Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
You may be making your dog food-aggressive without even realizing it. This behavior is usually the result of an owner who controls his/her pet in all situations, even when that pet is eating. To remedy the problem, you must first regain your dog's trust.
How to Get Rid of Food Aggression in Dogs
So what should you do? Should you just let him be? No. You have to make him understand that you are the one who provides the food and that you are someone to thank rather than someone to fear. How do you accomplish this?
1. Stop Free-Feeding All Day
Only feed your pooch twice a day. You can also train your dog to understand impulse control by asking him to sit before you give him his food bowl. This helps him understand that you are the food provider and that you're not trying to take his food away.
2. Do Something Trustworthy
Do something constructive to build trust. I suggest trying to add food to his bowl.
Let's say you are walking by, and your dog growls at you because he doesn't want to be bothered. Stand at a distance where he will not growl at you and casually toss him a treat. Make sure you toss the treat only when he is not growling. Do this every day, and try to get closer and closer. If you do this diligently every day, your dog will no longer greet you with a growl but, rather, with a wagging tail in anticipation of a treat!
Note: Never back away from a growling dog. Just stop proceeding and wait until he calms down. Once he is calm, then you can leave. By going away when he growls, the dog only learns that growling works!
Your dog will learn two vital things:
- That you are the provider of his food.
- That you are fair because once you give him the food he earns, you let him eat in peace. Plus, you give him treats as you walk by!
After using the correctional method above, your dog will likely look up at you drooling instead of baring his teeth.
Can This Method Work for Toy Aggression?
The same approach may be used in dogs that are toy-aggressive. Instead of taking a toy away to punish a growling dog, teach him the ''trade game."
How the "Trade Game" Works
- Tell your pooch to give up the toy, and, in exchange, you offer him a treat. He will likely drop the toy for the item he wants more (food).
- With time, your dog will trust you and you will trust him.
As safe as a dog may appear to be, never let children get near one that is eating, sleeping, or playing with a toy! Do not approach any dog unexpectedly and do not remove food from its mouth. Practice caution!
Why Does My Dog Growl at Me When He Is Eating?
I am writing this article because I get several questions from people asking me how to train their dog to be less food-aggressive. Many of these e-mails, regrettably, give glimpses into the same incorrect training dynamics, and the owners always appear to be quite surprised when their dog is incapable of lowering his food guarding, no matter how hard they work on it.
Here is a sample letter:
I have a 2-year-old Labrador that loves us very much and is a really good dog under most aspects. We only have one problem, and it is his food aggression. No matter how hard I work on it, he will not get better. What can I do?
Of course, I replied to her asking for further details on what she had done so far and how she has handled the situation.
This was her reply:
We have been feeding her and petting her as she ate since she was a puppy. We worked really hard in making her understand that when we are close to her food we give her lots of love. But every time we put our hands in her food bowl, she will growl and try to bite.
After reading her response, everything was crystal clear to me. By petting and sticking her hands in this poor dog's food bowl, she was creating an aggressive, food-guarding dog. Surprisingly, this literature of petting dogs while they eat and sticking your hands in their food bowl is widespread. I'm not sure where it comes from, but it is completely wrong!
First of all, it is very frustrating for a dog and goes against his primal needs. Before we had domesticated canines, there was no such thing as one dog bothering another dog while eating. If you watch a group of wild canines eat, you will notice that they each maintain a certain distance and respect each others' spaces. This is a very important rule in their society, and not even a higher-ranking wolf would bother a lower-ranking one while it is eating. Dogs are certainly not wolves, but it is typical in the animal kingdom for animals to want to eat in peace and maintain space.
As humans, we do not appreciate being repeatedly touched as we are about to eat a juicy steak. Imagine someone putting their hands in your dish. You would think that he/she is extremely rude! So why would a dog find it acceptable?
By petting and sticking your hands in your dog's food bowl, you are simply reinforcing his worst fears: the risk of being bothered and having his food taken away. It's also important to note that pushing his food bowl out of the way is also unacceptable. It only teaches the dog that you are a threat. In a dog's mind, he is thinking, "I guess I must resort to growling because my owner is rude and bothers me by sticking his hands in my food and taking my food away."
So how can you tell if your dog fears you? Sometimes you will get mixed signals. Your dog may become tense when you walk towards him, but when you pet him, he may wag his tail because he craves attention. At other times, he will growl at you. It's almost as if the dog is saying, "Yes, owner, I like you, but please get away from my food and let me eat in peace."
