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Does your dog get possessive whenever it’s dinnertime, or when given a treat? They may be displaying food aggression. In this article, we’ll cover what food aggression is, situations it may arise in, how to prevent it, and how to train a dog with food aggression.
What is food aggression?
Food aggression is a type of resource guarding. Resource guarding is when a dog “guards” a valuable resource, such as a toy or a bowl of food, through behaviors like running away with the item, growling, or biting. Food aggression is a type of resource guarding that is specific to food.
Food aggression is quite common in dogs. It is a natural behavior inherited from their wild ancestors. Wild dogs (and other animals) are competing with other dogs for food and other resources. In the wild, a dog who has more food has a better chance of survival. Although your domestic dog does not need to guard their food in this way, the instinct to do so may still be there.
Food aggression, as the name implies, is specific to food. If your dog is displaying “aggressive” behaviors, like growling, lunging or biting, in non-food situations, then something else is going on (and you’ll want to call your vet and most likely a qualified trainer).
Specific situations in which food aggression may occur
Puppy food aggression: It’s common for puppies to guard food because they often feel they are in competition with their littermates for food, especially if they came from a breeder who fed them from a communal dish. You can help prevent this in your puppy by hand-feeding them their first few meals while speaking calmly and offering pets with your other hand (if the dog seems comfortable with it). Eventually, move the bowl to your lap, and then to the floor, each time speaking soothingly and petting the dog. This will teach your puppy that you are not a threat to their food.
Sudden food aggression: If your dog is suddenly displaying food aggression when they didn’t before, first, take them to a vet. They may have an injury or ailment that is making them feel physically bad.
Food aggression toward other dogs or cats: Dogs may also develop food aggression in response to their environment. If you have other dogs who eat at the same time, or you have cats who like to steal bites of dog food, your dog may develop food aggression as a response. If you have multiple pets, feed them in different rooms if possible, or feed one dog while taking the other for a walk, etc. Make sure each pet has their own individual food bowl—communal feeding is more likely to lead to food aggression.
Food aggression with children: Similarly, dogs may feel that children loitering around them while they eat are a threat to their food. If possible, keep any children out of the room (or at least out of the immediate space) whenever the dog is eating. Creating a peaceful “food zone” free of people and other pets is the ideal scenario. The feasibility of this will vary depending on your home, but doing this to the best of your ability should help. If your home doesn’t have the space for this, dog dinnertime is a great time to take the kids for a walk.
Food aggression with biting: If you think your dog may bite you, the ASPCA recommends that you do not try to deal with their food aggression on your own. They recommend consulting with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). (Our article When And How to Think About Medication for Anxious Dogs has a breakdown of the difference between vets, Veterinary Behaviorists, and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists.) In the meantime, give your dog as much space and peace during mealtimes as possible, and make sure everyone in your household knows not to go near the dog during feeding times, for their safety.
Preventing food aggression
As we mentioned above (under “Puppy food aggression”), you can prevent food aggression in puppies by hand-feeding them meals while talking to them softly and gently petting them, then transitioning their meals to your lap, then to the floor, all while performing the same gentle talking and petting. (The ASPCA has more detailed instructions.) The same should be done with any dog who is new to your household and who does not guard food. While you may feel it’s not necessary because the dog does not have food aggression, it’s a good idea to reinforce their “food non-aggression,” because that’s what you want! This process teaches them that this new environment is one that is safe and where food does not need to be guarded.
You can also do some simple training exercises to reinforce the idea that the absence of food guarding leads to good things. Dogtime suggests “the disappearing food bowl”:
- Hold your dog’s food dish while they eat their dinner.
- Offer them a dog treat, temporarily remove the food dish while the dog eats the treat, then immediately give the food dish back. Repeat several times until it is clear your dog understands the game.
- Do the same steps with the change of removing the food dish prior to offering a treat. Repeat several times.
This game will teach your dog that the removal of their food dish signifies that a treat is coming. (The aforementioned Dogtime link also has other smart training game ideas for food aggression and other types of resource guarding.)
Training guides for food aggression in dogs
There are some great training guides for dogs with food aggression. Here are a few of our favorites:
The ASPCA’s Guide to Food Guarding (scroll down to the headline “Stage One”)
Remember that food aggression is a common dog behavior and is “normal” in the sense that serves the dog as an evolutionary behavior. It’s also important to remember that you should never punish a dog for food aggression. Instead, use the positive reinforcement techniques outlined in the guides above. This may also be a good time to call in a dog trainer. Check out the AKC’s guide to finding a qualified trainer.
Good luck and happy training!
Trainer that reviewed this article
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Owner – Dog’s Day Out, Ballard, WA
Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
Licensed AKC CGC Evaluator
NW Coordinator, Doggone Safe