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Food aggression in dogs: Why dogs guard food and what to do about it

Food aggression in dogs: Two Pitfalls eating out of one red bowl
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Food aggression in dogs is a common issue that pet owners struggle to deal with. It's a form of resource guarding in dogs that centers, from your pet's perspective, around high-value dog food or toys that will often present itself as your dog snapping or growling at anyone who comes near their food bowl. 

While resource guarding is a natural behavior of dogs, it can become dangerous when your dog's behavior turns aggressive. Some dogs express only mild signs of food aggression, while others can escalate to lunging and biting at those around them. 

As a pet owner, it is essential to understand the common causes of food aggression and how to recognize a growing problem.

Common causes of food aggression in dogs

There are many reasons dogs develop food aggression. In dogs, food aggression is often oversimplified as a sign of dominance. While this does happen, it is not always the reason for the behavior. 

Aggressive behavior can also be the result of fear and anxiety. When dogs have to compete for resources, they can become more protective over the resources they have. This is known as resource guarding. Dogs may demonstrate this behavior with high-value objects such as toys or food. 

Many animals that come from shelters have issues with food aggression. Some of these dogs have come from traumatic backgrounds where resources were scarce. Even when they are no longer in that situation, they may still have a greater tendency for resource guarding. However, not all dogs who develop food aggression come from this type of background. Just like humans, some dogs are just more possessive than others.

How to recognize food aggression

Recognizing the warning signs of food aggression is all about reading your dog’s body language. Pay close attention to how your dog reacts to you approaching them during a meal. One of the first signs to look for is if your dog appears stiff or tense when you approach. Dogs exhibiting this behavior may be assessing whether or not you are a threat to their food. As your dog becomes more defensive, they may crouch or hunch over their food bowl in an attempt to guard it. 

When early warning signs of aggression are missed or ignored, the behavior can escalate. Many dogs will curl their lip or growl in an attempt to ward off anyone they may perceive as a threat. Severe cases of food aggression can result in lunging and biting. Warning signs may be subtle. In some cases, there may be little to no warning at all. It is critical to pay close attention to your dog’s body language and always be cautious when approaching a new dog.

Tips for food aggressive dogs

Food aggression in dogs

(Image credit: Getty)

If your dog is food aggressive, there are some things you can do to help:

Avoid feeding in high traffic areas 

Dogs are more likely to perceive a threat to their food in an area where there are multiple animals or people. Feed your dog in a quiet area of the house where they will not be disturbed during their meal. This can prevent your dog from feeling as though they need to protect their food.

Be cautious with your training methods 

When adjusting to a new dog, it is common for pet owners to try different training methods to prevent food aggression. Unfortunately, some of these techniques may actually exacerbate the problem. Some owners will stand over their dog or pick up the food bowl during a meal. The thought is that this will desensitize the dog to their presence and establish dominance. However, this can have the opposite effect. If your dog fears that you may take their food away, they may become more possessive. Food is necessary for their survival, and it is natural for them to want to protect this resource.

High-value trades 

As previously mentioned, removing a dog’s food bowl is a common training technique used by pet owners to prevent food aggression. However, you probably wouldn’t be very happy if someone took your plate away and gave you nothing in return. So it’s not fair to expect that from our dogs. If you want to try this training method or need to take food away from your dog, try presenting them with a high-value trade. This could be a favorite treat or toy. When you offer your dog something in return, removing the food is no longer a negative experience.

Avoid punishment

Bad behavior can be very frustrating, and reprimanding your dog may be your first instinct. With food aggressive dogs, it is essential to avoid lashing out or punishing them for the behavior. Confronting your dog’s behavior in this way can cause them to become more aggressive. The heightened fear and anxiety from the confrontation may escalate their reaction. Food aggression can also progress into other forms of resource guarding. While dogs should not be rewarded for their bad behavior, ignoring or avoiding the behavior is often a safer approach. 

When to seek help

When your dog becomes food aggressive, it can be dangerous to you and other pets in your home. If your dog is lunging at you or others, you should seek professional help. Even if your dog is exhibiting only mild signs of aggression, a professional can help you integrate appropriate training methods to prevent the behavior from becoming worse. 

Consulting with your veterinarian is a great place to start. They can help you identify the root of the problem and discuss safe ways to address your unique concerns. Some veterinarians who undergo specialty training are board-certified in animal behavior. A consult with a Veterinary Behaviorist can be extremely helpful in more severe cases of food aggression.

Tackle food aggression problems early

Food aggression is a common problem dog owners face. While resource guarding is a natural behavior, food aggression should be taken seriously. Many things contribute to food aggressive behavior, but luckily, you can do some things to help. Recognizing the problem early and avoiding possible triggers is key. Food aggression can be a dangerous behavior, and it is critical to seek professional help sooner than later. 

Elizabeth Racine, DVM

Since obtaining her doctorate in veterinary medicine, Dr. Racine has worked exclusively in small animal general practice. Her work has been featured in blog posts, articles, newsletters, journals, and even video scripts.