It’s important to prevent puppy food aggression from developing into a serious problem. While it’s normal for puppies to be a bit protective of the best puppy food that you doubtless feed them, whether you have other pets, young kids, or it’s just you in the house, you don’t need your dog snapping at you for walking past the food bowl. So, how can you stop your puppy from being aggressive near their food? We’re going to look at five tips to stop puppy food aggression.
The first thing to say is that puppy food aggression can be considered normal and natural. After all, in a large litter they are probably used to fighting to keep their food, and it’s natural for animals to guard and hoard their food sources from 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 are going to take their food away.
If your puppy is showing a little food aggression, don’t panic. But this doesn’t mean you should ignore this bad puppy behavior – taking active steps at the first sign of aggression, or doing some positive reinforcement training even before it starts, is ideal.
Six ways to prevent puppy food aggression
Anybody who has watched dog training videos on the internet has probably seen the worst food aggression cases, where the dog lunges to bite when someone comes even close to their bowl. But, by this point, it’s very, very difficult to treat – you need to spot food aggression at the very first signs. Early signs of food aggression in puppies include:
- Standing over their food bowl
- Stiff posture
- Ears back, with wide eyes
- Low growls when approached
- Snatching food and gulping food
1. Ask family members to leave your dog in peace
Would you like to be petted or picked up when 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 when they’re eating – you can even shut the door so that other animals can’t make them anxious, and let them out once they have finished eating. Remember, food aggression comes about because the animal is worried about their food supply – so make sure they haven’t got any reason to worry.
2. Ditch the food bowl
Depending on the level of your dog’s aggression, you may be able to ditch the food bowl, and feed from the hand in reward for tasks and as part of games. Instead of associating their bowl with the food, your puppy will come to associate you with the food, and they’ll view you more positively. Remember, though, that some dogs will snatch the best puppy treats if they are food aggressive – if this is the case, it might be worth skipping this tip.
For larger puppies, they may be too tired from training before they’ve eaten all their calories. That’s fine – just make sure they perform a command (‘sit’ is fine) before receiving the remainder of their dinner from their bowl.
3. Don’t take their food bowl away
An old ‘trick’ for food aggression was to take the bowl away from the dog whilst they were eating, to ‘show them who’s boss’. But, now you know that your dog is guarding their bowl because they’re trying to protect it from being stolen, how do you think they’ll feel if you really 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 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.
4. Add more food to the bowl
One thing you can do from day one when you bring your puppy home, before they are aggressive, is to approach the bowl to add more food. This trick turns number 3 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 and put the rest of their meal into their bowl.
This works well for dogs that haven’t yet developed aggression or are in the very early stages, but obviously shouldn’t be attempted in dogs that are very stressed by humans being near their bowls.
5. Give several small meals at set meal times
Food aggression has been associated with both hunger and ad-lib feeding. Therefore, it might be a good idea to take a look at your dog’s mealtime routine. Puppies should have several smaller meals throughout the day – four in a 24 hour period is usually recommended for the first few weeks, steadily reducing as they age. If you are feeding less than this, your dog might be feeling extremely hungry at meal times, leading them to feel the need to guard their food.
However, leaving food down in the bowl at all times is a bad idea, too. Ad-lib feeding means that your dog feels the need to be on edge constantly to protect his food. 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 an hour or two later. Remember, in a puppy showing signs of food aggression, don’t simply walk over and take the food away - you’ll need to 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. This helps them know what to expect, and they’ll feel a lot more secure about their meals if they know when their next meal can be expected.
6. Try to desensitise your dog to your presence when he’s eating
This tip is best used on dogs who aren’t aggressive, and are showing no or very early signs of guarding behaviours. A behaviourist’s advice may be helpful in deciding whether this method will help your dog or make them worse.
Your dog needs to learn that you aren’t a threat to his food. Start off by standing at the limit of where your dog is comfortable with you, and stay there. Make sure you aren’t a threatening presence – you may need to crouch or even sit, but make sure you are in a safe and comfortable position. Don’t make any loud or sudden movements, and don’t stare at your dog. Try to do something else, so you appear completely disinterested in his food.
Hopefully, your dog will eventually ignore you and eat, but if he gulps his food down with one eye on you, you’re too close. Slowly move back – 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 step closer, and repeat. Over time, you should be able to stand quite close to your dog without triggering his food guarding, reducing the chance of an unsuspecting person walking too near to him and upsetting him.
When to seek professional help
We said at the beginning that a little 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 important to realize that food aggression can also get out of hand, and it can be extremely dangerous. You should discuss food guarding with your veterinary team or your positive dog trainer at an early stage. Be prepared to ask for help, especially if your dog starts snarling, lunging, or biting near their bowl, their puppy toys, or any other objects they value.
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 behaviour is ingrained, it becomes very difficult to correct. This is one of the reasons that seeking help at an early stage is sensible – it’s a lot more difficult to train a dog not to be aggressive if they’re an adult that has been doing it for years.
Food aggression in puppies is generally considered ‘normal’, but not acceptable. It’s a good idea to take steps to prevent aggression from developing in all puppies by using these tips. If you are struggling, your veterinary team will be able to refer you to a behaviorist – don’t be embarrassed, as it’s best that you tackle this problem early rather than leave it to worsen.
Dr Joanna Woodnutt is an experienced vet with an interest in companion animals. She recently left full-time practice to work as a relief vet and write articles about pets.
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