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.
Misconceptions about food aggression: Why is your dog really guarding their food?
To look at some of the common misconceptions about food aggression, we need to answer some questions about resource guarding to understand this behavior.
What is resource guarding?
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.
What causes food aggression and resource guarding?
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:
- A new pet, person, or child in the house can make a dog more insecure about losing things most important to them. This is especially true if they no longer get the same amount of attention or if the new addition is messing with their food bowl or sleeping on their bed.
- A puppy growing up with other dogs who regularly take away their toys or eat their food may become more protective of what's theirs.
- Stress and a lack of exercise can stimulate unwanted behaviors related to anxiety such as food aggression.
- Sometimes underlying health issues like hypothyroidism or cognitive decline in aging dogs can cause behavior changes and increase anxiety.
- A dog that has suffered deprivation, such as spending time in the shelter, may have more motivation to begin guarding their food and other resources. Although a previously neglected, starved, or abused dog does not mean they will become food aggressive.
- Changes in the environment, such as moving house, can trigger anxiety and indirectly cause food aggression.
- Puppies removed from their litters too young tend to show more food aggression.
- Owners often make mistakes that encourage food aggression and resource guarding. We’ll talk more about common errors owners might make that can worsen the issue below.
- Finally, behavior such as resource guarding is usually self-rewarding. This means that if a dog snarls once at somebody near their food bowl, and that person backs away; from the dog's perspective, snarling works. This is enough incentive to keep them doing it and escalate if they feel they need to.
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.
Symptoms of Dog Food Aggression
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:
- The first sign is usually that a dog or puppy will start to eat faster or gulp their food down when a pet or person approaches. At this stage, there may be no overt aggression. But it signals that the pup is developing anxiety about competition for their food. Most owners miss this critical first red flag because it looks like typical greedy eating. The difference is a dog in the first stages of food aggression will eat faster when something approaches them. A greedy eater just eats as fast as possible no matter what's going on.
- If others keep approaching, the food aggression usually starts to escalate. A dog will adopt a protective stance. This means they will either hold their head low over the bowl or under the front of their body. Sometimes they keep the bowl between their two front paws. This is to advertise the food is theirs.
- Their body will become tense and stiff, and their tail will typically be held upright or straight out. More fearful dogs may put their tail between their legs.
- They may raise their hackles.
- Their eyes sometimes fixate on the "threat," especially if it’s another dog. With humans, a food aggressive dog may avoid eye contact and not look directly at the person approaching.
- Their jaws will tense. This is followed by lip movement to bare teeth.
- Vocalizing a warning comes next if the "threat" keeps approaching. This means snarls and low growls.
- If the person or other animal still doesn't take the hint, this is when it’s most likely a dog will give a warning snap. This snap can become an actual bite in severe cases, and if things have gotten this far, the situation has gotten out of hand.
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.
7 Most common mistakes owners make when a dog guards their food:
- The most common and worst idea among pet owners with food aggressive dogs is to deliberately place your hand over their bowl or stick your hand in 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.
- Punishing the dog for showing signs of food aggression is just as bad as meddling with their food bowl. It also increases their anxiety and can lead to general fear aggression.
- Trying to pet and soothe your dog while eating is also problematic. Your presence is still a cause of anxiety, and petting may reward their insecurity. They don't understand words, so petting a dog in an anxious state is a way of saying, "yes! Good dog! You are right to feel this way!"
- Owners often leave the issue unresolved when symptoms first appear, causing everybody in the household to just stay away from the dog when they’re eating. This also confirms to the dog that guarding behavior is the best way to keep their food safe.
- Owners may allow children or even babies and toddlers free rein around a food aggressive dog. A child that approaches a food aggressive dog is a situation that often ends in tragedy.
- Owners let the dog eat with other dogs or pets. This can lead to fighting or injury.
- Pet parents may free-feed their dog (always a bad idea) or leave food items and chew toys lying around, giving the dog something to guard at all times.
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.
9 Steps to safely stop a dog from food guarding
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:
- First, ensure that your dog is always fed in a closed-off area and on their own. See that there’s no food, treats, or chews lying around the home for your dog to guard. Feed them regularly at the same time every day. Simply put the bowl down calmly and walk away. When the food is gone, remove the bowl. No pets or children should approach when the dog is eating.
- Select some tasty treats your dog likes more than their food. You can read more about healthy dog treats in this article. From a safe distance, make a habit of just walking past your dog and throwing the treats down. You can interrupt them briefly with a whistle to get their attention. But don't crowd them or make a fuss. Just scatter the treats and keep going about your business. You can do this one to two times only during a meal so that it does not become a source of stress.
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.
- When your dog no longer tenses when you approach, you can start getting closer before you scatter the treats. The message should be that your approach means more and better food, rather than you are coming to take food away from them.
- As your dog becomes comfortable with your approach and learns to expect treats, you can begin getting really close. If you see them becoming eager to see what you have for them, it's time to crouch to their level and be close enough to touch. Make sure they know you come bearing gifts.
- Work towards them taking the treat from your hand. Wear a thick glove if they don't take the snack nicely. Simply close your hand around the treat if they try to snatch it. When they ask more politely, open your hand and let them have it. Throw another snack in their bowl at the same time to reinforce the message you are only there to give them better food, not take it away.
Tip: Always stay calm and non-reactive. Don't speak to your dog in a high-pitched voice or anything that could excite them.
- When they’re pausing their meals to politely take a yummy snack from you, you can start reaching toward their bowl and touching it while they are eating your offering. Continue to place another treat in the bowl. If the dog resorts to aggression at any stage, move away with your goodies and start again from a point where they’re comfortable.
- The aim is to start brief "trades" with your dog. When they are comfortable enough for you to be close while they’re eating and to look forward to the extra snacks, you want to offer the really good food with one hand, while touching or briefly removing their actual meal. Always give their bowl back, perhaps with some new goodies inside.
- Be sure to reward any good behavior that is not aggressive, such as a wagging tail and relaxed body language. Give "jackpot" rewards for any welcoming behavior. This means saying "jackpot!" or "yes" and giving a bunch of the best treats or rewards at once.
- When your dog learns that your approach means more and better food, their anxiety and attitude should change.
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.