“Sharing is caring” is not a popular mantra in the animal kingdom.
When your dog was a newborn puppy, she may have had to compete with her siblings for the milkiest teat. If her litter ate out of a single bowl, she may have learned to eat fast and be on-guard during mealtimes to ensure she’d get her fill.
Now that she lives with you, she doesn’t have to worry about competition. She gets her own food and her own treats. But she may still have an instinct to guard her food with growling and aggression. She may have gradually developed food anxiety while living with you. Sometimes, it’s unclear why dogs act this way.
As a dog owner, you need to be able to get objects away from your dog, no matter how tasty or valuable they are to her. If her toy breaks while she’s playing, you need to take it away before she chokes on a small broken piece. If she finds something dangerously delicious on your walk, you’ll need to get her to “drop it” so she will not get sick.
The subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs of food guarding
When a person or animal approaches a dog eating something tasty, the dog will show signals of food guarding that may escalate to aggression. As you get near your dog, look for the following body language:
- A stiffened body
- Slow, stiff movements
- Flattened ears
- “Whale eye” – making eye contact without moving her head, showing the sclera (or the white of the eye)
- Bared teeth
- Lunging, attacking and biting
What to do when you see the signs
If your dog is showing these signs, she is already feeling anxious about you taking her food away.
She’s communicating to you in the best way she knows how. If you scold your dog for growling or showing any of these signs, you will be cutting off her only way to warn you. She’ll still feel anxious, especially when she’s unable to communicate with you. By no fault of her own, her survival instincts and building anxiety will cause her to BITE.
So, never punish your dog for growling at you. Never scold her for trying to protect her food.
When your dog growls, the best thing to do is back off.
Give her space, and let her cool down.
Don’t try to take her food away. Let her finish eating in peace.
You’ll need to work to prevent food aggression when she’s calm. Not when you suddenly need to get something out of your dog’s mouth.
When you absolutely must intervene
I know, I know.
There are situations in which you cannot simply leave a growling dog to eat in peace.
Like when your dog knocks the Thanksgiving turkey to the floor, and is devouring all 23 pounds, growling up a storm when you come near. Cooked poultry bones are splintery and can kill your dog. So, this would be a dire situation. A dangerous one.
It’s hard to even advise you on a situation in which you’d have to get something away from a dog who is already food aggressive. So many things could go wrong. You could make the aggression worse, or you could get bitten.
My suggestion is to find any way to get the dog away from the object without scaring her further. This is best done as a team. One person can distract the dog, while the other grabs the object. The distraction shouldn’t be scary. The “distractor” on your team can ring the doorbell, or even run around in the next room making silly noises – anything to evoke the dog’s curiosity and get them as far away as possible so you can safely remove the object.
Sometimes, all you need to do is praise your dog, and call them to you. Keep your tone happy and relaxed. They might just listen.
When to approach a resource aggressive dog:
- If it’s your dog
- If you must do so to keep the dog safe
That’s it. Never, ever try to take something away from a growling dog for any other reason. It’s not worth it.
If your dog stole your ham sandwich, and growled when you tried to get it back, forget it. You’re out a sandwich. Let it go, and work on this issue later.
Training good food manners
Every good dog needs a few basic food manners. Your dog should:
- Sit patiently while waiting for food
- Only eat after you have given her permission
- Understand “leave it”
- Not beg at the table
- Willingly “drop it” so you don’t need to snatch things away
The Pre-Meal Ritual
Every time you feed your dog, have her sit politely and wait until you tell her it’s okay to eat. This helps your dog recognize you as the food provider. It also teaches your dog to wait for your approval before eating anything.
Here’s the Pre-Meal Ritual, step by step.
- Stand, holding your dog’s bowl near the feeding area.
- Be still if your dog is hopping about, jumping on you, or doing anything other than sitting.
- At first, you might need to tell your dog to sit, but as she picks up the routine, wait until she sits by default.
- Set the food down slowly, but only if your dog remains seated.
- Say, “eat!” and, only now, allow your dog to chow down.
Teach your dog to “drop it”
Once your dog learns “drop it,” she’ll drop whatever’s in her mouth. Even if it’s very tasty.
Here’s how to teach your dog to “drop it”
- When your dog is holding a toy in her mouth, offer her a treat.
- Praise her (or click) the moment she releases the toy.
- Give her that treat. Then, give the toy back and start again.
- Instead of a toy, give her a low-value treat, or kibble.
- Offer her something high-value, like a small piece of chicken or hot dog.
- Praise her (or click) the moment she releases her low-value treat.
- Give her that high-value treat.
- Practice with escalatingly tasty things, and practice often.
As often as possible, give back the item your dog releases. That way, she won’t think you’re always going to take things away from her forever when she drops them. Dropping items should always be a good and rewarding experience for her.
Counter-conditioning aggression over highly desired objects
If your dog becomes aggressive with a certain type of treat or toy, you may want to avoid giving it to her in the first place. Long-lasting chews like pig’s ears can promote aggression because dogs take a long time to finish them. They can get overly attached to their chew, and may be unwilling to give it up after spending hours obsessively gnawing at it.
You can also, very carefully, counter-condition your dog to look forward to, not fear, your presence while she’s enjoying something she feels the need to protect using Patricia McConnell’s approach to treating resource guarding.
- Set up a situation where your dog is likely to be food aggressive. Give her that coveted pig’s ear, then leave the room to stock up on high-value treats.
- From across the room, toss high-value treats at your dog. You should be so far away, that your dog does not even stiffen.
- Gradually get closer to your dog – but don’t get close – tossing treats to keep your dog loose and comfortable around you, even as you get closer to her and her pig ear. Any sign of her stiffening up, you’ll need to step back and try again later.
- When she is no longer anxious to have you around her while she’s chewing, carefully, gradually offer her treats as you reach towards her pig ear. Do NOT rush this. If you go too fast, her anxiety and aggression could come back full swing, and you can get bitten. That would be a terrible experience, and the trauma would only make the problem worse.
- When your dog allows you to pick up her pig’s ear, give her a treat, then give the ear back. She will learn that she can trust you, because you’ll usually return her prize.
You should practice having your dog “drop” objects, even if she has never showed signs of food aggression.
As often as possible, give her object back to her after taking it. This builds trust in the relationship between you and your dog, and helps balance her animal instincts with the understanding that you always, always do good things for her.