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How to Recognize and Manage Food Aggression

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Schooner and the cat thief

A story from my kitchen…

My dog Schooner eats his food, spilling little kibbles out onto the floor. His maw, expansive as it is, has droopy sides, and a few of those little kibbles find their way to the floor. The cat notices the spillage and takes a few steps toward the bowl and the smattering of slobber-softened kibbles. Tentatively, she tastes one, deems it delicious, and continues to move forward kibble by mushy kibble.

Schooner is keeping an eye on her, with his head buried in his bowl. He isn't moving his head, but his eyes follow the kitty's every move. As she gets almost to the bowl, he freezes, lowers his head a bit more, and gives her the deepest growl he can muster. "Stay AWAY from my bowl," the growl tries to communicate.

Undeterred, the kitty remains directly under Schooner's head, lazily eating the treats that have slipped out of Schooner's mouth. Finally, Schooner can't take it any longer and lunges toward the kitty with a bark that rattles the windows. Kitty scampers off to the back room, back to where her own food bowl sits (with food in it, I might add).

If I allowed it, this scene would repeat itself until Schooner finished his dinner. The scene seems comical if you don't know that you are watching a dog practice, and get better at, food-bowl aggression. More technically, it's called resource guarding. Schooner is guarding a highly prized resource—his food—from cat thievery. Note that the cat will actually steal Schooner's food. She's on a diet and will take food any way she can get it, even if she has to risk the wrath of a dog 30 times her size.

Why do dogs resource-guard?

It is perfectly normal for any animal (or human) to guard a valuable resource.

It is perfectly normal for any animal (or human) to guard a valuable resource. Have you seen people fight over a parking spot around the holidays? That is a version of resource guarding in humans. Food is one of the things a dog can't live without. Before dogs were domesticated, when resources were scarce, the dog that fought for and won his dinner was the one that survived. Even now, when dogs don't ever miss a meal, food remains an important resource.

Resource guarding isn't limited to food. Sometimes dogs guard resources they deem important. The blue stuffie may not seem important from your perspective, but your dog may place that item at the very top of his priority list. In addition to food and toys, dogs guard space (the doorway, the couch, etc.), other animals (a dog or cat they live with, for instance), and even people.

Most resource guarding isn't appropriate, though. For example, I don't want Schooner to develop the habit of growling to move the cat (or other dogs, or people) away from his food bowl. The longer the resource guarding persists (and works), the harder it is to convince the dog that resource guarding isn't a good idea. It's important to recognize resource guarding so that you can intervene immediately and work on changing the dog's mind about guarding his things.

What does food aggression look like?

Would you know resource guarding if you saw it? Dogs display resource guarding differently, but there are core signs to look for:

  • Lowering the face/chin over whatever's being guarded
  • Gulping rapidly in response to the appearance of a "threat" to the resource. The threat doesn't have to be a real threat; the threat can be the appearance of someone (or something, like my cat) that the dog deems as a threat.
  • Standing still with only the eyes moving toward the perceived threat
  • Stiffening all over the body—the dog may look very still, almost like a statue
  • Curling lip, exposed teeth—the dog may or may not make any noise when snarling
  • A low growl (that may escalate to a louder growl if the threat continues to approach)
  • Air snapping—the dog snaps at the air toward the person or animal he deems a threat
  • Lunging toward the threat, with a bark or growl, perhaps even chasing the threat for a distance
  • Barking at the threat
  • Biting the person or animal to drive them away from the food

Managing food aggression

My first task is to contain the kitty so she can't come in and steal Schooner's food. If I can eliminate the thief, I've eliminated the threat. No threat = no guarding. Management is critical to reducing resource guarding successfully, because eliminating the threat eliminates the resource guarding behavior. The more a dog practices resource guarding successfully, the more often (and more quickly) the dog will reach for that behavior when faced with a real (or imagined) threat.

Management is critical to reducing resource guarding successfully.

Preventing resource guarding keeps both the dog safe and the "threat" safe. By keeping the cat away from the food bowl, I'm saving Schooner from getting better at resource guarding as well as keeping him from hurting the cat. Remember that when you set up a management solution, it's important that everyone in the household understand and comply with the plan. Even one instance where the dog resource guards successfully can be enough to cause a significant setback.

Once a management plan is in place, the next step is to help change Schooner's thought process about the kitty coming near his food. When the cat comes around when I'm handling food (dog food, people food, etc.), I give Schooner a little something extra, something that is extra good! Giving him something extra because the cat came near will help turn around Schooner's feelings toward the kitty. Kitty will soon equal treats! The quicker I can get this message across, the sooner Schooner will enjoy the cat coming closer.

Schooner keeping an eye on the cat thief.

Never correct or punish a dog (or cat) for guarding (or stealing) food. Paying attention to the problem (even to correct the animal) only communicates that the behavior really works. However, paying attention to the dog and telling him what it is you want him to do will work wonders to help solve your problem!

If the "threat" moves too close to the dog's treasure despite your efforts, there are ideas that can help get you out of the situation with a minimum of chaos. Start by throwing a handful of treats away from your dog's food (or toy or other item), encouraging the threat to chase after that item and leave the area long enough for you to repair your broken management plan.

Another strategy is to disrupt the process by saying a phrase that always gets your dog's attention. For some dogs the phrase is "Who wants to go for a walk?" For others, it may be "Who wants a treat?" The idea here is to break your dog's pattern of resource guarding long enough so that you can get that management plan back in place.

If you use these suggestions to diffuse a threat, use them sparingly. And remember, if you ask "Who wants to go for a walk?" or "Who wants a treat?" you really have to follow through with the walk or the treat!

Caring and sharing

The earlier the intervention, the mores successful you are likely to be.

Resource guarding is a normal dog behavior. Normal doesn't imply acceptable, however. It is important to recognize problems with resource guarding and food aggression, and then reduce this behavior in your dog through distraction and positive training. The earlier the intervention, the more successful you are likely to be in teaching your dog to tolerate others near his food or other special items. For training help and/or more challenging aggression issues, consider contacting a Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partner (CTP).

About the author
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Laurie Luck, KPA CTP, and a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member, is the founder of Smart Dog University. She has been involved with many pet dog trainer certification initiatives, all based on humane training practices and the latest scientific knowledge. Laurie also participates in service dog training, and she and her Tango are a pet-therapy team. Through her work with dogs and owners, Laurie has developed many happy canine and human friendships.

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