Use “THIS” For Food Aggression in Dogs, or Hate Yourself Later

Food aggression in dogs, also known as possession aggression, is a fairly common behavior in canines… especially if they’re in the act of eating, and it is a frightening problem most people simply don’t understand! We giggle and laugh when we see the dog on video who bites his own foot as it creeps closer and closer to his food bowl or chewy. However, dog food aggression and resource guarding is not funny and can and does lead to serious bites and injury! In fact, over 4.7 million dog bites happen every year, and a LARGE percentage of them are because dogs' guarding behavior was left unaddressed. It's important to note that this behavior will not go away on its own!

Often people don’t deal with these types of behavior problems until they are forced to. They assume that it is normal for their dog to stiffen, glare, growl, snarl and position himself between you and his food bowl whenever he eats. They simply vow never to enter the same room or the space when their dog is eating. But, resource guarding often escalates and becomes an even bigger problem as it leads to other items in the house and eventually to dogs being abandoned to a shelter or euthanized… when it could have been prevented.

One day your dog might just be guarding his food, but as he is successful at keeping you away, it often escalates to his chewies, his toys, his bed, YOUR bed, or even food that you are cooking for the family.

I shudder to think what would happen if a dog like this stole a 4 year old’s Barbie and was chased down by the child! At this point, when the dog begins to guard more items or after there has been a bite incident, the owner realizes that the problem is out of control, but waiting too long makes it more difficult to change!

Puppy Food Aggression

This is the easiest type of canine aggression to treat and cure. If your puppy snatches items and runs and hides them from you, growls at you when you try to take them, or growls at you over food or chewies, you must take this behavior seriously and deal with it early. This behavior is NOT normal, but can be almost totally resolved if it is dealt with early enough and behavior modification is consistently applied.

We start to get rid of this problem with a game we like to call the Elevator Game. It’s a game that helps dogs learn that if they follow our rules, there’s no risk to having their food taken away.

Here’s the beauty of this game:

The Elevator Game is an exercise that gives dog owners a way to teach their dogs how to get what they want WITHOUT having to resort to growling, or food stealing. Not only is it a great first step for teaching dogs to not be resource guarders, but it's also a great step in teaching your dog how to stop stealing food off the table, or eating out of the garbage. Plus it doesn’t take any extra time to train, because it is best trained around your family's meal times, when food is present.

Here’s how it works…

Step 1: Take a piece of food that your dog likes and put it on a plate at your table. It is helpful to train this behavior where your family normally eats, as you’ll see later.

Step 2: Lower the plate with the food down to your dog so that it's about halfway between the table top and your dog’s mouth, and pause.

Step 3: Notice how my puppy LOCKS his eyes onto the food, because he wants it so bad. One of the reasons he does this is because he lacks what we call impulse control. Impulse control is the ability to control your impulsive behaviors around things that get you really excited. Most dogs, and especially puppies, are HORRIBLE at this. When your dog does this, raise the food back up. This helps teach the dog that being food obsessed makes the food go away.

So the goal for dogs with poor impulse control is to give them an alternate behavior they can do to get the food they want. The behavior we like to ask for is ‘eye contact’. We like to use eye contact because it is not only good for working with food in your home, but by training your dog to be good at eye contact with this exercise, we start to teach him the habit of checking in with us during other exciting areas of his life too, like when he sees other dogs, rabbits, cats, postmen etc.

Luckily for us this is taught in a very simple way…

Hold the plate halfway between your dog’s mouth and the top of the table until your dog looks you in the eye. Most dogs will eventually get frustrated with the plate not moving down closer to them, and look to you with a ‘what’s the deal, when are you going to start feeding me?’ look.

The key is to be ready for it…

And the second the dog takes even the quickest of glimpses towards you, start to lower the plate. Don’t lower it all the way though! Instead, slowly lower it while the dog is making eye contact with you.

Step 4: Stop lowering the plate when your dog breaks eye contact with you

In this image, I made it all the way so that the plate was on the ground, but the second the plate hit the ground, the dog got up and went for the food.

This is NOT the kind of impulse control we want. We do not want to get dogs into the habit of going for something the second it hits the floor. Just because it's on the floor should NOT mean they can have it. Instead, it should mean they ‘ASK’ you if they can have it.

So when my dog broke eye contact with me and went for the food, the ‘elevator’ went back up and out of reach (just like in this picture). No free feedings; they must ALL be earned!

(notice how my dog is still locked onto the food as it went up)

Step 5: Try to get eye contact the entire time you are lowering the plate

If you look at this image, do you see how the dog is looking me directly in the eye and NOT at the food?

THIS is the behavior we want: the dog building up enough impulse control to UNLOCK his gaze from the food that he wants to look at us. And if he can do this the whole time we are lowering the plate to the ground, we will be off to a really good start when it comes to teaching some self control around food, so we have a chance of stopping food aggression in dogs.

