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An Easy Way to Prevent Food Aggression in Dogs

Food bowl guarding in dogs can be stopped before it ever appears.

dog pet canine boston terrier puppy eating feeding food aggression guarding

I was recently at a dog show and watched one dog owner place a handsome Springer Spaniel in a wire exercise pen. She next put a bowl of food in the pen and the dog approached and started to eat. For some reason the woman then decided that she needed to move the bowl. As she reached for it the dog gave a low growl and snapped at her — a behavior which is often referred to as food aggression or food bowl guarding.

The man standing beside me was a dog behaviorist visiting from England. He shook his head slowly and commented "That was the breeder's fault. Food aggression needn't happen."

"You mean you think that it's genetic?" I asked.

"No, it's learned when dogs are still in their litter and it is easily prevented," he replied.

I wanted to hear more about his thoughts on this so I offered to buy him a cup of coffee and we sat and chatted a bit more about this issue. His ideas were interesting, and although I have been unable to find any research on the topic I thought that, at least on the face of it, he was quite likely to be correct.

Guarding food from other animals or humans is normal behavior for dogs. In the wild, animals who successfully protect their food and food related resources are more likely to survive than those who don't. However, in our pet dogs, we generally find the tendency to guard the food bowl using aggressive behaviors to be undesirable, and perhaps even potentially dangerous if there are young children in the household who have not yet learned to leave the dog alone when he is eating.

It is easy to see how such behavior can be learned when puppies are still quite young. For example, suppose that there are six puppies in a litter and the breeder presents them with food in a single bowl. This can easily setup competition over this vital resource. It is highly likely that in any litter there will be one or two puppies who want to eat more than their share. The result of this is of course, that one or two puppies in the litter are likely to get less than their share. Such a situation is bound to set the stage for more competition over the food at the next meal. Some breeders seem to recognize this possibility and attempt to deal with it by providing a bowl for each of the pups, so in this case six bowls of food would be put out for the six puppies. However this does not eliminate the possibility of food aggression developing, since the greedier puppies may well wolf down the food in their bowl quickly and then may try to force other puppies away from their bowls in order to steal their food.

dog canine pet puppy puppies food bowl eating aggression guarding feeding

The suggestion which I was being offered was that if we feed these six puppies out of nine food bowls, it is likely that the food aggression will be reduced to zero. When you work it through this seems like a common sense idea. Obviously if a litter feeds out of just one bowl the puppies learn to gulp their food as quickly as they can to get their fair share. Typically they will push and shove to get at the available food supply, and the stronger pups will be able to push the weaker ones out of the way. The weaker puppies now have to gulp down what they can. As a result of this experience when one of these puppies goes into its new home it will not forget the lessons that it learned in the litter. You can see the results of this immediately. Typically the first thing that the new owner notices is that when they approach their puppy while it is eating it suddenly starts to eat faster. This should be a red flag since it is the first stage of food guarding.

As an alternative let's look at a litter where there are more food bowls then there are puppies. Let's say around one third or one half more. So that for these six puppies eight or nine food bowls are put out. Each bowl contains the correct amount of food for one puppy and it is important that the breeder be there to monitor what is happening. Typically the puppies tend to distribute themselves randomly around the bowls. Now if one puppy approaches another that is eating out of a particular bowl there are three possible outcomes. First is that the feeding puppy is displaced by the puppy who approaches him, however that is not a disaster because the displaced puppy is rewarded for leaving the food bowl when he finds another food bowl containing an equal or greater quantity of food. The second possible outcome is that the approaching puppy, on seeing that this particular food bowl is occupied, gets rewarded for walking away and finding an unoccupied bowl of equal or greater quantity. The third possible outcome is that the two puppies will happily share the food bowl comforted by the knowledge that there are more bowls with more food readily available. In other words, the puppies learn not to compete over the available food supply. One extra factor has to be added, and that is when each puppy has eaten its fill the breeder should remove them, one at a time, from the feeding area.

Although I have not found any research testing this approach to prevent food aggression, the idea seems sensible, and since it is so easy to implement it is certainly something that breeders should consider doing.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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