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Preventing Aggression over Food
A simple approach is often effective

“I’ve been putting my hand in his food while he’s eating since he was a puppy, so he’s never growled at me over his food.” This sort of comment sets my teeth on edge because repeatedly bothering a dog who is eating is actually an effective technique for teaching dogs to behave aggressively around food, NOT a great way to prevent it. Many such dogs start to growl, snap, or bite when someone comes near their food. It’s like they’re saying, “Enough already. Leave me alone!” If a dog is constantly bothered while eating but never displays food bowl aggression, it shows that he’s a great dog, not that harassing him was a good idea.

The natural response of many dogs when you approach, reach for, or take away their food is some canine version of, “Hey! It’s mine! Back off!” Creating a response that’s the canine equivalent of, “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, here she comes!” is a great way to prevent dogs from developing food bowl aggression.

You want your dog to feel happy when you approach him while he’s eating, and even when you reach toward his bowl or take it away. Dogs who are happy about your approach are not going to growl or snap to get you to leave.

If you regularly walk by a dog who is eating and toss a treat to him, you are teaching him to anticipate a treat whenever you approach him at his food bowl. Once he learns that your approach predicts something good, he’ll be happy to see you coming.

To begin, walk by your dog as he eats and toss a treat without stopping. Do this only 1-2 times during any feeding session and don’t do it every time your dog is eating. Overdoing it can cause a dog to feel irritable, the same way many people feel in a restaurant when a waiter refills the water glass after every sip.

If your dog begins to look up in anticipation when you approach, he is ready for the next step, which is to walk towards him, stop, toss the treat, and then walk away. The step after that is to reach towards the bowl, toss a treat and then walk away, and the last step is to pick up the bowl, put a few extra treats into it, and then give it back to your dog before walking away. It usually takes a few days to several weeks to work through each successive step.

This technique can prevent food bowl aggression. If your dog is already behaving aggressively around his food, or if at any point in this process your dog shows signs of aggression or tension (such as stiffening, growling, eating faster, hovering over the bowl, snapping, or showing his teeth), stop and seek help from a qualified trainer or behaviorist.

The result of this process is a sentiment that’s a joy for me to hear: “My dog doesn’t growl over his food because I taught him to love it when I come near him while he’s eating!”

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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Submitted by Anonymous | July 19 2011 |

I strongly disagree with giving the dog a treat... you're teaching the dog to be affectionate towards you by bribing it. Have an expectation of the dog, give the dog a pat on the head or something.. but not a treat. The dog should be happy to see you, because you're their owner, not because you have something to bribe him with.

Submitted by DeAnna | July 19 2011 |

The bribing comment always sets my teeth on edge =)

Submitted by Anonymous | July 19 2011 |

You're absolutely wrong, anonymous. First of all, dogs don't think the way you're anthropomorphically describing. The point of tossing a treat isn't about making the dog 'more affectionate', and it's not bribery, (dogs don't know what bribery is, fwiw) it's creating a learned response. Person approaches while eating = great things happen (more food!). Next time person approaches, expect good things to continue happening. Classical conditioning.

I suppose you might be the best dog owner ever, and your dog's response to being patted on the head while eating *might* override any "happiness" they may be "feeling" at your arrival, but then again, if the dog is thoroughly enjoying its meal, and somebody keeps invading its personal space to touch it on the head, it might eventually associate the approach of a person with 'invasion of space, no reward', because the level of reward from a pat on the head isn't near the level of the food reward. If there was any tendency to resource guard, I'd be willing to bet it would be reinforced over time without a food (or something better) reward.

Submitted by Dog trainer | July 19 2011 |

Good article! Anonymous I strongly disagree with you. Wanting to be with you is about relationship building and ultimately reinforcement for the dog. Dogs don't understand the concept of "owner" nor does being their owner create an automatic love or respect for the owner by the dog!

Food is a primary reinforcement for the dog...a dog at the food bowl isn't necessarily going to see "a pat on the head or something" as better as or good as e food in it's bowl and therefor your approach will not be a positive rewarding one. In fact you've missed part of the point of the article! A pat on the head is an approach while the dog is at the food bowl without anything Good in the approach for the dog! (unless you've conditioned the dog that a Pat is a really good thing...which for most dogs it really isn't! ) instead you need a high value reward. Something equal to or greater than the food in the bowl in order for this technique to be worthwhile!

Personally I tell most people to just let their dogs eat in peace! In all my years of living with and training (30+) dogs I've never had to teach a dog to accept my approach and I've never had a dog possessive of food or toys. But if you do, the suggestions in is article are right on target for solving the problems!

Submitted by Julie J | July 19 2011 |

The idea is to create a positive association; after the initial practice, you can fade the food reward, and the good association remains.

Submitted by Frances | July 19 2011 |

Anonymous - Now why on earth should a dog be happy to see some human just because they have paid out money to purchase it? Dogs like people who provide Good Stuff for Dogs - walks, games, back rubs, and FOOD. A pat on the head while eating is more of an annoyance than anything else; a piece of chicken or cheese is a wonderful surprise. I rarely bribe my dogs - but I frequently reward them for good behaviour, and for just being wonderful companions. (And they are delighted when I approach them during meals, just in case a little extra is on its way!)

Submitted by Specialty Pet T... | July 19 2011 |

Rewards and treats are not bribes. The definition of bribe "is to entice or persuade". Rewarding and treating the dog for good behavior is giving the dog something he likes for a job well done. In this case - enjoying his food bowl and not being bothered by you walking around him or being near by! As always a great article Bark! I will be sharing it!

Submitted by JC | July 21 2011 |

Do you have any recommendations for a dog who has water bowl aggression? It doesn't happen when I go near her, but when another dog approaches, she shows her teeth. I want to tackle to problem now.

Submitted by Anonymous | July 28 2011 |

Great article. My husband and I had the same thought of putting our hand in the bowl as if she was sharing her food with us or vice versa. Then when we started puppy class they taught us the way you say to do it basically. Put treats in her bowl as you approached.
With our male dog he's completely different. He's fine with humans but not other dogs. He is very possesive over food, treats, and toys from other dogs. Please write and article about how to help that. He's 1 1/2 now.

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