Helping the needy feels wonderful, doesn’t it? Bringing home a dog from an animal shelter knowing that you’re giving them a rebirth in life is a beautiful experience. What happens when things get overwhelming and you discover food aggression in dogs? It’s perfectly normal and we’ll guide you through it.
Where Does Food Aggression in Dogs Come From?
Food aggression in dogs is very common among the life of strays. Food is scarce so they protect it when they find it. Just like humans, dogs also struggle to change habits.
One of the core emotions driving resource guarding is fear and the need to self-protect. Again, just like humans, when we’re caught up in fear, our fight-or-flight system gets activated. As a result, our logical reasoning abilities in the brain get shut down.
No amount of logic or reasoning can make the fear turn off. That’s why we have practices like deep breathing, yoga or journaling to encourage our fight-or-flight system to naturally calm down, with time.
Similarly with dogs, they too can get the amygdala hijack. Just because they’re now in a safe place with cushions and beds and constant food, their logic hasn’t kicked in yet. The habit of fear is simply too strong. As such, we need to find ways to encourage their fight-or-flight system to naturally cam down.
As you can imagine, it takes time and patience along with a lot of positive reinforcement. Not only will you reduce food aggression in dogs around you. You’ll also develop an even deeper bond as you learn together.
Other reasons that can push a dog into guarding food:
- Diseases. Certain health issues such as Cushing’s or hypothyroidism can increase hunger or bloating. Parasites can impact the gastrointestinal system so making them hungry or nauseous at various times. All of these can increase stress which can show up as food aggression in dogs. As we mentioned in a previous post, senior dogs need regular check ups but so do younger dogs.
- Absorption problems. Again, these can make your dog feel hungry and generally unwell. They might even start eating strange things whenever they can such as earth and stones
- Genetics. Some breeds are potentially more prone to pack mentality such that their instincts kick in to protect and guard whatever is in front of them.
Top Tips for Collaborating with a Food Obsessed Dog
As mentioned, when a dog is guarding food, we need to work with them. No amount of shouting or telling them off will help.
Many people believe that we shouldn’t reassure anxious or scared dogs but just like, we need reassurance when we feel under threat. Although, we shouldn’t over nurture them or fret over them.
As this Welfare 4 Animals article on the Four F’s of Fear explains, we can’t reinforce fear by showing we care. Instead, we should follow their cues. For example, a dog scared of thunderstorms might not want physical contact but they feel better with you sitting next to them.
Similarly when dealing with food aggression in dogs, assuming you’ve ruled out the other potential causes. We can’t magically remove their fear but we can start gradually reducing it as per the tips below.
1- Take the threat away
When a dog is guarding food, the first step is management. The aim is to keep everyone safe. If you have other dogs, make sure they’re in a separate room.
With food aggression in dogs, you also need to avoid getting bitten yourself. Don’t get too close to the food bowl when your dog is eating and never try to take it away while they’re still eating.
2- Gradually remove the conditioning
If you’ve heard of Ivan Pavlov, you might know all about his dogs. Pavlov’s dogs became famous when they helped him develop his classical conditioning theory. It doesn’t just apply to dogs but to humans too.
Pavlov was a Russian neurologist and physiologist who published his theory in the last 1800s. He showed that we all learn behaviours according to different stimuli. So, he showed that his dogs started salivating when he rang the bell because the bell meant food was being served. A school lunch bell can trigger a similar experience in people.
What all this means is that your dogs can unlearn associating food with fear. On the one hand, you desensitise them from having you nearby whilst they’re eating. Over time, you can get closer without stressing them.
On the other hand, you start “counter-conditioning”. As the ASPCA describes in their article on food guarding, you work through a gradual process to help your dogs learn that food comes with positive emotions. You do this by working with treats during meal times as in the ASPCA article.
3- Positive reinforcement
A slightly different take on the above example is to use positive reinforcement to teach your dog to let go of their food. You do this by replacing it with a treat. Essentially, they’ve swapped something valuable with something even more valuable. With time, they’ll let go of being overly attached to their food.
4- Socialise gradually with other dogs
A dog guarding their food also needs to be gradually desensitised to having other dogs around. This shouldn’t be your first approach though. Instead, make sure you work through the first few steps and if you feel that your dog is more comfortable, you can gradually bring in other dogs.
5- Multiple feeds per day
A dog obsessed with food can also benefit from having several meals a day. The idea is that you split their 1 or 2 meals into 4 separate meals.
With time, they’ll realise that food is no longer scarce. Also, it provides them with a regular routine that gives structure and reassurance.
6- Get professional help
Last but not least, we are all different and so are dogs. Each of them needs a tailored plan and if you feel stuck, don’t hesitate to reach out to dog food aggression training. They’ll help you develop your unique plan for reducing food aggression in dogs.
Working with Your Food Obsessed Dog
We all have a core need to protect ourselves and we build up habits over time to fulfil that need. We might push people away in the process or worry about asking for help.
In many ways, dogs are the same. For whatever reason, if your dog has learnt to guard their food, you need to work with them. Use the tips above to gradually build them up into the grounded and self-assured being they deserve to be.
Naturally, dealing with food aggression in dogs takes time. Sometimes, it’s ok too to simply separate your dogs into different rooms during feeding times.
Whatever you do, stick to the schedule and make sure everyone is safe. It all depends on what you feel you can work with but if you’re in doubt, call a trainer who’s an expert in positive reinforcement. They’ll support you and your dog to create that partnership you both need to feel fulfilled and loved.