Food Aggression In Dogs

Food aggression in dogs is often triggered when a dog thinks his food is under threat or there's confusion over who's the alpha male. Learn more about the causes and understand the signs of dog food aggression and how to remedy this potentially dangerous aggressive dog behavior!

What Is Dog Food Aggression?

What is it?

Well...if your sweet, loving Cocker Spaniel suddenly turns into a snarling demon when anyone approaches his food bowl while he's eating - that's dog food aggression!

Food aggression in dogs is fairly common, but it can be helped

Food aggression in dogs, also known as 'resource guarding', is instinctive and it's normal canine behavior.

It's a throw-back to the wild where dogs lived and hunted in packs and could never be certain when or where their next meal was coming from.

They had to fight for their share of the 'spoils' and fiercely guarded their food, and only the fittest and strongest dogs survived.

Unfortunately for some of our pets, this instinct rears its ugly head from time to time (and you may think for no 'apparent' reason).

In our human world, dog food aggression is a potentially dangerous and unacceptable canine behavior, and if it's not addressed swiftly, your dog will almost certainly end up biting or attacking someone, resulting in a serious injury.

If you see signs that your Cocker Spaniel is beginning to guard his food or toys, I recommend you take swift action, and if you're not sure what those signs are, you can learn more about them below.

What Are The Causes Of Food Aggression In Dogs?

There are many situations that may cause food aggression in dogs, but in most cases it's either:

Threatened Removal Of Food:

Your dog's aggression may be triggered if he believes you're going to take his food from him (even though you gave it to him in the first place!). When he growls or snarls, he's giving you a very definite warning to stay away!

If you then remove his food from him you'll be making the problem worse because you'll have confirmed that he was right all along - you were going to steal his food!

Leadership Issues:

Food aggression in dogs may also be triggered where there's a question over leadership, for example, the owner relaxes his role as leader, the dog becomes aware of it and views the lapse as a weakness.

In a pack, (wild or domestic) members will usually compete with one another and the strongest will win the position of head of the pack.

All packs need a leader and if your Cocker sees a weakness in you he'll almost certainly try to assume the role of alpha male (which, by the way, could also be female - it just means 'top dog or leader').

It's vital that you quickly reclaim your status as pack leader if you are going to resolve your Cocker Spaniel's food aggression.

Learn more about the alpha dog and how to become the leader of your 'pack'.

Signs Of Food Aggression In Dogs

The first signs of food aggression in dogs are subtle and very easily overlooked. Some or all of the following signs may be seen if you walk towards your dog while he's eating, for example, he may:

Caramel Toffee - thankfully this beautiful cocker spaniel doesn't have any food aggression problems.
  • hold his head low;
  • become very still and tense his muscles;
  • begin to tremble;
  • lower his tail;
  • wag his tail very quickly - it's often difficult to distinguish this from normal happy tail wagging.
  • stop eating when you get near him, his eyes following your every move;
  • move his body between you and his food bowl to stop you from taking it.

If you notice any of these 'early warning signs', you must act quickly to address them before they escalate into the following more obvious signs of food aggression in dogs.

Your dog may:

  • give a low warning growl;
  • snarl (sometimes quite viciously) as you approach him;
  • bark at you;
  • snap at your hands;
  • bite whoever approaches him;
  • curl or lift his lip(s);
  • hold his ears back;
  • give you a hard, glassy stare;
  • raise his hackles - (where a ridge of hair on the back of his coat stands up on end);

In a domestic environment, aggressive dog behaviors such as those listed above are unacceptable; they're dangerous and must be addressed immediately.

IMPORTANT: Do not, under any circumstances, try to remove food from a dog displaying food aggression - if you do, you'll almost certainly get hurt.

How To Remedy Food Aggression In Dogs

In the wild the alpha male always eats first.

If you are to retain (or regain) the role of alpha dog, you will need to ensure you always feed your dog after you and your family have eaten.

At the very least, let your dog see you eat something, a cracker perhaps, or simply pretend to eat some of his food before you feed him.

Ensure you're already following our recommended feeding guidelines which will help to prevent food aggression in dogs, and then try one or more of the following remedies:

Method 1 - Remedy Food Aggression In Dogs

  • Ask your dog to sit or lie down before you begin feeding him; always make him work for his food.

  • Feed your dog by hand; don't let him eat from his bowl.

  • After a few days of hand feeding introduce an empty bowl nearby and leave it empty.

  • After a couple of days of ignoring the empty bowl, gradually move it a little nearer during each hand feeding. Take care not to rush this step as the sight of his food bowl could trigger his food aggression.

  • At your next feeding session, move the food bowl directly underneath your hand, the one that's feeding your dog.

  • If that doesn't spook him, drop a piece of kibble into his dish and let him eat it. Continue to hand feed him but drop an occasional piece of kibble into his dish.

