How I treat food-related aggression in dogs
IS FOOD AGGRESSION ABNORMAL?
When dealing with aggression, it can help to consider just how pathologic the behavior actually is. Although food aggression is undesirable in a pet, it may not be aberrant for a dog to protect a food resource from a perceived threat. Food is necessary for survival, and when a primary resource is threatened, aggression may be a viable way to remove the threat. When the aggressive behavior is successful, the dog experiences negative reinforcement (aggression drives away the threatening stimulus), and the behavior is more likely to be repeated.3 Instead of debating whether food aggression is truly deviant behavior, the more pertinent issue is how owners may aggravate their dogs' inherent drive to protect food and therefore escalate the problem.
DO OWNERS CREATE FOOD AGGRESSION?Owners may inadvertently exacerbate their dogs' protective or aggressive behavior around food items in several ways.
Feeding palatable food
Giving dogs highly palatable food may elevate their desire to protect it.
Allowing free-choice feeding
Providing free-choice food or long-lasting food items (e.g. rawhide) may cause a pet to constantly protect the food resource. Free-choice feeding also creates more potential threats to the food item—if food is present all the time, then people in the home are more likely to inadvertently or intentionally violate the item.
A competing argument is that by making food available at all times, it reduces its value and, thus, a dog's need to protect it. Given ad libitum access to food, dogs will generally eat a few meals during daylight hours,4 so dogs on too infrequent of a feeding schedule (e.g. one meal a day) may get hungry between meals, thus making the food more valuable.
A dog's underlying temperament and the palatability of the food item may dictate how free-choice feeding affects food aggression.
Feeding in a busy location
Pet feeding locations are often in highly trafficked household zones (e.g. in the kitchen), which may inadvertently create a scenario in which the dog feels constant threats as family members walk near its food.
Using inappropriate prevention techniques
Some of the standard recommendations to prevent food aggression in puppies may actually create the problem in dogs with a high food drive or a nervous temperament. One common recommendation is to take the food bowl away periodically as the pup eats. However, in my experience, the only thing that this action teaches the pup is that something undesirable is likely to happen when people approach as it is eating—they may snatch the food. Even if the removal of food is paired with a reward, the dog may still consider the abrupt removal of its food more threatening than any benefits from the reward.
Another common suggestion is to sit with a hand in the pup's bowl as it eats, thus getting it habituated to the close presence of people during meal times. Once again, a dog with a nervous temperament or a high food drive may consider this action too threatening and become sensitized (more reactive) instead of habituated (less reactive) to the situation.
Some clients may appreciate that these situations are analogous to dining out with an overeager waiter who hovers around the table and attempts to remove your plate when you take a brief respite from eating. If the waiter does this with each course, you may become tense every time the waiter approaches your table, even if it is only to refill your water or breadbasket. In fact, you may alter your body posture to guard your plate, especially the dessert! While it is unlikely that most people would lash out at the waiter, it is not improbable for the diner to complain to the maitre d' or leave a minimal tip. The dog's communication tools are limited and less inhibited by social etiquette, so aggression may be the equivalent response from the dog toward the owner who is threatening its meal.