Written by FOTP Team
It’s upsetting when an otherwise peaceful dog begins to snarl and even snap if someone approaches their food bowl. At best, food aggression in dogs, a type of resource guarding, is upsetting. After all, it’s disconcerting when your beloved and cuddly pooch suddenly sounds like a hound from hell if someone or something gets close while they’re eating.
At worst, it can end in somebody being nipped or even bitten. This can end in tragedy for an otherwise wonderful pet.
But food guarding or resource guarding is a widespread and natural behavior. It’s also probably one of the most misunderstood, but don’t worry, your dog isn't a menace to society or a dangerous dog just because they guard their food.
Although safety precautions are necessary to deal with this issue, the good news is that food guarding is relatively easy to fix. First however, we need to understand what food guarding really is before we can treat the issue.
To look at some of the common misconceptions about food aggression, we need to answer some questions about resource guarding to understand this behavior.
Resource guarding happens when a dog begins to fiercely protect any high-value item or "resource." It may be food, toys, a bed or furniture, or a favorite person. It can start when a dog is a puppy but can develop spontaneously at any age.
Even seniors may start resource guarding when it was never a problem before, particularly as they become grumpier about sharing their favorite things.
In fact, resource guarding a person is extremely common in little dogs. It is often even seen as cute when they climb on an owner's lap and snap at anybody who comes close. Sadly, what looks like a dog "protecting" their owner is only an anxious dog guarding "their stuff," or the vital resource of their owner's attention.
This is the critical thing to remember: resource guarding is not true aggression!
Guarding food or another high-value item is a dog's intense anxiety that somebody or something will mess with their stuff. It’s unwanted behavior but natural. They’re simply afraid somebody will take away something essential to them, be it attention, food, a sleeping spot, or toys.
Unfortunately, because resource guarding can lead to a bite or cause dogs to fight, it’s still crucial that responsible pet parents take steps to stop this behavior.
If you have a dog that bites and you want to read about stopping biting, see our article here.
Resource guarding has a strong genetic component. Experienced breeders have noted that if a parent dog has resource guarding problems, it’s highly likely their puppies will inherit it.
Whether a dog has ever gone hungry or suffered neglect before doesn't necessarily make them food aggressive or resource guards. Plenty of dogs that have never wanted for anything in their lives develop this issue.
Nevertheless, sometimes environmental factors can trigger this behavior. These include:
This last one doesn't mean you should try to force the issue with your dog since this can cause a confrontation and make things worse. We will outline an easy and safe way to stop food aggression below.
So how do you know if your dog is genuinely food aggressive? If you know what to look for, you should be able to spot it in its early stages before it becomes a more dangerous problem. Signs of canine food aggression are all in their body language. It usually looks like this:
Every dog is different in how long it takes them to go from simply eating faster to snapping and biting. Some dogs may never actually bite or go past a certain point. In contrast, others will escalate to this point seemingly without warning.
Sadly, many common myths can make canine food aggression worse and create an unsustainable or even dangerous situation. So let's first deal with what you should not do if your dog is guarding their food.
In fact, it actually confirms the dog's fear that somebody is coming to mess with their food or take it away. This often causes your dog more anxiety, makes them more distrustful of you and can cause a confrontation you do not want.
Looking at these common mistakes, it’s easy to be bewildered. What can you do to stop a dog's food aggression if you can't ignore it, punish it, pet them, soothe them, or put your hand near the bowl?
The good news is the safest and best way to deal with the issue is pretty straightforward and only takes patience and a calm attitude.
This is a behavioral and psychological issue, so we deal with it by addressing the source of the problem: your dog's fear that somebody will take their food. When a dog is secure that nobody will remove their food, there is no reason to guard it.
Here are the basic steps for dealing with food aggression in dogs:
Note: Never throw down a snack while a dog is being hostile. If you throw food while a dog is growling, you reward them for growling. Stay at a distance where your dog is comfortable and relaxed before scattering treats.
Tip: Always stay calm and non-reactive. Don't speak to your dog in a high-pitched voice or anything that could excite them.
Follow up this positive reinforcement with teaching your dog good food "etiquette" and obedience training, such as sitting and waiting for a release word before eating.
Make your approach to the food bowl fun and positive experience with regular "trades" for better goodies. Encourage all adult members of the household to do the same.
A dog with food aggression should not eat with other pets or be free-fed. Furthermore, since young children can't always read dog body language, never allow children near your food aggressive dog even after being rehabilitated. A child's welfare should never be at risk, and nipping a child could have serious consequences for a dog, so it’s a no-win situation.
Food aggression is not true aggression. You can safely minimize their anxiety and phase out their hostility by reprogramming your dog to believe that people approaching means more, better food and not less.