How I treat food-related aggression in dogs


How I treat food-related aggression in dogs

Dogs that protect their food by stiffening, growling, and even biting can be a danger to family members and other people in their vicinity. But you and owners can implement various techniques and treatments to relieve dogs' anxiety and keep everyone safe.
Apr 01, 2007

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.


1. A dog with a treat exhibits signs of aggression as a person approaches. The dog is tense and hunched down over the food item, with dilated pupils and a slightly lifted lip. A few moments later the dog lunged, growled, and snapped at the person.
Typically, the dog initially stiffens its body, particularly its shoulders and neck, and holds its head downward, hovering over and guarding its food item (Figure 1). The dog's pupils will dilate, and the eyes may widen so that the whites are visible. The dog's eyes may dart about if there are multiple threats or be fixed in a stare on a single threat. The tail position may vary based on breed, but it is often stiff and either down or tucked. The ears are usually pulled slightly back. Piloerection may occur as the threat intensifies. The dog may freeze in this hunched position until the threat intensifies (person gets closer, maintains eye contact).

It is important for owners to recognize the initial signs of their dogs' tension or aggression, such as body stiffening, eye changes, and hunching over the food. If these body postures are noted, the dog is feeling threatened, and if the issue isn't addressed appropriately, the aggression may escalate into growling, snarling, snapping, or biting. Often the dog engages in just enough of an aggressive display to get the person to back away and then returns to the food item it was guarding. If the dog has had the problem for a long time or the owner has tried inappropriate interventions, the aggressive response may become more intense and dangerous.


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.


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.