Food related aggression in dogs can be an explosively dangerous problem. Dogs with anxiety relating to food security can produce extremely rapid escalation of aggression going from a slightly intense look to attacking another pet or family member in a second or two. Further complicating this issue, these dogs can easily lull their owners into a false sense of security as they can be completely relaxed and loving before doing a Jekyll and Hyde transformation when the right combination of food (or even just feeding place) and perceived threat are presented.
Food possessiveness easily becomes reinforced with many dogs, which is another way of saying it gets slowly worse over time. The behaviour is rewarded when aggressiveness gains the dog more space from a potential food thief and thus the dog is encouraged to show more intense aggression.
While training a dog out of food aggressiveness is an ultimate ideal, this is a classic situation where avoidance is absolutely the first and highest priority. For many owners, ensuring a feeding process that means the dog never needs to defend its food is the perfect long term solution. However, in many situations this may not be a reliable solution longer term and retraining is much more valuable.
Regardless of who is the target of this sort of aggression the treatment process has the same underlying fundamentals. However dominating and fierce your dog looks when this is happening, it is happening because your dog is anxious. And all anxieties can be treated with a process of desensitisation – creating a scaled down version of the situation that triggers the behaviour – scaled down so much that the behaviour isn’t quite triggered – and repeating this as many times as necessary until the dog becomes completely unphased by that mini threat – and then ever so slightly scaling up the threat. Counter-conditioning can also be used to help in a process where your dog starts to associate a very good thing with the threats to food bowl protection.
Putting these two options together in the case of the food aggressive white puppy we saw on the video we would be bring the blue heeler back away from the pup and the food and requiring him to sit – or feeding him his own food – until the puppy relaxes. When the pup stops grumbling we offer a small tasty bit of something different – Reward for calmness! We then patiently creep the heeler closer till the pup becomes a bit edgy, and wait till he starts to relax and again, reward the calmness with a bit of the extra tasty treat. You can repeat this process right up until you have both dogs happily eating out of the same bowl!
Of course different dogs at different life stages have different responses to these things and there is no perfect single solution. Caesar Milan type overpowering methods are absolutely not recommended in this situation unless you are absolutely prepared to get bitten. The times when the so-called dog whisperer has been bitten himself have been cases of food aggression. These methods can work – but they really aren’t necessary. You don’t need to overpower your dog – you just need to show your dog that you are in charge of the valuable resources (nom nom nom) and calm behaviour is what earns access to those resources. That’s the smart pack leader 😉