What about dogs that already have food and are guarding it?

To fix food guarding behavior in a dog who already has something, like a bone he dug out of the garbage or his meal, the first step is to learn how to read your dog’s body language so you can identify when he is upset.

We have an article on how to read dog body language here, you should check out. There are several body postures you need to know how to spot that will help you realize your dog is guarding something. Dogs often take things like bones and hide them from you, so its VERY important (especially if you have children) that you learn how to quickly identify guarding behavior so you can prevent a terrible bite accident with your child.

Once you know how to identify what guarding dogs actually look like, let’s talk about what you DON’T want to do with a dog who’s food aggressive.

Do NOT attempt to pry the item from your dog’s mouth or hit your dog until he drops the item.

To your dog, this is seen as a direct threat. Some people like to teach you to take the dogs lips and push them against his teeth so that the pain causes him to drop the item. This only makes your dog feel MORE justified to guard his resources harder the next time someone tries to steal them from him.

Instead you need to take a different approach…

Teaching Your Dog the ‘Give it Up to Get it’ Principle

The 'Give it Up to Get it' principle is all about teaching your dog that the way to get something isn’t to just demand it with force, but to instead realize that he can get things faster or better if he does what we ask him to do first. And our goal is to help you teach your dog this concept so well that he will literally spit food out of his mouth in order to obey you, because we turn feeding your dog into a fun game of ‘what am I going to get’ vs. ‘what do I have to protect’.

It’s a REALLY cool dog behavior to train.

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To train this behavior correctly, especially with a dog that’s already showing food aggression behavior, we recommend starting with something of lower value than food, like an average toy, and teaching your dog the 'Spit it Out' command.

If you’re not sure how to train this behavior, we have a free downloadable training guide you can download and print off that shows you how to get dogs to drop items.

Click here to download

Once your dog can spit an item out with the words ‘drop it’, we are ready for the next step.

Dropping Higher Value Objects

The key to getting your dog to drop higher value objects is to teach him that he gets really fun things if he drops items when you ask.

For example, my dog loves bacon, so I make sure I have a bunch of crumbled bacon in my resealable treat bag. When my dog drops something low value like a ball, I give him bacon. And since to my dog bacon is BETTER than a ball, it starts to build the habit of realizing that "Dad makes life better if I drop things when he asks".

By consistently building this pattern of asking for ‘drop its’ and giving high value rewards, the dog builds up an expectation that dropping things leads to better situations.

So start with lower value objects and work up the chain of difficulty. For example, start with a ball, then get him to drop a boredom chew toy (these are good because dogs aren’t super AMPED up when they just want to get a good chew on). Next, up the ante and work on getting your dog to drop a higher value toy like a tug toy while you’re holding it; then get him to drop it while you’re playing with it. Keep working with different items until finally you can start to work on your dog dropping actual food.

And, with a little patience, most dogs will learn to happily spit out some kibble in exchange for some bacon or Freeze-Dried Meat treats.

Teaching Food Aggressive Dogs to ‘Give Up Food Control’

If you’ve done everything up to this point and your dog is still exhibiting signs of food guarding, here’s what you need to do.

(First, please understand that before you can start this step you should have a dog who has started to build some impulse control around feeding times with the Elevator Game, and who also understands what ‘Drop It’ means. You should never put yourself in a situation where you are afraid of being bitten if you were to feed your dog out of your hand. This strategy is for dogs before they get to this point. If you do not feel comfortable with your dog eating from your hand, even when he’s away from his food bowl, then you should seek out the help of a Veterinary Behaviorist who can help get your dog back to a workable point.)

IF you are comfortable with your dog eating treats out of your hand, the next step we recommend is:

Start by putting a 6-10 foot leash on your dog right before you give his meal.

We recommend putting the leash on your dog so that if your dog starts to guard his resources, you don’t need to have a direct confrontation to regain control.

The leash should be long enough that if your dog is actively guarding an item, you can walk up to the end of his leash to gain control of your dog, instead of having a head on close encounter. This helps your dog feel less concerned about you stealing what he has.

Then what we recommend is taking a really high value food reward… again… we like BACON, and teaching your dog what we like to call the "OUT" command. The out command is for a dog who’s in the act of eating to take his head “OUT” of the food bowl and come to get a special treat.

Here’s a great video that shows you how to teach the "OUT" command:

To start off, make sure that you use tie outs or a restraint, like they did in this video, for safety. Tie-outs would prevent big dogs like this from lunging out and breaking free of the leash in the other persons grasp. I personally would rather have the leash tied to something sturdier than a guy's arm, but either way, tie outs prevent dog bites. If you're going to be doing the training outdoors, here's some tie out options to consider.

