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.