A food-aggressive dog is one that does not trust you. By bothering him or touching his food while he eats, you are simply reinforcing his worst fear that his food will be taken away. Therefore, anytime you are near his food, he sees you as threat.
If you patiently follow the method above, you will soon become a friend and not a foe. Expect great things to come!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2009 Adrienne Farricelli
Heldi on July 07, 2015:
If that could only be possible...
Greetings from Split, Croatia!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 06, 2015:
Thank you, looks like you are on the right path! if we were closer I would have been happy to help, best wishes.
Heldi on July 06, 2015:
Thank you for quick and thorough response! I understand how training/working under threshold works, I use it in other situations in park(before he engages in non desired behaviours such as group chasing one dog, barking on dogs passing by the fence etc) or on walks, it works perfectly. I am also aware what behaviour modification should look like and I appreciate your advice for professional help because it would be impossible and too risky to do it in the park.
P.S. I love your hubs, very detailed and informative, real treasure on world wide web!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 05, 2015:
This is one of those cases where having a professional guide you through is best. As you mention, the behavior can be quite dangerous (even though your dog may just lunge and bark, another dog may decide to attack back and soon you have a fight where you, your dog and others may get hurt). Not to mention, the risk of other off-leash dogs joining in. Behavior modification should be performed in a controlled setting with your dog "under threshold." See my article under "for future reading" to grasp what this means. You will need a professional familiar with force-free behavior modification that involves counterconditioning and desensitization. Successful behavior modification for resource guarding involves set-ups in a controlled setting so your dog doesn't go over threshold, other dogs are prevented from getting too close for comfort, but most importantly, the purpose is to keep everybody safe. Going gradually and systematically is key.
Heldi on July 05, 2015:
I have problem with my dog who started guarding my bag from other dogs in park. His treats and water are in the bag. When a dog approaches me, while I am sitting on the bench with bag in my lap, he jumps and attacks dog who comes near me. He is more obedient because of the tasty treats. It seems to me that one thing has improved while another, dangerous one, has suddenly bloomed. At this point, it is impossible for me to treat him when some dog approaches me. Can you give me some advice? Other than not bringing treats or avoiding park. (He is mix breed, 1 year and 5 month old, neutered, 30kilos weight)
Thank you very much.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 15, 2013:
For the series how to ruin a puppy... it saddens me when I hear about breeders doing their best to raise good puppies and then people ruining all the hard work. Luckily this pup had a great temperament that was able to override such immoral acts...
Barbara Fitzgerald from Georgia on March 14, 2013:
I had a puppy buyer tell me she wanted to return her six month old puppy because it had growled at her. I asked what was going on and she explained that she was hand feeding the puppy its dinner as she always does. How she went about it was to put the bowl on the floor, so the dog could smell it, then she took it back and parsed out a few kibbles at a time for 20 minutes. Finally the puppy growled at her for taking away her food. I suggested that she not do that anymore. Her obedience instructor suggested the same. There have been no more growling incidents in the last 2.5 years since she stopped teasing the dog with its food. lol
paulineleo52 on September 26, 2011:
I have never had this problem also if I finish my meal and there is left over I will give him the plate to show him I the pack leader and I eat first than you never had a problem with me I have a cat that like eating the dog food but Mocha has never chased the cat away from his bowel yet The cat does not bark like the dog yet.
marpauling on May 24, 2011:
Wow, great information.
qingcong from Virginia on December 08, 2009:
There are some excellent ideas in this article. My dog does something similar after he eats - he comes over after he's done eating, tail wagging mightily, and body looking submissive. I don't know that he's trying to say "thank you" or anything, that's kind of a stretch, but obviously there is some sort of significance to the event.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 24, 2009:
That's interesting, as my dogs do that too! Well, I thought for some time that my male was thanking me even for filling his water bowl, but only later I found out that he was always licking me after drinking just to clean up his face lol! Now, that I send him away, he no longer comes to me after he drinks but goes straight to my kitty! I guess her fur works great for this purpose..
blue dog from texas hill country on July 24, 2009:
it really all comes down to the basics. after my dogs finish eating, they seek me out, wherever i might be, and in dog speak, tell me thank you. although they provide me with daily pleasure, i find this act of thoughtfulness to be rather remarkable. thanks, again, for another informative piece.