Train the dog to ask for food with a behavior

It is critical that dogs with resource guarding issues learn they can’t just growl for what they want. This dog trainer chose to use the down command to get her dog to hold a down stay before food was presented. While it obviously worked for her, we like the Elevator Game slightly better because we want the dog to learn how to recognize cues in his environment, and not only obey a trainer who is giving commands.

We believe a dog is capable of interpreting that a situation where there’s a bowl full of food means he should make eye contact with us, if he wants us to lower the bowl and feed him his meals. And we like eye contact because it forces the dog to mentally disengage with the thought of eating food, vs. the dog in the video having to be retold to stay. Either way you go about it though, this trainer's method still worked because it followed the principle of asking the dog to do something to earn its food.

Make the Dog Wait for Permission to Eat

Once your dog is asking you nicely with a sit, stay, or down for his food, make sure that your dog will hold his stay even if you put the food down and step away. Do not let him decide on his own when he wants to break his stay and start eating. Dogs need to be given permission to have access to the food.

Reward Your Dog for Stopping His Eating

Next, make sure you have those really high value dog treats on hand, walk away from the dog's food bowl, and ask your dog to come get some extra treats.

Also Teach Your Dog to Expect You to ADD Treats to His Bowl

Spend half your time not just calling your dog away from his bowl for treats, but by walking over and adding treats to his bowl while he’s eating. This allows your dog to change his perception about you approaching his food bowl to one of excitement for ‘goodies’ instead of paranoia.

IMPORTANT: For this to work, it is CRITICAL that you work your dog at what we call SUB THRESHOLD.

A common mistake people make is to approach a dog who’s growling when you come near its food bowl, and then show it a TREAT to try to get it to stop growling. This is NOT what the video above is demonstrating. In the video, all the treats are being given AFTER the dog has shown good behavior. That’s why we start with getting the dog to show good behavior to even have access to his food bowl in the first place. For example… the gal in the video mentions that in the beginning, the dog was going ballistic even when she tried to fill his food bowl. If this is the case with you, what I recommend is INCREASING the distance between you filling up the food bowl and the dog who’s tied down across the room.

If the dog is still acting poorly even though he’s across the room, go outside for the training and continue to increase the distance between you and your dog until the behavior stops being aggressive.

Remember, Distance Reduces Resource Guarding. The further away your dog is from something it wants, the less aggressive he will be. Spend your time training him at distances that don’t have him snarling, and slowly build up his behaviors, getting closer and closer until your dog can behave appropriately at closer distances.

Dog to Dog Food Aggression

This can also be a problem in multi-pet households. The good news about dog aggression is it is usually not transferable, meaning that if your dog is aggressive toward other dogs or cats while eating it does not necessarily mean he will be aggressive with you. Vice versa is also true. And, although this is good news, aggression is never okay!  Food aggression with other animals must also be dealt with, or it may lead to fights or even a fatality. Animals must be separated if they cannot be controlled!

As always, the first step to stopping this type of aggression is to learn how to spot it early, like this video shows you how to do:

One great way to stop dog to dog food aggression is by training your dog the OUT command.

Stopping Food Aggression in Dogs

This is possible if positive training techniques are employed. Enlisting negative training techniques like punishment, leash corrections, and physical control often leads to bites and heightened aggression. Never use aggression to treat aggression! Even if you are successful in changing how your dog feels and reacts to you around his bowl, he may not feel the same if a toddler wanders by!

Safety is the most important component to ensure you, your other dogs, animals, or children do not get bitten. You must teach your pet how to act and react when he has something he finds valuable, by teaching him good behaviors and therefore being able to reward them. Positive reinforcement training teaches your dog that if he does what you want, by leaving the object in question or maintaining good, nonthreatening behaviors, he will be rewarded with a much more spectacular incentive. He realizes that good behavior is the key to everything he wants in life.

But if you do not feel like you can safely do the exercises in this article...

...please, please, please, seek the help of an Animal Behaviorist who specializes in dog aggression. They will help you get your dog to the point where you can manage this dangerous behavior by running your dog through a detailed behavior evaluation and showing you all of the more advanced medical options that are available to you for handling canine aggression. Just don’t pick a behaviorist that uses shock collars.

This type of training, along with all kinds of pet aggression rehabilitation, requires a high level of obedience training. As daunting as obedience training sounds now, it is the key to good behavior and bonding with your dog. Obedience should not be seen as something negative or something to just be accomplished for a short period of time. Dog training, and especially rehabilitation and behavior modification, is a lifestyle and can be lots of fun for both dog and owner as you learn to work together toward a common goal! Plus it saves dogs lives by preventing them from going to a shelter. For more information on food aggression in dogs, check out this post!

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