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.
E Reed says
I have a 1year old spayed newfi-Great Pyrenees, she is very agressive with food and bones, she is crated with her food, still gets very agressive. ..have had her since she was a puppy. ..any help would be helpful…also impossible for me to walk her, too strong!!
EB Willis says
I have a GP-Anatolian Shepherd. She will be 1 year this month and she has not been spayed. She get aggressive and vicious about her food. She has even attacked our Jack Russell mix, male, and she grew up with him from the time she was 7 weeks old. It really bad when she came into heat. I have had to literally had to pull her of him. Otherwise, she is not aggressive or vicious. My only explanation for her behavior is that she was a sickly puppy as per the breeder and they did not think she was going to live. They think she may have had seizures. She is very sweet and loving otherwise. I am having to retrain her to walk on leash because I had back surgery. So, no I can’t be much help.
The article was very informative. I have a new dog I my life. She is about a year old and I have had her about 9 months. I have been feeding her meals by hand but when we use a bowl she growls. She has been to obedience classes and does well when she warms up to others. I am not sure what else to do?
There is a book on Amazon called “mine” that goes over exactly what to do using positive reinforcement. It helped w mydog
I came across this article while searching for information about a problem I have with my dogs. My dogs really like to play fetch, however the smaller one tends to attack the larger one when going after the ball. The small one is not aggressive in any way with people, not even slightly, but she can be aggressive with our larger dog when it comes to certain things. Food is not an issue usually as I do not allow them to take each other’s food or treats, but when it comes to fetch, I find it very difficult to prevent both of them from going after the ball, this results in the small one and inevitably attacking the larger one. There has been a couple occasions where the larger one has bitten back after the smaller one hurt them, then I have to break up a fight. Do you have any advice on how to deal with this situation, and prevent the aggression?
I thought I was the only one! We have two boxers and we also live with my in-laws who have two Jack russells. The on Jack attacks my youngest boxer whenever they run after a ball. One day, my boxer decided enough was enough and started to attack him back. It has also gotten to the point where my boxer now will try to go after him whenever he is around his food bowl or even a bone. My two boxers are absolutely fine with each other. They aren’t always like this though. Most days they run around and play together just fine. Correct me if I’m wrong but I think we need to get the Jack under control so my boxer trusts me that I have the situation under control so he won’t go after him anymore?
I just stumbled across your post and I had question about my dog. When giving treats we always make her work for it, sitting and staying. When she does not obey, she receives no treats. I often use things such as apples or bananas as treats. Recently though she has started to seek out food. For example, I had a snack in my backpack and she got into the bag and dug out the food. When I caught her, she became really aggressive, snarling and trying to bite when I tried to take the food away. During actual treat times she obeys so I’m unsure what to do. Thanks!
I have a 5 year old black lab. In the last several months he has been getting to the cats food and any human food he can get his teeth into,even at the bottom of my purse. If you try to take any of these foods from him he growl,shows his teeth and will lunge to bite you. It’s very strange because you can put your hands in his food or mouth when he’s eating his own food! I need help! I love my dog to pieces but I’m scared of him when he acts like this!
Hi, I recently adopt rescue dog who was in a hoarding situation. So she has anxiety around food. And she’s afraid of humans. Ive been working with her for a while.. First in the shelter and now I’ve adopted her. I’ve been hand feeding her and noticed that if I hand feed her at the same time that I hand feed my other dog, she is less afraid or more willing to eat from my hand. Is this a good idea to hand feed them together? I want to be as proactive as possible to prevent any food guarding between dogs or with humans. Thanks…
I just don’t want to do something that could inadvertently be bad for them…
I do group obedience sessions with my dogs all the time, so I hand-feed them together while doing this. It works well to keep them focused on me, keep them working for me, and to teach them to be calm around each other. I only reward them for good behaviors, and make sure that they do not practice any anti-social behaviors such as trying to block each other, steal food, etc. They are usually doing commands for me, so that is not a problem. I cut my rewards up into small pieces that they finish in one bite, so there is no food to guard. Some dogs may try to guard their people, e.g. by blocking access, so that is something that I look out for and stop quickly.
It also depends a lot on the dog and how comfortable they are around other dogs and food. That will be different for different dogs. I watch for signs of stress and make sure that when a dog is working on a food toy (which takes longer than a bite), the others leave her with enough room to be totally relaxed and comfortable. Space is very important for my dogs. These are the situations where I am most careful about, because there is something there for them to guard/steal, similar to a food bowl. I always supervise my dogs during meal-times and make sure there is no stealing, there is a comfortable space around each dog, etc.
