How I treat food-related aggression in dogs - Veterinary Medicine
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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.




The best treatment for food-related aggression is avoidance (i.e. avoid placing the dog in situations in which it is likely to aggress). Often by the time an owner reports the problem to a veterinarian, the dog is so stressed around the food item that any intervention at that point will fail. For some dogs, avoidance can be a lifelong program. For others, the situation will dictate behavioral modification, but that should not be instituted until the owner has used avoidance for a period sufficient to reduce the dog's anxiety, usually a minimum of four weeks.

For a dog that aggresses around its own food bowl, avoidance is relatively simple to implement. The dog is fed its meals behind a secure, closed door. Once the dog has finished eating, it is let out of the room, and the owner can retrieve the bowl and any remaining food when the dog is not in the vicinity.

If a dog aggresses with long-lasting food treats (e.g. rawhide), then these treats should no longer be given. If the dog needs an outlet for appropriate oral activity, other lower-value items can be tried. If these fail to interest the dog or they evoke aggression, then either the dog should not receive long-lasting food treats at all or the dog should only receive them when secured behind a closed door. Giving the dog nonfood-related outlets for play and exploration such as toys and leashed walks may reduce its need for oral activity.

For dogs that aggress only around dropped human food, avoidance and a "drop-it" command can be used. Situations likely to generate triggers should be avoided. Household food rules for people may be required such as only eating at a table or segregating the dog from all food preparation and eating areas. If a food item does come into the dog's possession, removal should not even be attempted, since in many instances the risk associated with the dog consuming the food item is lower than the risk associated with attempted removal.

The "drop-it" or "leave-it" command gives owners a constructive option to recover items from their dogs. For this command to work in situations involving food, it must first be mastered in less-challenging situations. Most dogs can learn these commands with a reward-based training approach. Most obedience programs and basic obedience books outline steps to accomplish this task. Once well-established, the command can be an effective way to handle potentially aggressive situations.

Another removal option is bribery, which may be prudent in situations in which the dog is at risk of injury from ingesting the item and does not have a reliable "drop-it" command established. In this case, the dog is shown a more palatable item and then is lured away from the dangerous food item. Once a barrier separates the dog from the dangerous item, the dog is given the bribe, and another person can retrieve the dangerous item. Using bribery on a routine basis is not advised since it ultimately rewards the aggressive behavior.

Desensitization and counterconditioning

For many dogs, desensitization and counterconditioning is not necessary; avoidance is a superior long-term treatment option. Some risk is involved with desensitization and counterconditioning since a misstep could result in aggression and injury to the owners. It is best not to attempt this treatment until avoidance strategies have been implemented successfully and at least a month has passed without confrontations over food items.

To start, identify a training gradient, which may include such things as the value of the food item (start with low-value items) or owner distance from the dog or food item (start far away). The basic premise is to keep the dog below its aggression threshold by using gradients and rewarding the dog for nonaggressive behavior. With success, the gradients can be gradually adjusted to increase the relative threat to the dog but always keeping the threat below the aggression threshold. With continued rewards for owner approach and nonaggressive behavior, the dog learns that owner proximity to the food item is not a threat and is actually rewarding.

For example, if a dog exhibits aggression when the owner comes within a 5-ft radius of its food bowl, the owner should start by placing the bowl on the floor with a small amount of food. The owner then approaches but stops 6 ft from the dog or bowl. With the dog calm and relaxed, the owner tosses it a fabulous small treat. The owner then retreats and repeats the sequence. Over multiple sessions, the owner should be able to gradually get closer to the dog and its food bowl without evoking a negative response.


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