As a child I was taught to never bother a dog while he’s eating. Certainly good advice since messing with a dog at dinner time can be asking for trouble. Food-related aggression problems are not uncommon. The success rate for treating them is relatively high, but can entail a significant time commitment and some risk. On the other hand, prevention can be safe and relatively easy. Here are some tips to insure that your puppy will be relaxed and safe around his food:
Things to do:
- Make dinner time family time – Don’t ignore the pup when he eats. Sit on the floor with him. Feed dry food from your hand. Occasionally hold the bowl in your lap and allow him to eat.
- Teach the pup to look forward to having people nearby – Every now and then, drop a small chunk of canned food or lean chicken in his bowl as you stand near or walk by.
- Associate food with gentle touch and handling – During a few dinners each week, practice getting the pet used to being touched while he’s eating. Gently touch him, then promptly hand a few pieces of food. Repeat, gradually touching him all over. The pup learns that touch means food is coming, not being taken away.
- Feed the pup enough – If you have a healthy pup that has plenty of energy and no health problems, but is thin and acts like he’s starved – then he probably is. Feed him more. Hungry dogs are more likely to guard their food.
- Socialize frequently – Have friends of all ages visit as often as possible. Ask them to hand feed small amounts of dry food or small treats, piece by piece. Do the same thing when you meet people on walks. When the pup learns to sit, request a sit before they give the food. Poorly socialized dogs are usually anxious around unfamiliar people and the anxiety can be manifested as aggression near food.
- Start obedience early – Teach the puppy to respond to obedience cues as soon as possible. Enroll in a puppy class at eight to ten weeks of age. Take it through a basic obedience class at six to twelve months of age. Obedient dogs are less likely to be aggressive.
- Establish a relationship in which the family is in control – Remind the pup that you are in charge by asking him to sit before he gets anything he wants or needs (food, toys, play access to outdoors, social attention). Frequently reinforcing deferential behavior is a safe, effective and humane way of accomplishing this.
Things to avoid:
- Frequently snatching the food away from the pup while he is eating to show him “you own the food” – This will just irritate the puppy and can actually cause food bowl guarding and aggression. I’d think about biting someone who did that to me!
- Physical “leadership exercises” – Don’t try to teach the pup you are the boss by rolling him on his back, shaking him by the scruff or by using any other rough techniques. This can cause distrust of people, make the pup hand-shy and lead to defensive aggression.
- Punishment – Physical corrections and harsh training techniques weaken the bond, cause distrust and can lead to aggression. If your pup growls, do not physically discipline him or harshly scold him. Immediately contact a pet behaviorist for instruction on how to handle the problem.
These techniques should only be used with friendly, young puppies. They should not be attempted with adult dogs or any dogs that are already showing signs of aggression. If your pet is already exhibiting aggressive behavior, seek the help of a professional.