Food Bowl Aggression
By Peter Brown
Professional Dog Trainer, Alpha Paws
What is Food Bowl Aggression?
Every species in the canine world has some degree of innate possessiveness towards food or toys. It begins the very day they are born and are fighting with their littermates over who gets the best milk-producing nipple from mother. As pets in our homes, this behaviour is most frequently exhibited at mealtime and can include growling, showing teeth, and even barking and lunging at others who come near the dog’s food bowl while eating.
For dogs with a strong degree of food possessiveness, we typically see this behaviour as a result of one of two extremes ~ either the dog has been tied up for long periods of time with no freedom at all or they are given all the freedom in the world with no restrictions. Regardless of why, the key is to find the right balance through proper mental stimulation and adequate physical exercise. Get their minds and bodies working!
In the alpha-canine world, who eats first is very important. It shows the pack members who the leader is and who is running the pack. For many years, humans have attempted to breed dogs like the Golden Retriever with less possessive and aggressive tendencies over food and toys. What has been found is that while the instinct can be inhibited to a large degree with breeding and training, it can still be triggered in these extreme situations.
The challenge for us as humans is to make it clear to them that we are the leaders of the pack and we control the food, not the other way around.
There are two important distinctions to be made when talking about food possessive behaviour in dogs. The question to ask is whether the dog is being possessive towards another dog or towards a human. This is important because some dogs will always be more dominant than others and will take on that alpha role in the pack just as part of the natural order of things. This is normal and as it should be in nature…everyone falls into their place. The challenge for us as humans is to make it clear to them that we are the leaders of the pack and we control the food, not the other way around.
How to Prevent or Eliminate Food Bowl Aggression?
Once this behaviour has been triggered, you can deal with it in a number of ways, depending on the severity of the situation. If the dog is already at the point where they are attacking humans over their food bowl, I highly recommend you seek out a professional so your dog can be properly desensitized towards this behaviour in a safe and controlled manner.
In less severe cases there are a number of exercises you can practice at home to desensitize your dog and teach them to be more comfortable around the food bowl. If you are doing this at home then you are going to need two people, one to operate the dog with the leash and the other to handle the food. Of course a good rule of thumb when doing this exercise is to ALWAYS BE SAFE! If you know your dog is going to be lashing out or snapping and biting, make sure you take proper precautions.
For this first technique, we are going to set up the dog-feeding situation ahead of time. Begin by commanding your dog to SIT beside you and keep them in a sit while the second person puts the food bowl down in front of the dog. For safety reasons, when working with a more possessive dog keep your distance when placing the food on the floor.
Then, if the dog makes an aggressive move, sound or posture tell them NO in a deep voice accompanied by a quick pull and release on the leash. REMEMBER, once you have given your dog that quick pull with the leash you must release it immediately afterwards. It should not take more than that for your dog to get the message. When you are ready, and ONLY when you are ready, give the dog a big happy, OKAY using a high-pitched voice, thereby signalling to them that it is now okay to eat the food.
For the best results, I recommend you build this into your daily routine. You can do this easily by introducing a few simple behaviours at home. For example, at mealtime try eating first before feeding your dog. This may sound strange at first because we as humans would never consider eating in front of someone else while making them wait to eat themselves. However, in the canine world it’s different and who eats first is based on the hierarchy that has been established in the pack. So if you eat something first at the dog’s mealtime, and it doesn’t have to be a full course meal, just something small, this sends your dog the message that you are the pack leader and as such are in control of distributing the food.
If you have more than one dog and one is acting possessive towards another over food, I recommend that you feed each dog in its own crate. This not only makes the crate a more positive experience for them but it also gives your dog its own space so that they feel safe while eating.
If your dog has not yet developed a strong possessive drive, there are a number of things you can do to ensure your dog avoids developing this drive to begin with. One we have already mentioned and that is always eating before your dog. The second is to actually put your hands in your dog’s food or handle their food bowl while they are eating (take it away while they are eating and then give it back). Also, when feeding your dog, try putting only a little bit of food in the bowl at first and then keep adding more as the dog eats. This not only helps prevent the dog from learning food bowl possession but the dog also learns that there is always more food to come. What we are trying to do here is eliminate the dog’s natural instinct to fight over food. In the wild there is usually a limited amount of food to go around the pack so a dog’s natural instinct is to fight over it or go hungry.
Introducing these practices at the dog’s mealtime will show the dog that the humans are the alpha leaders. Once the dog accepts you as their leader, they will no longer respond aggressively around their food and will be much more calm and comfortable at mealtime.