How I treat food-related aggression in dogs
Diagnosing food-related aggression in dogs is fairly straightforward—the history reveals that a dog in possession or proximity of a food item directs a threat or harmful action toward another with the intent of backing that individual away from the food item.1 Some dogs aggress over only certain types of food or treats (e.g. palatable human food, rawhide), while others aggress around any food item or even an empty food bowl. The specific actions of a dog during a food-aggressive event can vary from low-level threats such as body stiffening to high-intensity aggression such as biting.
SIGNS OF FOOD-RELATED AGGRESSION
ARE OTHER AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIORS PRESENT?
While the scope of this article is limited to food-related aggression, you should also ask clients about other circumstances in which the dog shows aggressive behavior. If such circumstances are identified, the dog's behavior in those situations must also be addressed. In many cases, you will identify a common thread in the triggers for aggression, such as the dog perceiving a threat to a variety of valuable resources. Those resources may include resting spots, personal space, or toys. It is critical to remember that while an owner's intent is not to threaten the resource, the dog's perspective regarding the owner's action is what is important. Questions relating to the dog's overall confidence and behavior in various situations will also help discern a potential underlying motivation for the aggression. A dog that is nervous or anxious in other situations may be more anxious about activity around its valued food resource.
IS FOOD AGGRESSION A QUESTION OF DOMINANCE?
Based on a dog's history of food-related aggression, some owners will immediately characterize the dog as a dominant, or alpha, dog, implying that the dog is the leader of the household; however, this characterization is too simplistic.2 While some of these dogs may be confident dogs that compete for the food resource by using aggression since neither party involved will defer, many food-aggressive dogs show some ambivalence or fearful or uncertain behaviors either during the event or in other contexts. This behavior suggests that many food-aggressive dogs are motivated by fear and anxiety and are not confident leaders.