggressively attempting to bite, even when the owner is in another room altogether. 

When I ask clients whether their dog is aggressive over food, I am surprised by how many report that they don't know because they wouldn't dare approach their dog while she is eating in the first place. This is generally an unsafe approach to the problem, as there may be unforeseen circumstances that arise in which a dog is approached while eating. If aggression is the dog's first response in this situation, a bite could be just around the corner.  

The ideal interaction between owner and dog over the food bowl goes something like this: the owner approaches Bella while she is eating. Bella looks up happily, tail wagging, steps away from the food bowl and/or sits. The owner praises her, picks up the food bowl, then returns it and releases Bella with an "OK!", at which point Bella moves back into her food bowl and continues eating. 

To train this with a nonaggressive dog, owners must first obtain some yummy food item, such as a piece of chicken, that is more exciting to their dog than her regular food. While the dog is eating her meal, the owner should pass by and say the dog's name in a happy voice. If the dog glances up, the owner should immediately praise her and reach down to hand over the chicken. (If the dog does not glance up when she hears her name, the owner must first train her to do so in other situations before asking her to do so around her food bowl.) While the dog nibbles on the chicken still held between the owner's fingers, the owner should pick up her food bowl as she releases the rest of the chicken piece to the dog. Once the dog has swallowed the chicken, the owner can place the food bowl down and issue the "OK!" command simultaneously. The dog then returns to eating while the owner walks away. 

This routine should be followed during every meal for the first two weeks, then at about 50% of meals for another week, and then 2-3 times a week for the next month or two. Eventually, the owner can move to simply calling the dog's name occasionally during a meal, providing praise and a pat on the head for her looking up, and only rarely a piece of meat as well.  

If the dog is already exhibiting aggression around her food bowl, this procedure may not be safe and should not be implemented. Owners with a dog exhibiting aggression around food or in any other situation should contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist for an individualized assessment and treatment plan.