dog aggressively protecting his food bowl
Pet Behavioral Problems

Food Aggression in Dogs

Food aggression in dogs is common. In wild animals, protectiveness over food is a wonderful thing—it keeps them alive! Our pet dogs sometimes don’t seem to get the memo, however, that they’re far from wild creatures.

If your dog has severe food aggression, contact a certified behaviorist to help you with the problem. You shouldn’t try to train them out of it yourself. For milder cases, try implementing management techniques and training your dog to accept people near their food.

We’ll talk about how you can do that in this article, along with some other tips!

Table of Contents:

What is Food Aggression in Dogs?

Food aggression is when dogs become overly territorial of their food to the point of displaying aggressive behaviors. This can include kibble in their bowl, treats, table scraps dropped on the ground, or even foods found outside on walks.

Food aggression can be severe, leading to the dog biting people or other animals. It can also be milder but cause stress to the dog and your family. Milder forms of aggression can escalate if not handled properly.

How much Possessiveness is too much?

It’s important to note that your dog isn’t meant to be okay with their food being taken. If someone tried to take your meal while you were eating, you’d be mad, too! This is an unrealistic expectation.

There should be reasonable boundaries around your dog’s food.

They should be able to eat without children sticking their hands in the dish or getting in their face. They shouldn’t have other pets stealing their food. You and other adult family members shouldn’t pick up the bowl repeatedly during a meal.

If your child or another pet cannot respect your dog’s boundaries, it’s your responsibility to remove them from the situation—not to blame your dog for behaving like a dog.

That said, it’s important that we can stop our dogs from eating inappropriate items like fallen table scraps that can make them sick, or things they pick up or hunt while outdoors.

Your dog shouldn’t get to eat anything they want—but you also shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations for how they respond to reasonable boundaries being crossed.

fixing food aggression in dogs

What Causes Food Aggression in Dogs?

  • Messing with your dog’s food. Some people may stick their hand in their dog’s bowl while they eat to “train” them not to resource guard—this often has the opposite effect as it leaves them with no boundaries.
    Someone in the house might think it’s funny to mess with the dog’s food while they eat, or you may allow your child to be grabby with the dog’s food. These things can also lead to food aggression due to that same lack of boundaries.
    Your dog learns that their food can be stolen and thus may begin to guard it to stop that from happening.
  • Limited resources. If your dog didn’t have enough food at some point in their life, especially if they had to compete for their food, they might develop food aggression.
    Some examples might be if a dog lived on the street, was kept in a hoarding situation before you adopted them, or was bred by an unreputable breeder who didn’t care for the puppies appropriately.

What are the Signs of Food Aggression?

Food aggression can range from fairly mundane behaviors to incredibly concerning. Here are some signs to watch for:

  • Running away with food in their mouth
  • Growling
  • Wide “whale eyes” (you can see the whites of the eye)
  • Snarling, showing teeth
  • Snapping teeth
  • Lunging
  • Biting
  • Chasing

Mild aggression might look like widened “whale eyes” and growling. A dog with mid-tier food aggression might snarl and snap their teeth. Severe aggression can include biting and chasing a person or animal away from the food.

If your dog shows mild aggression, you can likely deal with it yourself. Severe aggression should be handled by a professional only.

When it comes to moderate food aggression, use your own judgment—but if you think your dog might bite, please contact a professional.

How to Fix Food Aggression in Dogs

Contact a Professional

A professional Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) are the best people to handle any type of aggression in dogs.

Always ensure the person you’re working with has these credentials, as many dog trainers do not.

You’ll also want to know what training methods they use. I suggest finding a trainer who focuses on positive reinforcement and force-free training, as trying to punish the aggression out of your dog is almost bound to make it worse.

Trying to handle things on your own can lead to disaster, especially if your dog has severe food aggression.

You should also consider who else is at risk if your own training fails: are there proper protocols in place to prevent children and other pets from being bitten?

Contact a professional if:

  • Your dog has bitten, or you think they might bite
  • The behavior doesn’t improve through training or stops improving in the midst of training
  • Your own training methods make the aggression worse

Train Your Dog Yourself

Be very careful about the advice you listen to, online specifically, but also from dog trainers. Too many will recommend outdated methods that can make the behavior worse than when you started.

Don’t take your dog’s food away, put your hand in their bowl, or mess with them while they eat. Don’t punish or try to dominate them and be the “alpha dog.”

The ASPCA recommends implementing the following stages, moving on to the next step once your dog has eaten calmly ten times in a row.

  1. Stand still a few feet away from your dog, say, “what have you got there?” and toss a treat into their bowl every few seconds until they’re done eating. Do not move forward during this process.
  2. Repeat step one but when you say, “what have you got there?” take one step forward. Toss a treat into your dog’s bowl and then step back again. Take one extra step each day until your dog has eaten calmly ten times in a row.
  3. Repeat the above process while standing directly above your dog’s bowl and dropping treats into it. Immediately walk away once the treat has been dropped. Then, walk back, say, “what have you got there?” and drop another treat. Repeat until your dog is done eating.
  4. Walk up to the bowl while saying, “what have you got there?” Bend slightly and offer the treat in your hand for your dog to take. Wait for them to stop eating their food and take the treat. Walk away and repeat every few seconds until they’re done with their meal.
  5. Next, repeat the above process but place your free hand onto your dog’s bowl while offering the treat with your other hand.
  6. Repeat step 5 but lift the bowl off of the floor six inches each time before putting it back down and walking away.
  7. Raise the bowl higher until you can bring it to your waist.
  8. Take the bowl to a counter or table, set it down, then pick it up and bring it back to your dog.

Repeat these steps with everyone in the household (excluding minors!).