  • Repeat this exercise at each mealtime for at least 3 days before going on to the next step.

  • Gradually increase the amount of kibble you drop into his bowl each time until eventually his entire morning or evening meal is in his food bowl.

  • Speak to Cocker as you're putting food into his bowl to help him associate your voice with his kibble dropping into the bowl.

  • Continue to sit with him while he eats.

  • As your pet begins to accept you around him while he's eating, and accepts you dropping titbits into his bowl, try stroking him gently. (I recommend you stroke his back and not his head at this stage, just until you're certain he won't bite you.)

  • If he's comfortable with being stroked, continue this during the following few mealtimes, but take it slowly so he doesn't feel threatened.

  • Children should be allowed to drop food into your dog's bowl too, but only under strict supervision.

  • If your Cocker Spaniel is only aggressive to one member of your family, it might be a good idea if that person takes on the role of feeding him for a while. Ideally though, it's best if all members of the family are involved with his mealtimes.

  • If you have more than one dog, I would feed them separately, either in different parts of the house or in their own crates - at least until the problem is fully resolved.

  • If, at any point, your dog begins growling again, or shows any of the above signs of aggression, you've probably moved on too quickly and will need to go back a few steps or begin again, but this time working at a slower pace.

Method 2 - Remedy Food Aggression In Dogs

  • Place your dog's empty bowl on the floor and step away from it.

  • After a few seconds, your dog will probably look at you as if to ask, 'Where's my dinner?' When he does, walk up to him and drop a few pieces of kibble into his bowl, then walk away again.

  • When he's eaten the kibble, he'll probably look to you to provide more food. As soon as he looks at you, feed him some more, in the same way.

  • Continue this process until your dog has eaten all of his meal.

This exercise will help to teach your Cocker Spaniel that you are the source of his food and will help him to enjoy (and, more importantly, accept) you approaching him and being around him while he's feeding.

Method 3 - Remedy Food Aggression In Dogs

The following alternative method only applies if your puppy or dog is beginning to display early signs of dog food aggression and you are certain that your dog won't bite you.

If there's any doubt in your mind, do not try to take his food from him. Instead, consult a professional dog behaviorist.

  • Sit by your puppy while he feeds. Drop kibble into his bowl occasionally as he eats and stroke him gently. If your puppy exhibits any sign of dog food aggression during this time, remove his food bowl and replace it after 3 to 5 minutes.

  • If he continues with the same behavior, remove the bowl again and wait another 5 minutes.

  • If he's still displaying aggression either when you approach him or when you're stroking him, remove his bowl altogether and try again at the next scheduled feeding time.

Your puppy should eventually learn that you are the provider of his food (but only when he behaves) and that if he misbehaves you will remove it and ultimately, he won't be fed. 

Important: If using Method 3 above results in your puppy missing more than one meal, I would change over to Method 1 because I'm not comfortable with a young puppy missing any more than one meal.

Resource Guarding Toys

Resource guarding is another name for food aggression in dogs and it isn't limited to food; your puppy may also guard his toys!

Black cocker spaniel lying on the bed, chilling...

To prevent this from happening, you may like to try the following exercise:

  • Begin by giving your puppy a toy and let him play with it for a couple of minutes before gently taking it from him.

  • Wait a couple of seconds, then give him a treat, praise him, and give the toy back to him to play with.

  • Do this several times each day until your puppy readily gives up the toy when you take it from his mouth.

(If he runs away with the toy, don't chase him - you'll only be setting yourself up for trouble!)

Never Punish Food Aggression In Dogs

Food aggression in dogs should never be punished with harsh words.

And no matter how frustrated you are, please don't become aggressive yourself (verbally or, heaven forbid, physically) because this won't help. It will only make him much worse and the situation may spiral out of control as he responds to (and attempts to compete with) your aggression/retaliation.

If you find yourself in this situation, and you're worried your dog may bite, I strongly advise you to seek professional help from a qualified dog trainer or animal behavior specialist.

IMPORTANT: Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to remedy your dog's aggression by yourself - best leave that to the professionals!

General Notes On Food Aggression In Dogs

Resolving food aggression in dogs is not easy nor is it a quick fix; it needs careful handling.

I strongly recommend you contact a dog behavioral specialist before attempting to treat any aggressive behaviors in dogs, particularly where you're worried that your pet may bite you.

If your Cocker Spaniel is prone to resource guarding, you'll probably need to watch for the reappearance of any warning signs of dog food aggression and continue practicing some of the above exercises from time to time, probably for the rest of his life. In my opinion, it never really goes away.

Make a point of being around your dog when he's eating and drop a couple of morsels of his favorite food, for example, chicken or liver, into his bowl. This will help to remind him that people approaching his dish mean that something good is about to happen and he shouldn't feel threatened.

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