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How to stop puppy food aggression: A vet's guide

No puppy food aggression here. A black labrador pup and a golden labrador pup eating from the same bowl
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you’ve recently welcomed a puppy into your home, preventing puppy food aggression is a vital part of being a new pet parent. 

Bringing home a new fur baby is an exciting time, but with a new pet comes new responsibilities. One of these responsibilities is preventing puppy food aggression. Puppy food aggression might seem harmless when they're young, but can develop into a serious problem. 

Of course it's normal for your puppy to feel a bit protective over the great puppy food that you doubtless feed them. However, whether you have other pets, young kids, or it's just you in the house, you can’t have your dog snapping at you for walking past their food bowl. 

So, how can you stop your puppy from being aggressive near their food? Let’s take a look.

Is puppy food aggression normal?

Firstly, it's important to remember that being protective over a vital resource such as food can be normal and natural. After all, in a large litter pups may have to be pushy to keep their food, and it's an instinctive behavior for animals to guard their food sources from potential threats. 

Food aggression is a type of resource guarding – they're just trying to protect what's important to them, and they're worried that you will take their food away. 

If your puppy is showing a little food aggression, don't panic. But you should never ignore this behavior either; it won’t improve with age! Taking active steps at the first sign of food guarding is the best way to prevent more significant issues down the line. Or even better, start positive reinforcement training before any signs of guarding appear.

puppy eating food

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Signs of puppy food aggression

If you’ve watched dog training videos online, you’ve probably seen the worst food aggression cases – where the dog lunges to bite if someone gets close to their bowl. Unfortunately, by this point, it's very difficult to treat. 

To prevent food aggression, you need to spot it at the very first signs. Early signs of food aggression in puppies include:

  • Standing over their food bowl 
  • Having a stiff posture 
  • Holding their ears back, with wide eyes 
  • Baring their teeth 
  • Giving low growls when approached 
  • Snatching or gulping food 
  • Eating faster if someone, or another animal, approaches 

The best time to prevent puppy food aggression is before any of these signs appear. So, here’s six top tips for stopping puppy food aggression:

How to stop puppy food aggression 

1. Ask family members to leave your dog in peace

Would you like to be petted or picked up while you're eating? Probably not. Ask children and other family members to let your new puppy eat in peace, or feed the puppy once the children are in bed. Find a quiet corner where your dog won't be disturbed while they're eating. 

Consider shutting the door so that other animals can't make them anxious. Remember, food aggression happens because the animal is worried that their food may be taken away. You need to show them that they haven't got any reason to worry. 

2. Don’t take their food bowl away  

An old 'trick' for food aggression was to take the bowl away from the dog while they were eating, to 'show them who's boss.' Now that you understand your dog is guarding their food because they're worried it might be stolen, how do you think they'll feel if you do go ahead and steal it? 

Will it really make them 'respect' you, or will they just have good reason to fear you? Randomly removing food from puppies has actually been shown to increase the risk of food aggression. Resource guarding is a sign of distrust, so don't give your dog a reason to distrust you. Once your dog has their food, you should leave the bowl alone until they have finished their meal.

Puppy eating homemade puppy food

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. Add more food to the bowl

One thing you can do from the first day you bring your puppy home, before they are showing any signs of food aggression, is to approach the bowl to add more food. This trick turns number 2 on its head by teaching dogs that it's actually a great thing when you approach their bowl – you aren't going to take it away; you're going to give them more! 

Put three-quarters of their meal in their bowl, then let them start eating. Stand nearby and, once they're tucking in, call their name and ask them to sit. If they do so, you can give them a high-value treat such as chicken, while putting the rest of their meal into the bowl. 

This can work well for dogs that aren't yet food aggressive or are in the very early stages. It shouldn't be attempted in dogs that are already very stressed by humans near their bowls. 

puppy food aggression

(Image credit: Getty Images)

4. Give several small meals at set mealtimes 

Food aggression has been associated with both hunger and ad-lib feeding. Therefore, it might be a good idea to review your dog's mealtime routine. Puppies should have several small meals throughout the day – four meals in 24 hours is usually recommended initially, steadily reducing as they age. 

If you are feeding less than this, your dog might be feeling extremely hungry by the time their mealtime comes. Hunger increases the value of food to your pup, so they feel the need to guard it.