The key with my dogs is to keep their eating experiences positive and not put them in situations where they feel they have to resort to aggression. In terms of helping my dog with stress and anxiety, I have found that consistency helps a lot – consistent rules, consistent routine, consistent environment. In this way, they know exactly what to expect from each other, what to expect from me, and what I expect from them in return.
More on what I do during meal-time.
Big big hugs to you for helping out a dog in need! Four paws up! 😀
My three year old yorkie growls and tries to bite me if my hand comes close to the food I just gave her.
Karra Soedarjo says
I just stumbled across your blog this morning and I love it!!
It’s very informative but easily understandable and very straight forward. Thank you for all your lovely articles, I enjoyed them all.
We just rescue our second dog. She is about 45 lbs and it seems like our resident dog – a puggle, 25 lbs – is quite overwhelmed by her size, even though she is gentle and he usually likes playing with bigger dogs. We will set better rules and hopefully they’ll be more comfortable with each other.
we have a lab / Sheppard male who is almost 2 years old. He is not yet neutered which I know is one of the problems. ever since he was little he likes to sneak personal belongings of ours into kennel. usually before it was always a shoe & usually my husbands. We would take it away, he never wrecked it and never showed any aggression when we took it away. For the past few months he has been sneaking our socks from the laundry. when my husband is not in the room and I try and take them from him he becomes aggressive and growls. and protects the socks. he has never bit me however I haven’t put myself in that position to see if he would. he stops as soon as my husband comes into the room and my husband can take the sock away. we tried taking the socks and then giving it back and then taking it away and then giving it back as well as tried doing that and giving him treats. unfortunately he is still growing, sometimes quite aggressively in his kennel when he has our socks. I don’t care if he has our socks, he does not trust them but I am concerned about his aggression!other than this, he is my shadow! He follows me everywhere and seems to love me the most, but again he is not nice to me when he is in his kennel with a sock. Even if i just walk by his kennel he will growl. So far nothing has changed. we do need to get him neutered and I am hoping this will make him less aggressive? but, for the most part he is very aggressive. but again only with the sock! He is very well mannered, very smart, very good with our girls and so on!please give me any suggestions! I don’t want him to become more aggressive over other things also!thanks in advance
I am the proud owner of a 10 month old puppy whose mother is Great White Pyranese and Anotolian Shephard and the father is German Shephard! Mia, puppy’s name, is a sweetheart and extremely quick learner. But, in the last month, she has become aggressive towards my boyfriend’s 8 year old Beagle. Started where food was involved, but the last two times Mia has went after the Beagle for no apparent reason. Just today, she went after my 9 year old Shtzu. Over a chew bone. I thought I had them separated by putting them in separate rooms. But Mia left her bone to come take my Shitzu’s bone which resulted in Mia attacking him. I got them separated and placed Mia outside for awhile. Do you have any advise to break Mia of this aggressive behavior? Thank you
Dog behavior is very context dependent, so the temperament, routine, environment, and history of the dogs will all play a role. Things become even more complex when multiple dogs are involved. This is why for food and resource guarding issues involving multiple dogs, I would get help from a good professional trainer.
With my dogs, I set up clear and consistent dog-to-dog interaction rules. For example, there is absolutely no stealing. I supervise my dogs very closely during play-time and meal-time, and I make sure that each dog knows exactly what the rules are. As soon as I notice any dog getting too close to another, I redirect or call one of the dogs away. In this way, I stop things before it escalates into something more serious.
I always supervise when there are valued resources around and I always supervise during meal time. When I give my dogs really high priority chews, they work on it in totally separate areas (e.g. in their crate or in a separate room with the doors closed).
I only let my dogs be alone together when I am absolutely sure that there will be no issues. I also remove all food items and any possible high priority items when I am not around to supervise.
In this way, my dogs know exactly what to expect from each other, what to expect from me, and what I expect from them in return. Management, structure, and consistent rules help to create certainty, and certainty helps to reduce stress, confusion, and conflicts.
The key with helping my dogs get along is to set them up for success. I want to not only maximize positive and rewarding time together but also minimize negative experiences. The more fights they have, the more negative associations they form, and the more likely it will happen again in the future.
More on how I help my dogs get along.
More on how I desensitize my dog to other dogs.
However, in cases where fights have already occurred, it is best and safest to get help from a good professional trainer/behaviorist. Breaking up a dog fight is dangerous, because while in the throes of a fight, a dog may redirect his aggression onto the people who try to restrain him.