Food aggression occurs, because some dogs associate people or other dogs coming near their food, as being a bad thing.
- Maybe we have a rescue dog, that had to fight for his food in an earlier life.
- Maybe we have been inadvertently taking food, or other objects away from our dog by force.
Now, he thinks he needs to guard his belongings.
Certain dog breeds, for example protection dogs, may also have a higher tendency to guard.
To reduce food aggression, we want to make sure our dog associates people approaching him, with something positive.
Never try to take food, or other items away from an unknown dog. Even seemingly easy-going dogs, may sometimes try to guard their food and toys.
Note – The exercises below, help to prevent food aggression. Do not perform these exercises on dogs that are already food aggressive, and/or causing bite wounds. Instead, contact a professional trainer.
1. Add something really good to our dog’s food bowl
A good way to solve food aggression issues, is to show our dog that people and other dogs coming near him, during dog feeding time, is a positive thing.
When my dog is eating, I throw some good treats into his food bowl, for example little pieces of cheese or bacon. I keep repeating this, until he is looking forward to my visits.
Note – Do not reach down to pet or stroke, food aggressive dogs.
Once my dog is comfortable with my presence, I sometimes take the food bowl away, show him that I am adding yummy treats into it, then give it back to him. I also take other objects (e.g. paper, sticks) away from my Shiba Inu, add food to it, and return the enhanced object. Sometimes, I add food into his food toys, or help him get the food out.
This teaches our dog that having people around during feeding time, means more food. It also shows him that when we take something away, it usually comes back with an added bonus. If we do all this often enough, our dog will be looking forward to us coming over, during his meals.
My Shiba Inu sometimes brings a toy over to me, in the hopes that I will add some food to it!
2. Hand-feed our dog
Only do this if our dog is not aggressive, and does not have a bite history.
Hand-feeding occurs naturally when we use reward obedience training. I also hand-feed my dog during dog grooming and handling exercises.
Hand-feeding teaches our dog that the human hand is a really good thing, and yummy food comes from it. It can also strengthen our bond with him, because he sees that food comes directly from us.
Feeding with our hands, helps us establish pack leadership because –
- We can set the speed of feeding.
- We can demand good eating manners. For example no grabbing, and only take food from us gently.
- We can ask our dog to work for us. For example doing a Sit or Down, before getting any food.
It is generally a good idea to keep up with some hand-feeding, throughout our dog’s lifetime. This helps him maintain good bite inhibition.
3. Teach our dog the Drop command
- First, give our dog a fairly low priority and safe toy.
- When he takes it in his mouth, bring a high priority treat to his nose, and say Drop. Chances are, he will drop the toy, and try to get at the treat.
- As soon as he drops the toy, mark the behavior (i.e. say Yes), give him the treat, and give him back the toy.
- Let him play with the toy for a bit, before repeating the exercise.
Once he understands the command, we can use higher priority toys, and ultimately, food toys.
If my dog is refusing to drop objects, then I try using a higher priority treat. If he bites on me, then I usually do a time-out. I try not to overtax my dog, and keep sessions short and positive. In this way, he will be motivated to play this game again.
I also practice Drop sessions during walks, with sticks and other safe objects. This helps a dog to generalize the Drop command for outside the house, and for outside objects.
When we are out on walks, I try my best to keep my dog away from questionable objects. If he manages to pick up an undesirable item, I no-mark him (say Ack-ack), then hold a good treat by his nose. As soon as he drops the item, I praise him, and treat him.
If I really want an item back, I will hold firmly onto it (close to my dog’s muzzle), and give the Drop command. It is important that we do not pull back, and make it into a tug game. I just hold it still, and try to be as uninteresting as possible. My dog will usually lose interest, and drop the item. If he does this, I praise him, and treat him.
Do not try this technique if our dog is aggressive, and is likely to bite.
If an object is dangerous and is too small to hold, we may have to forcibly go into our dog’s mouth. He will probably hate it, but if we must do it, then we must do it. Make sure to do some simple commands afterward, so that we can treat him for his positive actions.
If we frequently remove items by force, our dog will likely get aggressive, and start guarding food and belongings from us.
This is why we want to set our dogs up for success, and prevent him from picking up dangerous objects in the first place. In this case, prevention is much better than cure.
4. Play the “object exchange” game
An alternative to simply teaching the Drop command, is to play the object exchange game.
- First, bring out several toys of about equal priority.
- Give one of the toys to our dog, and let him play with it for a short duration.
- Issue the Drop command, and exchange the old toy with a new one.
- Initially, it may be necessary to sweeten the pot with some additional treats. Sometimes, I stuff the new toy with some food. Therefore, not only does my dog get back a new toy, he also gets one with food in it. He is usually very happy to make that exchange.
Once we notice that things are going well, we may slowly phase out the treats, and just do the object exchange. If our dog is unwilling to give up his current toy, then we can try to lengthen the time that he gets to play with it, or add food into the equation again.
If our dog misbehaves in any way, for example bites on our hand, then the game stops, and all toys and food are removed.
5. Get strangers to toss food to our dog
When we have guests, give them some good treats to toss to our dog. This will help him associate new people with his favorite food, and lessen his food aggression when strangers are around.
If our dog has a bite history, make sure we have him on a leash, so that our guests are always safe. We may also place him behind a secure dog gate. Then, our guests may feed him by extending a chopstick or wooden spoon with food, through the gate.
6. Ensure there are no high priority food items lying around
To reduce food aggression, it is important that we do not let our dog practice that behavior, especially with people. Remove all food items, as well as food toys and high-priority toys, when we have friends and family over.
It is important to remove all food and all toys, when our dog is meeting with new dogs, or dogs that he does not know well.
7. Supervise our dog and prevent food aggressive behavior
Make sure we are always there to supervise and intervene, when our dog starts to show any food aggression. When I am not around to supervise, I remove all high priority items, so that my dogs do not guard food or resources, from each other.
I have a simple house-rule –
“All resources are mine, and I decide which of my dogs get what.”
Whenever I give them food toys, I keep them away from each other, to prevent stealing. In this way, they do not practice any resource guarding or food aggressive behavior.
If they start any guarding behavior, I remove the resource, and nobody gets it. If they show any aggressive behavior with me, they get a time-out, and the play and food session stops.
8. Do not give our dog constant access to food
If we leave food or food toys around, our dog may feel that he has to guard it, and become food aggressive. This can be very stressful for him, and may also lead to obesity issues.
Leaving food around may also weaken our leadership position, because our dog can get food by himself. He may decide not to follow our commands or house rules, because he does not need us for anything.
To be a good pack leader to our dog, we want to follow the Nothing in Life is Free (NILIF) program. Only give him something, if he does something for us first. Stuff left-over food into his food toys, and make him work for all of the things that he wants. Remove the food toy once it is empty, or after a fixed period of time.
A busy dog is a good dog.