Bringing home a new dog or puppy can be just as exciting as it can be overwhelming.
As a pet parent, you are responsible for not only your new best friend’s physical health but for their behavioral health as well. As pet owners, we want to prevent as many unwanted behaviors as we can. Food aggression is one of those (all too common) unwanted behaviors.
Food aggression is rooted in the idea that your approach is something to be feared. Sometimes this fear is genetic and therefore very difficult to prevent. However, food aggression is more frequently a learned behavior. There are many practices on how to prevent food aggression. Unfortunately, a large majority of the methods commonly used to prevent food aggressive behavior only facilitates, or worse, causes it.
One method is to pick up and/or take away your pup’s bowl while they are eating – and then put it back.
By practicing this method you are more likely to teach your dog that if someone approaches you during a meal, you’re going to lose your food. I know I wouldn’t let anyone near my food if that happened every time I sat down to eat; especially if I wasn’t feeling well or I was hungrier than usual.
The more you practice taking their food away, the more they are going to anticipate that you’re coming to take it. In fact, it can harm your relationship with your pup. After all, I wouldn’t trust someone who regularly came by to take my food at every meal.
Another method is to pet your dog while they are eating.
Even if your dog enjoys a good massage or scratch behind the ear, leave them alone while they are trying to eat. After a while, an approach would indicate an annoyance, and therefore a threat, during mealtime.
A less common practice is to put your hand into your dog’s food dish (and maybe move their food around).
This would get really irritating for anyone. Again, this will not teach your dog that good things happen when people are nearby during a meal. Instead, this establishes your approach as a threat to a peaceful meal.
Another idea is that you should feed your dog from your hand instead of from a dish.
This method is not necessarily going to help or hurt. In this scenario, there is no bowl to guard and no food being taken away. Mostly it’s just an unproductive activity unless your dog needs assistance to eat. A better approach to this method would be to set aside a portion from each of your dog’s meals and use that portion as training treats to teach your dog something new. Or, you could put the portion that you set aside in a food toy. Not because either of those things will necessarily prevent food aggression, but they will provide great mental stimulation.
So – what can you do to help prevent food aggression?
Well, instead of just approaching and/or interrupting your dog during a meal, incorporate your approach and presence with something amazing. Bring something extra delicious.
While your pup is eating, walk by and drop a piece of their favorite treat, like hot dog or cheese, into their bowl. By not taking anything your pup doesn’t lose anything. Plus, great things will be associated with your approach during a meal when you reliably bring dessert.
Once more, food aggression is frequently a learned behavior. A dog guarding food is a dog afraid of losing their food. So, instead of giving them something to fear in the first place, just let them eat!
Ann Marie Silverberg
Ann Marie has been working with animals professionally for over a decade. From dogs and cats to pigs and turkeys, her many positions in animal husbandry have taken her from volunteering in animal shelters to veterinary medicine. She recently started her own training and behavior consulting business in Massachusetts, Brainiacs Dog Training.