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
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).
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.
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.
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