Stop if you notice elevated signs of aggression. This is a sign that an expert is needed to manage the situation.

Teach “Leave it”

If your dog tends to eat things from the ground that they shouldn’t, “leave it” is a valuable command. It won’t solve food aggression but it is a good skill to teach your dog on top of dealing with their aggressive behaviors.

Please note that I don’t recommend trying the below process if your dog is biting, snapping, or lunging to guard food. In that case, working with a certified behaviorist is the way to go, and they can give you professional advice on the matter.

The American Kennel Club recommends first teaching your dog “take it” using the following steps:

  • Hold a treat in your closed fist and allow your dog to try to get it.
  • Wait for them to stop.
  • Reward them for stopping with a clicker or praise while opening your hand to allow them to have the treat.
  • After a few tries, wait until your dog pulls back from your hand. After a few seconds, say “take it” and reward them for waiting.
  • Next, keep your hand open with the treat in your palm. Close your fist if your dog reaches for the treat.
  • Once your dog ignores the treat, say “take it” and offer the treat.

Now you have the foundations to “leave it” and can move on to the actual command:

  • Place the treat on the floor and cover it with your hand. Let them try to get the treat.
  • When they stop, mark and reward with a different treat (preferably of higher value than the one under your hand).
  • Uncover the treat slowly without allowing your dog to have it. Reward them for ignoring it and cover it again if they try to grab it.
  • Put your dog on a leash and repeat the process while covering the treat with your foot.
  • Add the “leave it” cue once your dog stops going for the treat. Say “leave it” before putting the food on the ground and reward them for listening.

Having extra treats on hand and not allowing your dog to eat the treat on the floor is essential! Otherwise, you’re teaching your dog they’ll eventually be able to have the item they were initially going for.

Eventually, you want your dog to leave that piece of chocolate that your child dropped on the floor or stay away from the bread someone threw out for the birds in your neighborhood.

You have to apply that now, with the floor treat, to get to that point.

When you’re done training, simply pick up the treat and put it away for the next training session.  

Implement Management Strategies

It’s important to manage your dog’s aggression until you can work on training them, and sometimes even beyond that point. Don’t risk yourself or others being bitten!

Think about what situations cause food aggression in your dog and, if possible, find ways to prevent them from happening in the first place.

Here are some examples:

  • Feed your dog in a room alone if children or other pets are touching them or messing with their food as they eat. This ensures no one gets hurt. It also allows your dog some space, protects their boundaries, and makes them feel calmer during mealtime.
  • Muzzle your dog outside of the house so they can’t eat off the ground. This prevents them from getting into things they shouldn’t and ensures you won’t be bitten while trying to take food from their mouth.
Why does my dog push his food bowl with his nose?

Food Aggression: What not to do

Don’t Punish Your Dog

Hurting or yelling at your dog won’t stop them from guarding or aggression. It will only escalate the behavior and worsen your relationship with them. Punishing your dog teaches them they can’t trust you.

This includes electric collars—these are as abusive as physically striking your dog.

Punishments can also backfire by making your dog think, for example, that growling isn’t okay. Since they aren’t allowed to communicate in this way, they might skip straight to more aggressive behavior like biting.

You want your dog to show warning signs before biting or lunging at a person or animal. This is their way of communicating and setting boundaries. Punishing these signs can make your dog less predictable and more dangerous to be around.

Don’t try to Dominate or be the “Alpha”

There are still too many bad trainers promoting the debunked dominance theory. If someone tells you to be the “leader of the pack,” to show dominance over your dog, or really says the words “alpha dog” at all, I recommend you run far away from that advice.

In short, dogs are not wolves—and wolf packs don’t function in the ways most people think. Wolves live in families, and the parents are usually in charge just like in human families.

They don’t battle for dominance, there is no alpha dog who eats first, and dogs are rarely trying to show dominance over you when they misbehave or act aggressively. In fact, most aggressive behavior stems from fear.

Show your dog respect and think of things from their perspective. This will help you to see the root of the issue and actually address it.

For instance, maybe your dog is traumatized from their past and doesn’t know that they’ll always have meals now. They need to learn to trust their new environment if their fear is going to truly go away.

Or perhaps they’re afraid their meal will be taken away and they won’t get enough to eat.

Maybe they aren’t getting enough to eat!

None of these are addressed by trying to dominate your dog and “show them who’s boss!” You’ll need patience and understanding in order to truly solve the problem.

Don’t take your Dog’s Food

Some people will take their dog’s food away in an effort to desensitize them to it. However, this is more likely to escalate the aggression.

Think about it this way: If you were angry at someone, would it help if they did what made you upset over and over? Of course not!

And when your dog is guarding their food, you taking it shows them they have a reason to guard it. It doesn’t fix the root of the problem and it’s unlikely to change their behavior.

You’re also very likely to get bit!

My Dog is Suddenly Possessive of their Food!

If your dog’s behavior has suddenly changed and they’re now possessive over their food, there might be a few culprits:

  • A recent change to the household
  • A change in diet
  • Illness or injury

New people or pets in the household can change your dog’s behavior. They might think these new additions will take their food and act accordingly.

If you’re feeding your dog new food, they might prefer it. Their excitement can make them feel possessive!

Lastly, you should bring your dog to the veterinarian anytime you notice sudden shifts in behavior. It can be a symptom of illness or injury.

Maybe your dog has a condition that makes them hungrier than usual, so they’re more territorial over their meals.

Or, they might feel pain as they eat, making them act grumpy when you approach.

Remember that changes like this don’t happen for no reason! Getting to the bottom of why your dog is acting this way will help you to solve the problem for good.

Food Aggression in Dogs