4 Steps to Safely Handle Food Aggression in Dogs

Dog food guarding is a serious issue that needs to be addressed with positive training methods.

Published March 18, 2023
Aggressive dog eating

Food aggression in dogs is a serious problem that can lead to injury. This behavior may occur when there's more than one dog in the home, when a puppy is learning to share food with their littermates and siblings, or when a dog becomes territorial about their bowl of food. Take all cases of aggression seriously, because people and dogs can get hurt if the food-aggressive dog acts out and bites. Consider hiring a behavior specialist to help if your dog is experiencing this behavioral issue.

Signs of Food Aggression in Dogs

Food aggression is a type of behavior dogs can display when they feel threatened by another person or animal who approaches their food or bowl. It's important to note that this behavior does not always mean the dog will bite, but it is an indication that the dog feels threatened and may react aggressively if provoked further.

Signs of food aggression in dogs include:

  • Aggressive body language. If your dog is showing their teeth, have erect fur, or are standing rigid stance, with eyes fixed or whale eye, they're showing you overt signs of aggression.
  • Growling or vocalization. Dogs who bark at you and growl when you approach their food bowl are telling you to stay away.
  • Snapping/biting. Finally, if a dog lunges or opens their mouth and tries to bite you if you reach for their bowl, they are displaying overt food aggression.

None of these behaviors are acceptable. Your dog should remain calm, even if you come up and take their food away. Food aggression and guarding can be dangerous, so don't take these symptoms lightly.

Fast Fact

Food aggression is only one type of resource guarding. The other two are rapid ingestion - where a dog eats as quickly as possible - and avoidance - where a dog positions their body or head to prevent others from taking their high-value item.

Understanding Resource Guarding

Resource guarding is a set of behaviors dogs display when they are anxious or fearful of losing something they value highly. Aggression is only one possible outcome of this behavior. Some people assume that dogs are naturally aggressive around food, but this is not true. Dogs who show food aggression do so because they have learned to guard their food or simply because they have never been taught how to eat politely.

Resource guarding that leads to aggression is characterized by growling, snarling, lunging, snapping, and biting at the person or dog who attempts to take away what the dog considers its property. Resource guarding often occurs with dog food, feeding bowls, and treats or chew toys, but anything your dog is possessive of can trigger the behavior.

This isn't a dominance-based behavior, either. Your dog is simply trying to prevent you or someone else from taking away something they value. The causes of resource guarding aren't always clear. Some dogs who are raised in stressful environments, such as puppy mills, may have had to compete for food. Other dogs may not have been socialized properly at an early age. Some dogs are just insecure.

Fast Fact

Dogs who display resource guarding do so differently around dogs versus people. With other dogs, they may eat rapidly or show avoidance, while these cues may not appear when only people are around.

Managing Food Aggression in Dogs

There are several ways to manage food aggression in dogs:

  • Step 1: Determine the Cause. The first step is to figure out why your dog is behaving this way. It could be a simple case of resource guarding, where the dog feels that they need to protect food from other animals or people. It might also be a case of territorial aggression if you have multiple dogs in the house and they don't always get along well enough to share their food resources. Or, it could be due to separation anxiety if your dog has issues with being alone at home for long periods of time.
  • Step 2: Try positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement involves rewarding your dog for not exhibiting aggressive behaviors. For example, if your dog does not bite or growl when you reach for their food bowl during mealtime, give them a treat and praise them for being calm and well-behaved. This type of training takes patience, but can be very effective over time if done consistently.
  • Step 3: Desensitization. This involves exposing your dog gradually and safely to situations that trigger their food aggression, such as other dogs eating out of bowls, so they become less reactive about it over time. Start by just standing near your dog during feeding. Next, talk to them. The goal is to eventually - over a long period of time - get to the point where you can touch your dog's bowl without provoking a reaction. This process requires careful planning so as not to overwhelm or frighten your pet. Otherwise, it could backfire by making matters worse rather than better!
  • Step 4: Counter-conditioning. Counter-conditioning is another option. It involves changing what happens when someone approaches the bowl while your dog eats. For instance, by giving treats. The goal here is replacing negative feelings with positive ones through association between these two events so that ultimately there aren't any strong associations between them anymore at all.

Whatever you do, don't become angry or try to punish your dog for showing good aggression. They interpret this behavior as you showing them aggression, and at best they'll just be confused. At worst, they might become more aggressive. Punishment almost always exacerbates food aggression behaviors. It is better to ignore a dog showing food aggression and work to use positive training methods to counter the behavior.

General Tips

Resource guarding can be particularly difficult to deal with, because training to reduce the behavior involves complicated behavior modification. If you aren't having success, it's time to call in a canine behavior expert or your veterinarian. In addition to taking the steps outlined above, there are some general tips to help prevent or manage food aggression in dogs:

  • Make sure that your dog has plenty of toys and exercise. this will help prevent them from becoming bored and frustrated.
  • When feeding your dog, don't look at them while they eat. Focus on something else instead. This will help prevent them from becoming territorial over the food bowl or dish.
  • The best way to deal with food aggression in dogs is to begin training early so that your puppy learns how to interact with people and other dogs without resorting to biting or mouthing. If you have a large breed, you should start training before they reach 4 months of age, because larger puppies have more strength than their smaller counterparts.

A Serious Problem

Food aggression in dogs is a serious issue. Your dog may be aggressive toward you, other dogs, or even people in general. Never try to punish your dog for food aggression. This is almost always counterproductive, and food aggression is often made worse with punishment because dogs become even more protective. The best approach is to focus on socialization early and avoid letting resource guarding and food aggression become a problem. Try positive reinforcement and counter conditioning, but if you aren't successful, it's best to call a professional for help.

4 Steps to Safely Handle Food Aggression in Dogs