Food aggression. It’s extremely scary and tough to solve.
I get a lot of dogs in for training with one form or another of aggression problems. One of the most challenging to address is food and toy aggression or possessiveness. I do NOT recommend trying to tackle these issues without consulting with a professional trainer. Some dogs have one or the other, some have both. Either way it’s always a ticking time bomb and if you want long term success in dealing with it, your training approach matters greatly.
I will explain that approach and give an example but first let me tell you a story.
A few months back I was contacted by someone regarding their black lab that was food aggressive. He was a loving dog and a great companion the other 99% of the time however. Unfortunately, they were forced to give the dog up after going to a trainer and not having success in fixing or even being able to manage the problem.
They had hope though. They were able to rehome him through a privately ran rescue group. The new owners assured all parties that they had lots of experience with dogs that had food aggression issues.
I don’t remember if it was a week or much longer but the new owners quickly realized that they were in over their heads. Not only that but his behaviors had gotten worse. Now they couldn’t even get him out of his crate.
What. Did. You. Do?
I’ll tell you what happened they tried to fix that aggression with more aggression and the dog imploded and became worse.
Now I’m not pointing fingers at anyone or casting blame because again, these issues are very difficult and require the right approach. That approach can vary from case to case and as such requires a good amount of intuition as well. Even the previous trainer I think had their heart in the right place, they were just missing a key part of the puzzle. More on that in a few.
At this point the previous owners didn’t really have much control over what happened to their former dog, but the fact that they were reaching out regardless testified to how much they truly cared for his well being. They now lived in another state and due to the severity of the dogs aggression in the past they didn’t feel like they could ever trust him again. I don’t blame them. If you aren’t confident you can work the dog you have or are scared of them, it’s an accident waiting to happen.
So the situation is now mostly in the hands of the rescue. Now here is where the dog training industry gets complicated. The previous trainer used an e collar on the dog and from what I was told it sounds like it was used correctly. The previous owners were in contact with several trainers including myself as well as the rescue. The person running the rescue actually told her that she would rather see the dog put down than have him go to a trainer that uses e collars. Yep. You heard me.
I even laid out in detail how I work with dogs like that and why I wouldn’t even use the e collar to fix that issue. With that dog it’s not needed. You can’t just correct that behavior into oblivion it won’t work. Heck, it had been tried already and clearly didn’t work.
Of everyone she talked to she told me I was making the most sense. And here is why, I explained to her that while the past trainer meant well, they didn’t address the root of the problem. They didn’t address the emotion behind the behavior, they just stopped it temporarily.
To the dog, that can be downright confusing. He is a loving, friendly, happy dog. He doesn’t want to bite you. How or why that problem developed doesn’t matter. He is now doing it reflexively without necessarily thinking about it.
Look at it this way, food is clearly of very high value to this dog. He doesn’t want you near it because he is afraid that you might take it away. If you get in his space and make him uncomfortable then he will attack. While that can be extremely frightening when it happens, it’s actually the dog who is fearful. He is biting out of fear and trying to fix that in a heavy handed way at times can compound the problem.
Solving the Problem
So here is what I do, I take away their reason to be afraid. Only once that is done can healing begin. Obedience goes hand in hand with this keep in mind, but I deal with this issue separately the majority of the time.
Let me use a recent dog I had here for my 3 week residency program as an example. Some of you may have seen the video of my wife working with Kobe. If you did then you know this guy is HUGE. He also had no qualms about biting people who irked him.
By the 4th day he was here he had achieved a decent foundation in obedience training (that was extremely hard fought on my end). He had a healthy amount of respect for me and when I would pet him while he ate he might growl a little but that was subsiding at this point. The majority of the time he let me do whatever I wanted and just ate his food. Now this is a dog that 3 days earlier would have been glad to send me to the hospital. That sounds like a victory right? In a sense yes, he wouldn’t bite me when a few days earlier he would have. That could transfer over to his owner pretty easily with follow up work and practice on her end.
But what happens when someone other than his handler tried the same thing? Well I’ll tell you, he tries to eat them. During one of Kobe’s meals my wife Aryn (bless her heart) bravely tapped Kobe on his rear end with a wrapping paper roll, keeping a good 4 feet or so of distance. He turned and went after her. Not to worry I had a leash on him for this iteration and was able to quickly get him under control after a brief moment of chaos.
Mealtime at that point was over as he was too stressed to eat. So the next morning we go again. This time I gave Aryn a secret weapon. Leftover steak fat from last night’s dinner. As Kobe begins to eat his food I have Aryn gently place a hand on his rear end (he is muzzled by the way). The second Kobe turns his head in irritation towards her I have her offer a piece of steak fat in her other hand a few inches from his face. Kobe smells it and gobbles it down. All while she is verbally praising him for looking.
That sounds weird right? I said he looked at her irritated which means he was close to old habits and becoming aggressive. Why are we praising him? Because we aren’t rewarding him for really doing anything other than just letting us touch him. Again we are changing how he feels about it. The point of giving him a higher value food is to 1. Stop him in his tracks before escalating and 2. Make stopping in his tracks a rewarding experience.
We repeated this exercise 4 or 5 times give or take each feeding. It’s important to not overdo it here. You want him to eat his food still, just with a handful of pleasant interruptions during his meal. If we gave him too many treats he would just stand there expecting treats and not eat his food.
Each meal I had Aryn touch him more and for longer periods of time. After only a few days she was able to roughly pet and pat his sides. By the end of the 3 weeks she could rub his head with no leash, no muzzle and not a hint of fear or aggression or even uncomfortable body language. The looks of irritation turned to looks of excitement. He began to genuinely enjoy spending feeding time with people because it was no longer an uncertain experience. He knew exactly how it would go and the more he got bothered the more steak fat he got.
While behaviors that serious can never be considered “fixed” they can become self managing so to speak with minimal fear or worry on your part. It just takes the right approach, lots of patience and at times nerves of steel.
If you live in Columbus, Ohio and have issues with food or toy aggression click here to contact me or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free evaluation.
It’s the first step to the rest of your dogs life.
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