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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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