How To Stop Food Aggression in Dogs
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Food aggression is a common behavior from dogs that have experienced scarcity in food. However this behavior can develop and encourage other dangerous or destructive conducts. This is why it's important to understand why your dog growls at you when they're eating and how to train them to trust their surroundings and relax when feeding.
In this article from AnimalWised we will go through how to recognise food aggression and how to positively deal and stop food guarding, growling and other aggressive behavior.
What does it mean when my dog growls?
Dogs are social animals. This implies the development of a rich communication to understand and live together. A growl is part of this communicative repertoire, in the same way as barking, howling, whining or the abundant signs of body expression.
Grunts can express distaste, in its mildest version. However when dogs are growling and exposing their teeth, they're communicating that they have a limit and will attack if it is not respected. In other words, growling and showing their teeth is a threat that can lead to an attack.
If we have the opportunity to observe how several dogs interact, when one growls, depending on their position in their social group, they will receive an answer from another dog. Some may be submissive, ducking their heads and folding their ears, others even show their weak points to demonstrate they will not attack. On the contrary, others can also express their limits by responding with a growl.
However, what's the differences between the growls towards other dogs and the growls towards me? Why does my dog growl at me when they're eating? What should I do when this happens? Keep reading as we answer all these questions.
What causes food aggression in dogs
Unfortunately there isn't one simple answer to this question. There may be many reasons behind why your dog is guarding their food. However many veterinarians suggest that if we look at the behavior of stray dogs in developing countries such as Indonesia or Costa Rica, we can see that food guarding and food aggression is very common as the dogs must find food for survival.
But why would a pet dog develop this habit if they're not fighting for food? Some puppies begin food guarding at a young age if there is competition for food. In fact, a study shows that 30% of adopted dogs from a shelter show characteristics of food guarding. In other cases, aggression can develop from other food traumas they experienced as a puppy.
In conclusion, we can say that food guarding is an innate habit of street or stray dogs but it can also develop in pets when they've experienced some sort of trauma that makes them protective over their food.
It's also important to understand that if your dog is growling while eating, it could be a medical problem. Whether it is poor eyesight that makes them feel more threatened when eating, hearing problems or physical pain they experience when eating, it is very wise to first bring them to a professional to rule out it is not a medical issue. If your dog is showing these aggressive characteristics
How to recognise food aggression in dogs
So how do I know for sure that my dog is presenting characteristics of food aggression or food guarding? In general, the behavior is pretty straightforward. It can vary from freezing when someone comes close to growling and even attacking. Here are some common behaviors you might observe:
- Growling when someone approaches
- Stiffening or lunging
- General food guarding
- Snarling or showing teeth
- Freezing and looking to the sides
- Bites or attacks when someone gets close
If you see that your dog is reacting this way, it's best to take them to the veterinarian just to make sure it's not due to a medical issue. Once you are certain that it's a behavioral problem, then you can move one to training positively to help them relax when eating and understand that they are now in a safe environment.
How to train an aggressive puppy
If you are experiencing an aggressive puppy that is protecting their food, or if you'd like to know how to prevent having an aggressive adult dog, the best way would be through positive training from a young age.
As we regularly mention in our articles, one of the most important factors of educating a healthy and well-balanced tempered dog is by socialisation. This period begin with their mother and their siblings. It the mother that teaches her puppies the rules of coexistence and puts the lessons into practice with all of her pups. For this reason, it is crucial to never separate the family, at least until the puppies are 8 weeks old. Even if there is no mother, which unfortunately happens when a litter is abandoned, the siblings must also remain together for that minimum of 8 weeks.
Later, when the puppies begin to go out on walks they are introduced to new people, animals and different environments. This period is key to their development and will greatly influence their temperament as an adult dog. It is very important we try to provide them with a rich social experience and make sure they are not involved in any traumatising situations.
