Food – one of life’s great pleasures, for humans and animals. Our bodies need food to give us fuel and nutrition to keep us alive. But sometimes the desire for food develops into unhealthy patterns. Some humans may overeat or binge on the wrong types of foods.  Although dogs cannot overeat unless we give them access to too much food, they can develop another abnormal eating behavior – food aggression – when dogs growl, lunge or try to bite you if you take their food while eating, attempt to pet them or for some severe cases, when you enter the room if food is present.

Food aggression in dogs is very serious business. If you have a food-aggressive dog, chances are you just leave your dog alone when he is eating.  You’ve told your children and visitors not to bother the dog.  Food aggression may occur not only around the dog’s food bowl, however. What happens if your child drops a piece of food on the floor and your dog grabs it as your child tries to pick it up?  Or your dog is outside and encounters someone with food who drops it on the ground.  Aggression can occur with any foodstuff, and can be even more pronounced with bones, rawhide chews, pig ears, etc.  In most animal shelters, dogs with food aggression are euthanized because of the potential risk to adopters who may not be able to cope with this very dangerous problem.

Why it is that some dogs protect their food and others don’t?  Food aggression can be an inherited trait. And sometimes it can be a result of conditions when the dog was a puppy. Some dog breeders free-feed puppies, causing them to contend for food. If you’ve ever seen a dog who pushes his head into the bowl and practically inhales the food with one gulp, then you’re probably looking at a dog who had to fight for his share. Some dogs from puppy mills can have food aggression due to the conditions at the mills. They are most certainly free-fed, and probably not enough food.

Food aggression can be made worse by the way the dog’s owner responds to the dog.  I’ve worked with people who get angry and indignant with the dog when he growls at them, claiming that they should be able to take the dog’s food at any time. So they proceed to “test” the dog by taking the food while the dog is eating. And often a good scolding and even physical punishment follows. This tactic will make matters worse, simply because the dog’s fears that someone will remove his food have been confirmed. And the scolding/punishment reinforces this fear. Some trainers and Internet advice sites say that the owners must be “the alpha” and control the food by taking it away from the dog at any time.  Nonsense. That approach will get you bitten, not resolve the problem. NEVER remove the dog’s bowl from him while he’s eating!

The best approach is to teach your dog that great things happen when you come near your dog while eating. Choose a food that your dog loves but rarely receives – canned chicken, cheese, steak, liver bites. If you can safely come near your dog when he’s eating, casually drop the food on the floor next to your dog’s bowl so that he sees it. Continue this practice every time that your dog is eating. He needs to begin associating your presence with the great food.  If your dog is so highly food aggressive that you cannot get near him, pick a time when your dog is not eating, take an empty bowl and set it on the floor near your dog. Drop the high value food in it. The idea is for your dog to get the picture of you near his bowl in a non-threatening manner giving him good stuff.

Or try a different technique: hand-feeding.  Remove the dog’s bowl from the equation altogether and give your dog his food in small handfuls from your hand. If that is successful, graduate to placing the empty bowl on the floor and adding a couple of food nuggets in the bowl at a time and allow your dog to eat them. Continue until you have given your dog his entire meal. Praise, praise, praise if your dog acts appropriately!  Yes, it’s completely time consuming but well worth the effort. (If he freezes, growls or tries to bite during any of these exercises, discontinue and consult a behavior consultant ASAP.)  

These methods can improve the behavior and even extinguish it, but it takes time, patience and consistency.  This post gives a few suggestions and is not intended to be a thorough guide to working with dogs with food aggression. It’s best to consult a qualified behavior consultant if your dog’s issues are severe.