You just bought the biggest, baddest, raw bone in the pet store for your beloved pooch. You knew he'd love it. But one thing you didn't count on was that your sweet dog would turn into a snarling beast when you try to take it away from him.
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You can now officially join the legions of dog owners who have a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde living under their roof; that is when it comes to highly valued prizes, like that big, tasty bone. But it could be any food that prompts food aggression in your dog, even his everyday meal. Whether you just discovered you have a food aggressive dog on your hands or have dealt with this issue for years, you may wonder: can you train food aggression out of your dog?
Making sense of food aggression
Food aggression, also known as food guarding or resource guarding, is a perfectly natural behavior for dogs; in the wild that is. After all, guarding their valuable possessions — food, mate, family, and living area — allowed dogs to survive for tens of thousands of years.
But food aggression is an undesirable behavior for our domestic dogs. And what they guard depends on what the dog considers valuable. Some dogs guard only chew bones or favorite toys. Others guard anything and everything, including things they have stolen, such as socks, kid's toys, or food wrappers.
Some food guarding behaviors are benign, such as running away with the item in their mouth. Other dogs are downright ornery, like chasing or biting a person. In some cases, dogs direct food aggression only toward certain people, and others guard their food against everyone.
Training considerations for the food-aggressive dog
Behavior modification techniques, namely desensitization and counter-conditioning, are used to train food-aggressive dogs. While some people live with a food-aggressive dog by making adjustments around the behavior, such as not disturbing the dog while he eats or feeding in a separate room or a crate, it can get dicey. There's always a risk the dog will ramp up the food guarding to include human food on tables or counters, or pieces of food that fall to the floor.
Professional behavior modification is imperative if you think there's a possibility your dog will bite you or if children are in the household. While adults often misinterpret or don't understand dogs' body language, young children don't even recognize dogs' body language, and may not understand to stay away from a food-aggressive dog.
For severe cases of food aggression, always consult with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. If you can't find one in your area, consult with a reward-based Certified Professional Dog Trainer, but ask about their education and experience treating aggression since it's not required for the CPDT certification.
Although you may find a wealth of information online for DIY training for food aggression, if you don't feel completely confident or comfortable about working to train food aggression out of your dog, call in a professional. If you decide to manage the problem on your own, proceed with caution. Not for the faint of heart or first-time dog owners, it's ideal if you have sufficient experience with dogs and dog training before you take on this potentially dangerous behavioral tick yourself. Food aggression is a complex issue and dogs are a complex bunch to read in terms of their body language and emotional state. If you slip up or feel unsure at any stage during behavior modification exercises, your dog can regress or even become more aggressive depending on what you're doing wrong. And, of course, there's always the possibility of being seriously hurt.
Step-by-step training for the food-aggressive dog
One highly respected source of dog behavior and training information is Best Friends Animal Society. Best Friends has been rescuing, retraining or rehabilitating, and finding homes for dogs for over three decades. Their on-staff experts include animal behavior consultant, Sherry Woodard, who concurs that guarding or possessiveness is a completely natural, normal behavior for dogs. She says that dogs with guarding behaviors can be taught new associations — the goal being to keep them and their families safe.
Woodard also cautions that if guarding is a new development in a dog you've had for a while, seek veterinary care, since sudden changes in behavior may be indicative of a medical problem. Provided your dog is healthy, alert, and otherwise friendly, affectionate, and obedient, consider this step-by-step program for the food aggressive dog, which includes only two simple things: hand-feeding and practicing trades. It also requires you to work with your dog alone, away from other family members or pets.
Work at your dog's pace, don't get impatient for results or speak in a harsh tone, which will backfire, making him worse than before. If at any time, your dog becomes the least bit threatening toward you, but you are still confident, stop, and go back to a step where he was relaxed. But if growling, body stiffening, and other signs of aggression occur, you are advised by Woodard to back off and consult a professional.
Hand feeding means you'll stop using a food bowl for all meals and feed kibble a few pieces at a time. The purpose is to show your dog that hands near his food are a good thing, thus changing the association of your presence and being close to his food, from negative to positive.
Step-by-step: practicing the trade
- When you practice trades with your dog, you'll teach her to always expect something better, making it worth trading. To begin, give your dog a low-value item, say, a toy she's never paid attention to much. Tell your dog to "give" or "give it." When she gives you the toy, reward her with a high-value treat, which you'll have hidden in your hand. Now, give the toy back, walk away, and wait two minutes. Approach your dog again and repeat the exercise six times.
- Repeat this exercise six times daily for three days, using a different low-value item each day. After your three days of practicing the trade, change up the low-value item to a high-value item she has guarded in the past. Hold it out but don't give it to her as you say, "give," then hand her a really yummy treat and remove the item. Practice this exercise six times a day for three days changing the high-value item each day.
- The training changes at this point after the last three days of high-value practice. Now, you approach your dog and give her one of the high-value items you've been using in practice. Walk at least six feet away and wait two minutes. Now, take a deep breath, relax, smile, and approach your dog. Tell her to "give" and take the item while handing her or trading the item for a delicious, high-value treat.
- Practice six approaches every day for three days and just as before, change up the high-value item each day for another high-value item. After practicing this exercise for three days, lay all the high-value items out on the floor and wait for your dog to choose one. Now, approach her with a treat tucked in your hand. Do six approaches, exchanging or trading the high-value item for the tasty, high-value treat. Between approaches, you will continue to walk away and wait two minutes before approaching again.
- You can leave all the high-value items on the floor if your dog is responding well to the training, and practice the exercise three or more times every day for at least a week.
It's important to reinforce the training, so practice these lessons often, and if possible, have other adults work with your dog starting as you did with low-value items and working up through the exercises while you watch the interactions to gauge how your dog is progressing. Practice in various locations with high-value items and always make sure you have plenty of high-value treats along, too.
For a complete, in-depth trade-up training program for your dog, refer to Best Friends' website and search for Teaching Trades: Dog Training Plan.
Preventing food aggression
The old axiom, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is never truer than in dog behavior issues. Although guarding food is natural for dogs, they must be taught correctly not to guard against their human family. When lack of proper basic training spirals out of control into outright food aggression reaching a dangerous point, you'll usually find a human at fault somewhere in the dog's past, as is the case with a number of other behavior issues in dogs.
If you adopt a puppy or even a senior dog, prevent food aggression issues from ever developing by using some of the techniques suggested. Find out before it's too late, if your new family member has food aggression or resource guarding issues, and nip it in the bud, and keep reinforcing the positive behaviors for your dog's well-being and your peace of mind.