Why Dogs Get Aggressive Over Food and Toys

Some people think that food aggression is a result of food training, or rewarding a dog with food. Indeed this view has been perpetuated by aversive trainers such as Brad Pattison who rely heavily on pain and dominance based methods.

Some simple facts about dogs and food -

  • Our dogs need food every day and as their caretakers it is up to us to feed them regularly.
  • We can give a dog his food for free in a silver bowl or we can make a dog work for all of his food. Making a dog work for his food is part of reward training.
  • Reward training and hand feeding actually helps to reduce food aggression issues because while doing these things we can teach our dogs proper eating manners including bite inhibition, no jumping, and staying calm.

Why Do Dogs Get Aggressive With Food

There are two primary reasons why dogs get aggressive with food.

Reason 1 – Getting free food at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons.

Most dogs love food. During meal times, a dog will get excited and want to get at the good stuff as soon as possible. Many dogs will jump to try and get at the food bowl, bite at our hands, and/or crowd our space so that they may pounce on the food as soon as it is available.

This is normal canine behavior. Our dog is simply trying out a range of behaviors that he thinks will help him get a much needed resource – food.

Food aggression problems develop when we give in to these undesirable behaviors and feed our dog so that he will stop making such a nuisance of himself. However, when we do this, our dogs learn that jumping, biting, and being a nuisance will get him the food that he so desires. By giving food at the wrong time, we are encouraging behaviors that could ultimately be seen as aggression.

Instead of giving food to our dog for free, we can use that food to teach him proper eating manners. We do this by ignoring unwanted behaviors and rewarding good behaviors with food. My dogs learn very quickly that the best way to get food from me is to Sit or Lie Down and wait patiently while I prepare their food. From time to time, I will reward their calm behavior. If they jump or bite, I no-mark the behavior and stop preparing their food.

In this way, they learn the following -

  • Sitting calmly and waiting = food gets prepared quickly and they get rewarded, but
  • Jumping and biting = food preparation stops and they get ignored.
Reason 2 – Learning that if food is not protected, it will get stolen.

Some trainers encourage people to take food away from their dogs. According to these trainers the pack leader should be able to take anything away from the dog. Meanwhile, the dog should just submit, not think for himself, and accept whatever we choose to dish out.

Consider this from the dog’s perspective-

  • First we give him his free food bowl.
  • Once he starts to eat, we take it away from him for no reason.
  • After a bit, we give the food bowl back, again for no clear reason.
  • He starts to eat again but does not know when or for how long this will last.

This type of training not only increases stress for the dog during meal times, but it also encourages food aggression. When we repeatedly take food away from our dog for no clear reason, our dog learns the following -

  • Food may be taken away at any time so I had better gorge myself as fast as I can. Tomorrow, I may not get any food.
  • Food always gets taken away when a person comes near me so I should keep people away while I am eating.
  • Food is given and taken away in a random unpredictable pattern so I had better protect my food while I have it by whatever means necessary.

To stop food aggression, we want to do the opposite.

We want to provide our dogs with a stable and low-stress environment where the rules are clear and our behavior is consistent. We want to teach our dogs that if he is willing to work, then he will be rewarded with food and much more. We want show him that as his pack leader, we will protect the pack’s resources and he does not have to do so himself.

Below are some of the exercises I do with my dogs to prevent food aggression. If a dog is already food aggressive, it is best to get help from a professional trainer.

Do not try the techniques below on a dog that is aggressive and already causing bite wounds.

For these more serious cases, it is best to slowly desensitize the dog under the direction of a trainer. Other safety measures such as a muzzle or a gate may also be necessary.

Stop Food Aggression 1 – NILIF Program

One of the best ways to discourage food aggression is to follow the NILIF (Nothing in Life is Free) program. NILIF simply means that my dogs have to do something for me first before they get anything in return including food, toys, play, affection, access to the backyard, etc.

Meal time usually goes as follows -

  • I measure and bring out their kibble and chicken.
  • I collect all the relevant interactive food toys and call my dogs to me.
  • They come and lie down calmly beside me. I reward them for coming when called and for being calm.
  • I start to prepare their interactive food toys. In the meantime, they continue to wait calmly for me to finish. If they do not stay calm, I stop working.
  • Once I am finished, I give out one toy to each dog. When they have finished with their toy, they can come back to me for the next toy.
  • There is no stealing from each other. I supervise to make sure that nobody steals. If someone tries to sneak off with food that is not his, I will replace the food that is stolen. The thief gets a verbal reprimand. If he continues with his rogue anti-social behavior, he goes to timeout and does not get to eat until the next meal time.

