Do you know what food aggression looks like in dogs?
Schooner eats his food, spilling little kibbles out onto the floor. His maw, expansive as it is, has quite droopy sides and a few of those little kibbles find their way to the floor.
The cat notices and takes a few steps toward the bowl and the smattering of slobber-softened kibbles. She tentatively tastes one, deems it delicious, and continues to move forward kibble by mushy kibble.
Schoooner’s keeping an eye on her, head buried in his bowl. He isn’t moving his head, but his eyes follow the kitty’s every move. As she gets almost up to the bowl, he freezes, lowers his head just a bit more, and gives her the deepest growl he can muster.
“Stay AWAY from my bowl,” the growl tries to communicate.
Undeterred, the kitty remains directly under Schooner’s head, lazily eating the treats that have slipped out of Schooner’s mouth.
Finally, Schooner can’t take it any longer and lunges toward the kitty with a bark that rattles the windows. Kitty scampers off to the back room, back to where her own food bowl sits (with food in it, I might add).
This scene would repeat itself until Schooner finished his dinner if I allowed it. It seems comical if you don’t know that you’re watching a dog practice — and get better at — food-bowl aggression.
Food aggression, aka Resource Guarding
Technically, it’s called resource guarding. Schooner is guarding a highly prized resource, his food, from cat thievery. The cat will actually steal his food. She’s on a diet and she’ll take food any way she can get it, even if she has to risk the wrath of a dog 30x her size.
It’s perfectly normal for any animal (or human) to guard a valuable resource. (Have you seen people fight over a parking spot around holiday time? This is a version of resource guarding in humans.) It’s not necessarily appropriate, though.
I mean, I don’t want Schooner to develop the habit of growling to move the cat (or other dogs, or people) away from his food bowl. Now that I’ve noticed this habit, I’ve got a plan for how to deal with food guarding.
How to Deal with Food Aggression
First, I’ve got to contain the kitty so she can’t come in and steal Schooner’s food. If I can eliminate the thief, I’ve eliminated the threat. No threat = no guarding.
Next, I’ve got to change Schooner’s thought process about the kitty coming near his food. Schooner and the other dogs get snacks throughout the day and there are lots of opportunities for the cat to investigate the latest snack, even when the dogs aren’t eating their meals. So, whenever the cat comes around when I’m handling food (whether it’s dog food, people food, etc.), I’m going to give Schooner a little something extra.
By giving him something extra because the cat came near will help turn around Schooner’s feelings toward the kitty. Kitty will soon = treats! The quicker I can get this message across, the sooner Schooner will enjoy the cat coming closer.
Notice that nowhere have I recommended correcting or punishing the dog (or cat) for guarding (or stealing) the food. Often, paying attention to the problem (even to correct the dog) only lets the dog know that that behavior really works.
Paying attention to the dog and telling him what you do want him to do will work wonders and will help solve your problem!
Your turn: Does your dog have a favorite toy or chew that he guards from you? From other dogs? From cats? Let us know by leaving a comment below!
As sweet as our Hannah is, on occasion she has “deep growled” at one of us for attempting to take a sock, tea towel or wash cloth that has fallen from a laundry pile. It is unnerving to me, as to look at her and see her “normal,” it is a little difficult to believe that sound just erupted from our Hannah. My go-to solution is trading said item for a schmear of peanut butter, at the risk of rewarding the behavior (???). Love this piece, Laurie. You always make me think and want to be a better dog lover.
Brad Waggoner says
The dogs in our house are pretty good about their stuff. However, Xena, one of our cats is quite the resource guarder. She will let out a low growl if one of the dogs comes near her food and the dogs have learned the hard way that they should back away. Xena does however share her food with the other cats.
Laurie Luck says
Brad, those kitties can be tough, can’t they? Interesting that Xena shares with the other cats, but not with the dogs. Interesting critters, those cats.
Generally, our lone cat rules the roost here, which is quite comical to watch. The dogs won’t pass the kitty if she’s made a cozy spot in the hallway. I’ve seen her sit next to the water bowl LONG after she’s done while the dogs wait patiently for me to move her out of the way. I swear she’s doing it on purpose! 🙂
Laurie Luck says
It does make you stop for a second, doesn’t it Robin?! I mean, how could a growl come out of the dog that loves you so? Yes, in a pinch, trading is a good option. Then later, when you have time to work on the issue, you can present her with a slightly lower value item and practice trading her for a lower value item again and again.
I have a 10 month old neutered 85 lb male Doberman and a 8 yr old mixed female rescue dog (looks like a small white shepard) about 55 lbs. My Doberman resource guards and attacks my female if he can when eating. She doesn’t even try to eat his food. He also will attack my cats so aggressively I am concerned he will actually kill one. He is friendly with other dogs at the dog park, because I socialized him since he was 3 months old. He is also friendly with people and has never shown aggression with anyone except when he is eating. I have used treat training but that only works if I have a treat. He is very smart and learns very quickly but if the reward isn’t there he won’t do as I ask. Very frustrated and concerned at this point. I have had a trainer come to my home but I simply cannot afford to pay for the training….I love Bruno(dobi) so much but am afraid what is going to happen next…I am so worried and need help. I won’t give up on him.
Laurie Luck says
Until you can get a qualified positive reinforcement trainer to help you (and I suggest sooner rather than later!) be sure you’re feeding your food aggressive dog in his crate. Ideally, the crate is in a quiet room with no other dogs. Put the food in the crate, close the crate door, and then be sure no kitties or dogs can get into that room. When he’s finished eating, let him out of the crate, remove the food bowl. Management is going to be a big part of the training plan and it will keep the other animals — and people — safe until you can get a trainer in there to help you. I urge you to find a qualified trainer in your area right away. This is a very serious issue and treatment cannot wait. Check out http://www.findagreatdogtrainer.com for a local trainer.