It can also be an enriching experience for your puppy to go to "dog school", where they will learn basic obedience skills, while also developing their intelligence skills. Dogs need this mental stimulation just as much as they requiere physical stimulations, such as their daily walks and dog sports. This type of training can also be done at home. If you are an experienced dog-companion you know that dogs enjoy learning new tricks and that this must be done in a positive way. One of the most recommended methods is the clicker technique. You can learn more about basic dog training in our collection of articles, such as paper training for dogs or the basic level of puppy training.
When it comes to food aggression in puppies, there are many things you can try to make them understand that they are in a safe environment with no scarcity of food. These can also apply to adult dogs as they are always adapting to new situations and learning. However, the following tips are thought out for puppies who tend to trust more and learn quicker.
- Feed your dog after you've eaten. This is recommended by animal behavior specialists because it will help them understand you are the alpha in the pack and therefore, they will respect and trust you more.
- Teach them to sit for a treat. This is a simple obedience trick that puppies learn very quickly. This will also allow them to understand that you are not interested in "stealing" their food and that there is no scarcity of food.
- Offer kibble or a treat that the puppy can eat from your hand. Doing this, the puppy will associate food with your scent. Remember to bend down to their level when offering so they do not feel threatened but rather feel safe in your presence. Only do this occasionally as it's also important to give your puppy their own space.
How to train an aggressive adult dog
When it comes to an adult dog, their aggressive behavior may be more intense than a puppy. Perhaps because they've experienced a traumatising situation when they were growing up or in the shelter. Nevertheless, their behavior can improve. We are going to give you some methods to confront this situation. However, if you do not see any improvements in two or three weeks, it is best to go to a professional. This may be either a veterinarian or a dog behavior specialist.
- Hand-feeding treats. As we've mentioned before, occasionally feeding your dog treats with your hand can help them associate your scent and presence with food. This way, they'll understand that you are not interested in "stealing" their food and that in fact, there is an abundance of food for everyone.
- Tossing treats when they're eating. This is a famous method when it comes to dealing with food aggression from dogs. Simply toss them or offer them a special treat when they are eating their regular kibble. Make sure to get close to their bowl while still staying at a safe distance and calling them with a warm tone. Remember to squat down to their level so they do not feel threatened. With this technique they will learn that taking the attention off of their bowl might even result in a reward. They will also see that you're not interested in taking food from them but rather providing them with food. It's not necessary to do this everyday but perhaps once a day or 4-5 times a week will help them improve their aggressive behavior.
- Teach them to sit for a meal. This is another method that works both for puppies and adult dogs. Although it may take a little more time for adult dogs to learn new tricks, it is still possible. Adult dogs are always learning and enjoy doing so. When they learn to sit for a meal or a treat, they understand that sitting down is a way to communicate "I am hungry", "I want the food" and saying "please". This will teach them many things such as patience, communication and most importantly in this case, that humans will provide them with food, not take it away.
What not to do
We've talked about many positive methods to prevent your dog from guarding their food and also dealing with a dog that already demonstrates food aggression. But now, it's important to note what not to do. These following actions may result in creating more problems for your dog and are highly discouraged:
- Do not intimidate or punish your dog if they decide to guard their food. Not only is this cruel but it will make them feel even more threatened and unsafe. We want the best for our dogs, they should trust us and feel safe in their home.
- Do not excessively pet your dog when they are eating. This could be an equivalent of a waiter coming back every 2 minutes to ask if you want more drinks or if everything is alright. Once is okay but everyone wants their space and time to eat peacefully. If done too much, the dog will feel irritated.
- Do not put your hand in the bowl when your dog is eating. This is a bizarre method people have tried but doesn't work. Again, if you do this your dog will feel irritated and bothered. This could lead to more aggressive behavior as they are hungry and wish to eat in peace. Try more positive techniques that are known to work or contact your local veterinarian for better guidance.
If you want to read similar articles to How To Stop Food Aggression in Dogs, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.