April 14, 2023
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Does your dog ever growl when you walk by their food dish? Maybe they get possessive of treats, carrying them far away and giving you side-eye when you start to approach — or snarling at your other pets or children if they get too close. These are symptoms of food aggression, a common (yet scary) behavior problem many dog owners face.
In this article we’ll dive into what food aggression is, common situations where you might see aggressive behaviors, how to prevent it from happening in the first place, and how to treat it if your dog already struggles. You’ve got this. Let’s dive in!
Food aggression is a form of resource guarding. Resource guarding is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: when a dog “guards” a valuable resource, such as a toy or a food bowl, through behaviors like running away with the item, growling, or biting.
Food aggression, as the name implies, is specific to food. If your dog is displaying aggressive behaviors — like growling, lunging or biting — in non-food situations, then something else is going on. You’ll want to call your vet and a qualified trainer to help make sense of your pup’s behavior.
Food aggression is quite common in dogs. To a degree, resource guarding is a natural behavior inherited from your pet’s canine ancestors. Although your domestic dog doesn’t need to guard their food like this (if only we could tell our pets we’ll always take care of them!) the instinct might remain.
And it makes sense — think about if someone kept trying to stick their fork onto your plate to steal pieces of your favorite meal. You’d probably guard your food by showing signs of aggression, too!
While it often comes from a natural place, resource guarding still needs to be dealt with in order for your dog to thrive in modern human society — especially if they struggle with severe food aggression.
It’s not necessary for a dog to have a negative experience around food, like fending for themselves on the street as a stray, to develop food aggression — but those sorts of circumstances can definitely exacerbate the problem.
Every dog is an individual, and some pets are more likely to resource guard than others due to a combination of genetic and experiential factors. If your dog shows signs of food aggression or other aggressive tendencies, it does not mean anything bad has happened to them or that you’ve failed as an owner!
It’s common for puppies to guard food because they often feel they are in competition with their littermates. This might be especially true if they came from a breeder who fed them from a communal dish or if their mother struggled to produce enough milk for all of their siblings early in life.
If you have other dogs who eat at the same time, or you have cats who like to steal bites of dog food, your dog may show food aggression to try to protect what’s theirs. A simple way around mild cases of resource guarding here is to feed multiple pets in different rooms, separated by baby gates, or safely in their own creates.
Communal free feeding is likely to cause problems in dogs with possessive tendencies — we recommend giving each pet their own separate meals and not allowing them to bother each other as they eat.
Similarly, dogs may feel that children loitering around meals are a threat to their food. If possible, keep any children out of the room (or at least out of the immediate space) whenever the dog is eating. Creating a peaceful “food zone” free of people and other pets is the ideal scenario!
While food aggression towards other dogs and young children is most common, since they tend to move more quickly and erratically, it’s also possible for your dog to guard their meals from any people in the vicinity.
If you think your dog may bite you, the ASPCA recommends that you do not try to deal with their food aggression on your own. Consult with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). (Our article When And How to Think About Medication for Anxious Dogs has a breakdown of the difference between vets, Veterinary Behaviorists, and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists.)
In the meantime, give your dog as much space and peace during mealtimes as possible — and make sure everyone in your household knows not to go near the dog during feeding times.
If your dog is suddenly displaying food aggression when they didn’t before, take them to a vet. They may have an injury or ailment causing physical pain and altering their behavior as a result.
This is a good idea before implementing any training plan. Our pets can be stoic when they’re hurting — a thorough vet check is never a bad move.
It’s a good idea for all dog owners to do some occasional resource guarding drills. While you may not feel it’s necessary if your dog does not have food aggression, that’s actually the best time to work on it — before symptoms start! The following steps can show your dog they don’t need to worry about you taking away their food.
Many articles about addressing food aggression recommend hand feeding your dog. There isn’t an across-the-board consensus, and what works for one situation might not for another — but we generally advise against it. Hand feeding can actually lead to bites if your dog learns to suppress their body language but still feels uncomfortable.
How does this happen? When your dog only gets access to food through a human, that person is in control and often removes the food or reacts when they show undesirable behavior. Your dog then learns to suppress their warning body language and might appear to “suddenly” snap.
Another great way to prevent resource guarding is to only approach your dog during meal times to give them something else extra, like high-value treats they don't get often. When your dog is calmly eating, walk nearby and toss a special treat into their food bowl. This creates a positive association with you coming close!
Take care to not bother your dog or get in the way of their food. Tossing treats from a few feet away is a better option than putting your hand all the way in your dog’s food dish, even if they’re very tolerant. You want to create a clear picture that your dog’s food is completely safe around you and won’t be messed with.
As pet parents, it can be our first instinct to snatch off-limits items away — like if your dog jumps on the counter and snags the chicken you were marinating for dinner — but that can actually create resource guarding problems down the line. As much as possible, always offer your dog a trade in return for giving up their current item.
Practicing drop, leave it, and other impulse control exercises (with lots of positive reinforcement to keep your pup motivated) can help too.
First up: Remember that food aggression is a common dog behavior and is “normal” from an evolutionary standpoint. You should never punish a dog for food aggression! Instead, use a force free approach to reduce stress and avoid creating additional fear.
There are some great training guides for dogs with signs of food aggression. Here are a few favorites:
Over time, some dogs who have shown mild signs of food aggression are able to feel more comfortable with a simple desensitization approach.
At a safe distance where your dog notices you but isn’t showing signs of stress (this is called a “threshold” in reactivity training) just hang out calmly while your dog enjoys their meal. Don’t make any sudden movements, don’t immediately try to get closer, don’t try to distract your dog — simply coexist with them when food is present to show that you have no intentions of taking it away.
Many resource-guarding dogs have strong negative emotions about other animals or people approaching them while they eat. Counterconditioning can be a great approach! By pairing something positive with the previously scary stimulus (in this case, someone getting near their food) you can work to change your dog’s emotional response over time.
The simplest way to counter condition your dog’s food aggression involves tossing treats into your dog’s bowl, or on the floor nearby, as you walk by during their mealtimes. Be sure to keep a safe distance and don’t linger over them. You want this to be a positive experience — for your dog to go “hey, when they came by me, I got more things!” — and not to weird them out.
The trade game is a positive reinforcement training technique that can be used to address resource guarding with food-aggressive dogs. It involves teaching your dog that giving up a valued resource — like part of their meal — will actually result in receiving an even better reward in return.
To play the trade game, you need two sets of high-value rewards, such as small pieces of chicken, cheese, or other favorite special treats. First, offer your dog a low-value resource, such as a dry dog biscuit or their regular food. When the dog takes the biscuit, immediately show them the second set of tasty treats and offer them one in exchange.
Over time, gradually increase the value of the low-value resource and practice the trade game in different situations.
Pet parents can often address some mild food aggression resource guarding at home by ensuring that their dogs know they won’t take their food away and creating a positive association with their presence. Some cases are more severe, though — and aggression is never something to take lightly.
If you think your dog is a bite risk, aren’t seeing progress, or just want to know someone else has your back, reach out to a professional force free trainer. They’ll be able to offer individualized guidance to set you, your dog, and your entire family up for long-term success depending on the degree of food aggression you're dealing with.
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content.
These are the trainers who reviewed this article:
Owner-Lumos Dog Training, Atlanta, GA
Certified Professional Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
Fear Free Certified Professional (FFCP)
Applied Animal Behavior Analysts (UW-AABA)
Owner - Dog's Day Out, Ballard, WA
Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
Licensed AKC CGC Evaluator
NW Coordinator, Doggone Safe
April 14, 2023
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