Stop Food Aggression 2 – Hand Feeding

I only feed my dogs a small part of their food during meal times. I use the rest of the food as rewards for work done during the day. Some work activities may include handling exercises, grooming exercises, obedience training, bite inhibition training, and play time.

I reward my dogs by hand. Hand feeding is a great way to teach dogs to be gentle when taking food from us with their large teeth. If my dogs bite too hard, I yelp and stop feeding them for a short time. This teaches them that -

  • Gentle mouth = the food keeps coming, but
  • Hard mouth = the food stops.

Stop Food Aggression 3 – Positive Associations with People

Dogs often develop food aggression towards people when their food and resources keep getting removed or taken away by us.

If every time a person comes near a dog, his food, toy, or stick gets taken away from him, he will learn that he needs to hide his resources from people or that he needs to keep people away with his growls, claws, and teeth.

To reduce food aggression we want to help our dog associate people with positive events.

Some things that I do with my dogs to help create positive associations with people -

  • I help them get food out of their interactive toys. As a result, they see me as an ally and will often bring their food toy over and drop it by my feet.
  • I will sometimes add food into their interactive toys. My dogs are very happy when I go over to them during meal time because then, their toys usually come back a little heavier.
  • I bring food with me during walks and let my neighbors feed my dogs. This helps them create positive associations with different people and not just the people in their pack. I only do this after I have taught my dogs good bite inhibition (soft mouth training).
  • I exchange objects with them so that they learn that giving me something of theirs is not really a bad thing after all.
  • I do group obedience training sessions. In this way, my dogs learn that when they work together, they all get rewarded.
  • I supervise closely during meal time and prevent stealing. If there is any stealing, I settle disputes and replace the stolen food. In this way, my dogs trust me to handle the situation for them in a peaceful manner.

Dealing with Food Aggression

With food aggression, as with many other dog behavioral issues, I always try to set my dogs up for success. The more positive and successful encounters that we have, the less likely my dogs will practice bad behaviors and use aggression to get what they want.

  • I remove high priority items, especially when new people and new dogs are visiting the house.
  • I teach them the Drop command so that I can get items from them freely, and reward them well for that behavior.
  • I show them that I will protect them and also help protect their resources so that they need not do so themselves.

For me, being a pack leader is not about forcing my dogs to do whatever I want just so I can be macho and they can be submissive.

Being a pack leader is about protecting my dogs and giving them a stable and happy environment. In this environment, they do not need to use aggression because they know that I will be there to deal with the difficult situations that arise.

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Comments

  1. Crystal Collins says

    I have a question more than a comment. I have read your training tips and all of them seem to make sense. My particular issue I did not see. I have two puppies that I rescued. I don’t know much about their first 8 weeks other than there were 10 puppies in the litter. My guess is they puppies had to fight for food. Both my puppies are male and they are neutered. They are very good dogs, were potty trained pretty much the day we got them. I have trained them to sit, they don’t get treats or food without doing something to receive he food fist. They will let you come near them when they eat their food, they sometimes eat together with no issues, they show no aggression.

    However, if when I give them both a treat, I always feed Petey the treat first, Petey gets extremely aggressive towards Finn. He goes after him with a vengeance. Finn never tries to take his treat or anything. They both finish a treat and Petey will then attack Finn and bite him, growl very aggressively. I am able to get between them and calm Petey down and he never tries to bite me, but I am worried that if I don’t find the proper way to train him, his aggression will turn to people as well. Finn now gets very afraid of Petey when ever their is a treat. After Petey is aggressive it akes me about 5 minutes of distracting Petey before he lets up on Finn.

    I am not sure what step to take to break him of this aggression. Should I only feed treats when they are separated? What tips might you have? I fear that the aggression could start towards people or other kids when they come over to play with my son. The only time the aggression takes place is with treats.

    Thanks for any advice you can provide.

    Crystal

    • shibashake says

      Hmmm, is it only for a particular type of treat or for a large range of treats? Is the treat in very small pieces or is it a very large piece that takes each dog some time to finish? Has Petey always shown this behavior, or did it only start recently?

      Some things that have helped my dogs get along-
      1. I set up clear dog-to-dog interaction rules.
      A common cause for conflict between dogs is over resources – food, toys, sleeping area, our affection, and more. I set up a clear no-stealing rule which I teach to all of my dogs. If there are any issues, I will deal with it quickly and in a fair and consistent manner. My dogs know this, so they leave it up to me because they know that I will protect each of them.

