Lately I’ve been getting a lot of calls from people who’s dogs will aggressively protect food or objects. You may think at first, “where are all these bad dogs coming from?” But the truth is, most of the people I’ve talked to accidentally created the food aggression issue by following bad training advice.
It really sucks that these dog owners were just trying to do the right thing, and someone who didn’t know what they were talking about gave them info that lead to a problem – which led to them spending lots of money to fix the problem.
So, this post is for dog owners who are looking to prevent food aggression. Maybe you just got a puppy or new dog, or maybe you’ve had a dog for a while and never thought to teach them how to accept things being taken away from them.
This post is NOT for people who are already struggling with food aggression issues. If your dog growls, snaps, or bites when you approach their food or chews, please hire a professional so you don’t get hurt.
First let’s talk about what not to do; these are the things I see creating all sorts of problems. Things that other dog professionals need to stop telling people to do.
1. Touch the dog while they’re eating. Imagine you’re at a restaurant enjoying your meal when, unsolicited, the waiter comes over and starts giving you a shoulder massage. I’d be pretty uncomfortable with a stranger touching me without my permission, especially if I was eating. You? Now, imagine that happens every time you’re eating. You may get a little defensive after a while.
2. Put your hands in the dog’s food bowl and push their muzzle around. I don’t mind sharing my food if people ask, but if some dude comes up to me and starts mashing his hands in my food and then shoving my face around, you better bet I’ll get upset. Why should your dog have to tolerate this?
Ok, now that we are on the same page about what not to do, let’s talk about productive things you can do to make sure your dog is cool with you taking things from her or approaching her while she’s eating.
And, to reiterate, this is purely for PREVENTATIVE training. If you have a dog that has a history of food aggression, hire a trainer before you get bit.
1. Object exchanges – I love to do this with puppies and new to me dogs any time I take something from them. The idea is that YOU always have something better than the dog does. If they’re running around with a sock in their mouth, take it and exchange them for a treat. If they’re chewing on a bully stick, take it and give them a bit of cheese, then give the bully stick back. Check out this video for more details.
The trick to this is to have something to exchange that the dog finds more valuable than what they have. And if you have to play a chase game to get the thing from your dog, your leash should be on until you have a more stable relationship. I only do this in the beginning of my relationship with a dog, but I make sure to practice exchanges with a variety of objects. If I have a dog that’s willing to give up anything in exchange for something else, then I stop exchanging for a treat and just take what I need to take.
The other trick is to take what ever your dog has before you show them what you have, that way it’s more of a surprise. By not showing them what they get until after they’ve given up what they have, there’s less chance of the dog weighing his options. You’ll also transition to no food a lot quicker if the dog isn’t in the habit of checking your hand before deciding if they want to give up what they have.
If at any time you have an issue with growling, snapping, or biting – STOP what you’re doing and call a professional immediately.
2. Food bowl exercises – For this exercise, we want to teach the dog that when a human approaches their food bowl while they’re eating, something good happens! This is the opposite of what most people do with their dogs, especially if you’re in the habit of touching them or putting your hand in their bowl, they may get a little tense about you being near them while they eat.
To start, put most of your dogs kibble in the bowl, and keep a small handful in your pocket. Feed your dog, then practice stepping in and throwing more kibble in to the bowl. Now, instead of pestering them, you’re approach predicts more food, yay! If your dog is super cool with that, then you can pick their bowl up before they’re done eating, add more food, and give it back to them. This will teach your dog that you just want to add to the goodness, and then they get their bowl back.
A word of caution on this, repetition can be a real killer, so don’t do these exercises a million times. For objects exchanges and taking the food bowl, I won’t practice more than 2 times. Then I let the dog finish what ever it is they have as long as it’s safe.
And that’s really all there is to food aggression prevention. If you found this blog helpful, share it with your friends so other people can prevent serious behavior problems in the future! If you have questions about this process, or other ideas for prevention, please share them!
About the Author: Jen Banks has been training dogs professionally since 2008. She started her own pet dog training company in 2014. Owner and trainer at Banks K9 Solutions in Fitchburg MA, she provides group classes, board and train, and in home training for families and their dogs.