Food Aggression in Dogs

I want to address what I feel to be, at the very least, a myth, and at the very most, a dangerous practice. Putting your hands in your dog’s food bowl while he is eating will not prevent food aggression in your dog. If you are lucky, this practice, if you choose to employ it, will have no effect. But for some, like a recent client, 8 months pregnant and the dog mom of a Boxer puppy, you may very well create  what is commonly known as a food-aggressive dog.

There has long been a belief that if you take the time to put your hands in your dog’s food bowl when it is a puppy you will desensitize the animal to the occurrence thereby rendering him non reactive or non aggressive to this scenario when, in fact, this practice can cause the opposite effect.

She had done everything right in choosing, training and raising her puppy including, or so she thought, desensitizing him to hands in his food bowl. A first time dog mom and first time human mom-to-be, she wanted to protect her child who may one day crawl toward the dog during dinner time. When she wrote to me about the problem I was initially very concerned because I’ve observed a low success rate in correcting this behavior to the satisfaction of new parents in dogs that seem to develop this behavior spontaneously. But when I visited them in person I was able to relax as I realized the problem was almost certainly brought about by the very activity meant to prevent it. I had hope that we could undo what had been done and recreate a peaceful dining experience for Roger.

When feeding dogs its good practice to have a routine.

But putting your hands in their food or taking away their food once given to them is unnecessary and one could argue, psychologically cruel. If you want to prevent aggression around the dog’s food I offer the following as advice. Feed your dog out of the way of foot traffic so he feels as though he has space. Place the bowl away from a wall so the dog can see in front of him as well as peripherally. With a wall behind him he does not have to concern himself with someone approaching from the back.

Leave the dog alone until he has walked away from the bowl.

Once the dog has walked away from the bowl remove the bowl regardless of whether or not the dog consumed all that was offered. Throw out the remainder or put it away to be offered at the next meal. If all of the food was consumed it is still  advised to put the bowl away.

Dogs can become territorial of the bowl even if they consumed all of the food.

Dogs may protect a food bowl on the chance that food may exist in the bowl at any moment. Removing the bowl removes the anxiety. Feeding the dog in his crate is another option. If you choose to feed the dog in his crate, allow him to walk out of the crate before removing the bowl if you are concerned about his reaction and tell anyone that may be present to stay away from the crate while the dog is eating.

The ultimate solution in controlling feeding time comes through hard work.

I believe all dogs should be trained to move away from their bowl while eating if given the command “leave it” but getting to that level of training does not happen overnight. So while you are working on comprehension and compliance to the “leave it” command do yourself, your dog and anyone else that may be around your dog during feeding time a favor by following my tips to create a low anxiety dining experience. And for dog’s sake, keep your hands out of his bowl.

-Susan Strough