However, it’s not a good idea to leave food in the bowl at all times. Ad-lib feeding could cause your dog to worry and feel on edge constantly. The sheer amount of time the food is in the bowl also increases the risk of an incident – you can't avoid walking past the bowl all day! 

Don't leave your puppy's food down indefinitely. If they don't eat what's in their bowl after 20 minutes or so, take the food away and offer it again later. Remember, in a puppy showing signs of food aggression; you can't simply walk over and take the food away. Instead, wait until they’ve finished eating and then call them over to play a game elsewhere, or find another way of distracting them.

Don't forget to build a routine into your dog's mealtimes. They’ll feel a lot more secure about their food if they know when their next meal will be. 

5. Ditch the food bowl 

Depending on your dog's anxiety level, you may be able to ditch the food bowl and feed from your hand, as rewards for tasks or as part of a game. Instead of associating their bowl with the food, your puppy will come to associate you with the food, so they'll view you more positively around food. Remember that some dogs who resource guard will snatch the best puppy treats– if this is the case, we wouldn’t recommend trying this tip. 

For larger puppies, they may become too tired from training and games before they've eaten all their calories. That's fine – just make sure they perform one final command ('sit' is fine) before receiving the remainder of their dinner from their bowl.

Puppy collar

(Image credit: Berkay Gumustekin/Unsplash)

6. Try to desensitize your dog to your presence when he’s eating

This tip is best used on dogs who are only showing very early signs of guarding behaviors, not dogs who are already showing aggressive behavior. A behaviorist's advice would help to decide whether this method would suit your dog, because in some cases it could actually make their behavior worse.

Your dog needs to learn that you aren't a threat to their food. Start by figuring out how far away from the food bowl your dog feels comfortable with you. Then stand a few steps further away than this. 

You should make sure you are in a safe and comfortable position and don't make any loud or sudden movements. Make sure you aren't a threatening presence – you may need to crouch and busy yourself with something else, rather than looking at your dog or their food. Every now and then you can toss a high-value treat towards your dog.

Hopefully, your dog will eventually ignore you and eat. If he gulps his food down with one eye on you, or shows any of the other signs listed, you're too close. Slowly move further away – you want him to register your presence but not react to it. Once he's had a few meals where he's comfortable with you in that position, move a small step closer, and repeat. 

Over time, you should be able to stand quite close to your dog without triggering his food guarding. In fact, he should come to see your presence as a positive thing. Instead of taking his food away, you’re actually bringing yummy treats.

When to seek professional help

We said at the beginning that a bit of mild resource guarding is very common and that time and a few of these positive methods can teach your dog that you are nothing to fear. However, it's essential to realize that food aggression can also get out of hand, which can be extremely dangerous. 

The last thing you want is for your puppy to bite you, a visitor, or a child. You should discuss food guarding with your veterinary team as soon as you notice an issue. They can refer you to a qualified behaviorist if needed. 

Can you train aggression out of a dog?

Yes, it is possible to train a dog not to be aggressive around their food. But once this behavior is ingrained, it becomes a lot harder to correct. This is one of the reasons that it's best to seek help at an early stage – it's a lot more challenging to train a dog not to be aggressive if they're an adult that has been doing it for years. As with most things, prevention is better than cure!

Importantly, you should never punish your dog for their behavior. This is guaranteed to make the behavior worse.

Summary

Food guarding in puppies is a natural behaviour, but not a desirable one! It's important to prevent food guarding in puppies, before food aggression becomes a problem. If you are struggling, your veterinary team will be able to refer you to a behaviorist. Don't be worried about asking for help; it's important to tackle the problem early, before the behavior has time to escalate. 

After graduating as a veterinarian from the University of Nottingham, Dr Joanna Woodnutt went on to practice companion animal medicine in the Midlands. She quickly developed a love of consulting and helping clients with medical problems such as dermatology, behaviour and nutrition - anything that involved helping clients understand their pets better. Jo started writing about pet health in 2017, realising that it meant she could help even more pet parents. Since then, she has written for countless online and print publications and is a regular contributor for Edition Dog Magazine. Jo now lives in the Channel Islands with her husband Ian and terrier Pixie, and they are expecting their first child very soon.