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How to stop puppy food aggression: Six tips from a vet

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

Bringing home a new furry family member 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 it can develop into a severe problem. Of course, it's normal for puppies to be a bit protective of the best puppy food that you doubtless feed them. But, 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 their food bowl. So, how can you stop your puppy from being aggressive near their food? We're going to look at six tips to stop puppy food aggression.

It’s normal!

It's important to remember that puppy food aggression can be normal and natural. After all, in a large litter, pups are used to fighting to keep their food, and it's an instinctive behavior 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 will 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 either. Taking active steps at the first sign of aggression, or doing positive reinforcement training before it starts, is the best way to prevent more significant issues down the line.

Six ways to prevent puppy food aggression

Anybody who has watched dog training videos online has probably seen the worst food aggression cases - where the dog lunges to bite when someone gets close to their bowl. But, by this point, it's very, 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
  • Giving low growls when approached
  • Snatching or gulping food

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 when they're eating – you can even shut the door so that other animals can't make them anxious. Remember, food aggression happens because the animal is worried about their food being taken away – so make sure they haven't got any reason to worry.

2. Ditch the food bowl

Depending on your dog's aggression level, you may be able to ditch the food bowl and feed from your 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 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.

3. 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.' But, now you understand 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 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 until they have finished their meal.

puppy food aggression

(Image credit: Getty Images)

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 aren't yet food aggressive or are in the very early stages but shouldn't be attempted in dogs that are very stressed by humans 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 look at your dog's mealtime routine. Puppies should have several smaller meals throughout the day – four in 24 hours 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 by the time their mealtime comes, 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 may 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, 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 will be. 

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 show only very early signs of guarding behaviours. A behaviourist's advice may help decide whether this method suits your dog because it could make them worse.

Your dog needs to learn that you aren't a threat to his food. Start by standing where your dog is comfortable with you, and stay there. 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 or even sit and busy yourself with something else rather than looking at your dog or their 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. This will reduce the chance of an unsuspecting person walking too near and upsetting him.

When to seek professional help

We said at the beginning that a bit of 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. You should discuss food guarding with your veterinary team or your positive dog trainer early. Be prepared to ask for help, especially if your dog starts snarling, lunging, orbiting near their bowl, their puppy toys, or another object that 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 tough 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. 

Conclusion

Food aggression in puppies is generally considered 'normal' but not acceptable. It's a good idea 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 behaviourist – don't be embarrassed; it's best that you tackle this problem early rather than leave it to worsen. 

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.