Anyone who has more than one dog at home knows that dogs are very possessive over a few things in life. This is called “resource guarding,” and resources can be anything from food to attention, or even toys. At Rita Ranch Pet Hospital, one of the most common concerns pet owners discuss with us is how to handle and prevent food aggression at home. First, it is important to understand why your dog may start acting aggressive around food and how to recognize the signs to stop it in its tracks!
Signs of food aggression
Food aggression manifests itself just as any other type of aggression. You need to monitor your dog for his or her reactions to challenges. Clear signs of aggression include:
- Tension of the body
- Leaning forward when standing
- Raised lips / wrinkled muzzle
- Raising of the hackles, the fur on the back
Sources of food aggression
In the wild, many predators may eat from the same carcass after one or more of the pack have brought down a prey animal. If the predators are very hungry, they may not be as willing to share, and each of the members of the pack will attempt to horde and guard as much of the food as possible, rather than ration it equally as humans might do. Any time a dog feels that he or she is in a situation where others might steal his or her meal or treats, food aggression can result in fighting.
Although your dog no longer lives in a wild pack, he or she may or may not realize that another meal is just around the corner. This is particularly common in dogs rescued after living on the streets. They were never sure where their next meal would come from, and they have a hard time adjusting to regular meal times with plentiful food.
Food aggression is yet another way in which a dog may try to assert himself or herself as the leader of the pack. It is a serious problem because it can result in injury to the dog as well as to others who happen to be around.
Even without multiple dogs in the home, your dog may guard his or her food against people in the home, which might include you or even your children. Without training specifically targeted at resolving this issue, it will only get worse. Training to teach the dog alternate ways to respond to his primal drives should be provided by a reputable trainer or animal behaviorist.
At Rita Ranch Pet Hospital, we use and recommend Dr. Vanya Moreno, PhD of Animal Magnetism.
Every member of your family who is old enough to understand the problem needs to be part of the solution. If one of the children in the home thinks it’s cute when the dogs growl at each other at mealtime, the dog will interpret his laughter as reinforcement and the behavior will be reinforced and repeated.
Feeding multiple dogs
You may never know what starts a food fight. Some dogs have had to struggle with getting enough food their whole lives, others have never known really hunger or struggle. Regardless of the reason your dogs show possession issues over their food, chances are that these issues will lead to choking, overeating, vomiting, or swallowing everything in sight, which can lead to a very sick pet.
The easiest way to prevent fights over food is to feed your dogs separately. Whether you put their dishes in different rooms or crate each dog until his or her turn, keeping the dogs apart when food is presented is the safest way to handle the issue.
Make sure to pick up the empty food bowls before another dog has access to each dog’s feeding area. Even having one dog lick another dog’s bowl for crumbs may lead to a problem. You may also want to feed the dogs in different spots so that each dog doesn’t develop a habit of considering one spot in the home as “mine.”
If you are accustomed to leaving food down until the dish becomes empty, you may want to consider limiting the amount of time over which food is made available. Your dog will soon learn that he or she is to eat when the food is presented, rather than leaving it for whenever it’s convenient. Again, this lets the dog know that you, not the dog, are in charge of the food. Even picky eaters can generally eat an appropriate portion of food in ten to twenty minutes.
Additionally, pets that are fed free choice or that “graze,” are at a much higher risk of obesity. About 80% of free fed pets are obese. It also makes it more difficult for the owner to pick up on subtle changes in appetite or routine that may clue you in that your pet is sick. At Rita Ranch Pet Hospital, we recommend feeding your pets a measure portion of food at specified meal times each day to avoid this confusion.
The Wrong Way to Handle the Problem
Again, if you are witnessing an alarming behavior change in your pet, please seek professional help and training. Turning to “Dr. Google” can be very dangerous and can really lead even the most well-meaning pet owner astray.
The traditional method of dealing with resource guarding is so backwards that it would be laughable if it wasn’t so deadly.
Food aggression is often treated as a dominance problem: by protecting his food, your dog is asserting himself as the alpha and the owner must show him who’s boss.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Resource guarding actually stems from insecurity.
The solution that is then suggested is to punish the dog for showing guarding or aggressive behavior. The dog protects his food bowl? Step in front of the dish and push him away to show him that the food belongs to you. The dog snaps when you try to get him off the sofa? Be the “alpha.” This battle of wills is the kind of thing you see on a lot of dog training “reality” shows. While it does make for dramatic television, it offers absolutely no long-term solution.
This isn’t something that can be solved with punishment or corrections. All you accomplish when you do this is confirm your dog’s suspicion that you ARE a threat and he has to protect himself from you. The solution becomes the problem, creating a vicious cycle. There are three things that can happen when people try the dominance approach:
1. The problem gets worse and your dog actually hurts somebody, which could result in your dog being euthanized.
2. The problem doesn’t get any better and the owners give up, switching to a management approach (i.e. “leave the dog alone when he’s eating”).
3. It actually “works” and suppresses the behavior. It does nothing to CHANGE the behavior, so Fido’s owners now have a dog that is shut down: upset, but unable to show it. Suppressing behavior is cruel and dangerous in dogs and people alike.
Punishing a dog for growling is dangerous.
Growling is a Good Thing
Growling is not aggression. Growling is a dog’s way of avoiding aggression. A growl is the equivalent of saying “knock it off” or “something’s not right.” When you punish a dog for growling, all you’re doing is teaching him not to give warnings before he bites. Bad news!
Source: breeders.net & 3lostdogs.org