      I *do not* allow them to physically correct each other – doing so is an instant timeout offense. They also know this and they know that it is very unrewarding for them to show this kind of behavior. On the other hand, if they leave things up to me, I am fair and they always know what to expect from me.

      When Sephy was in-training, I put a lead on him so that I can easily and effectively put him in timeout if need be. The lead also prevents him from biting on me, running away, or acting out with me. I only use the lead when I am around to supervise, and only with a flat collar (*not* an aversive collar).

      Having a fixed routine and a consistent set of rules is very helpful for my dogs. It increases certainty, reduces stress, lets everyone knows what to expect from each other, and what is expected of them.

      2. Minimize bad experiences.
      I manage my dogs so that they are not put in situations where they will act aggressively. Each of my dogs have different tolerances and different priorities for food items, toys, etc. I observe them and understand these tolerances. If I give them high priority chews such as bully sticks, I separate them so that they can each work on their chews in peace, without always having to look over their shoulder. I make sure that they each respect each other’s space, and when one of them wants to rest or be alone, he can do so without being pestered by the others.

      At the same time, if there are problem areas, I do structured dog-to-dog desensitization exercises to increase their tolerances toward certain triggers. The key with dog-to-dog desensitization is to weaken the “other dog” stimulus using distance, so that our dog can stay in-control and learn from the experience.

      3. Create as many positive experiences as I can.

      Sephy, my Shiba Inu used to be pretty reactive toward other dogs. He also wasn’t thrilled when I brought home a second Husky. What helped Sephy to accept Husky Lara is to show him that Lara is a positive influence on his lifestyle, because when she is around, he gets more stuff and life is a lot more rewarding. At the same time, I supervise them closely and make sure that their encounters are at worst neutral.

      The more Sephy practices aggressive behavior in a particular context, the more likely he will repeat that behavior and possibly try it in other related contexts. The more successful, calm, and rewarding encounters he has with Lara and other dogs, the more likely he will stay calm in the future.

      Here is more on what I do with my dogs.

      It is important to note though that dog behavior is very context dependent. The temperament of the dogs, environment, current context, routine, and surrounding details matter a lot. For this reason, it is usually a good idea to consult with a good professional trainer, especially in cases of aggression.
      http://www.apdt.com/pet-owners/choosing-a-trainer/

  2. Oliver Stieber says

    I know you say removal of food or toys etc… can be an issue but then also talk about not giving any more if the dog is causing an issue….
    To be able to do that in the first place I would assume that the food/toy environment has to be somewhat controlled in the first place.

    So is it sensible to remove a superfolous amount of these things in the general environment first so that they get to a contollable level. say if there are 20 toys removing 1 every day or so until there are only ever one or two around at a time (progressive desensitization type of thing), or even more so that they are only arround in a facinitated manner (otherwise kept in the cupboard or something)

    • Oliver Stieber says

      for instance, at the moment, just in the living room I can count 4 balls, one squeeky toy type thing, 2 bones, two other toys on top of the tv and probably a load more that aren’t in clear view.

    • shibashake says

      I think much of it would depend on the dog, the surrounding context, and the details of the current situation.

      For example, my dogs have access to a bunch of regular toys. Those are more low priority and there is no danger of them guarding those toys. Greenies and other food-chew toys however, are much higher priority. When they work on those, I separate them so that each has a comfortable and safe space to enjoy his own chew toy, without having to worry about it getting stolen. In this way, I set them up for success and prevent any kind of guarding behavior before it even starts. Different dogs will have different preferences, therefore object priorities may be different as well.

      The surrounding context is also very important. A dog may be willing to share space and objects with a friend, but may be less willing to do so with a stranger. A dog that is in an over-excited state will also react differently than a dog that is in a calm state.

      Context, body language, temperament, and all the details of the surrounding situation are very important, which is why in aggression cases, it is usually very helpful to visit with a professional trainer. A good trainer can observe the temperament of the dogs, their surrounding context, as well as routine. In this way, he can better identify what is triggering a particular behavior, and come up with a good plan for redirecting and retraining it.

  3. Anonymous says

    What if your dog gets toy aggressive with uour other dog. ie my dog will have a teddy and theother one walks over to sit and the one with the teddy gets mean tHis causes the other dog to be afraid of going near the aggressive dog

  4. Rob says

    Really good info and has stopped my bad habits which I’m turn stopped the dogs bad habits (food protection). Plus it’s a bonus that I have a malamute, so I can see it works as in the pics!

  5. melindaregner says

    Cool!
    I love this dog aggression training.. But what I really love are the dogs on the pics. They’re so cute! :)

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