Aggression over Food

This is an article about dogs who guard food or are aggressive over food. Some dogs food-guard only against other dogs, some guard only against humans, and some guard against both. This is a potentially dangerous behavior problem, as it can lead to serious injuries to dogs or to humans. Fortunately it is fairly easy to deal with.
This article is NOT a substitute for treatment by a qualified veterinary behaviorist.


Aggression over Food

Written in reply to an e-mail about two dogs in household fighting over food. In this case one dog was very food-aggressive (food-guarding aggression) against the other, and the dogs' guardian's newlywed spouse unwisely stuck his hand into th fight and got badly bitten.

photo of a food guarding dog (possibly wolf hybrid ?)


From your dog's very emaciated condition when surrendered to Rescue , it is obvious that both he and his pack-mate had been severely food deprived. In cases of such deprivation or outright starvation , especially if the dog has had to compete and perhaps fight with another dog to obtain enough food to survive, it would be expected that this dog would remain very touchy about any threats to his food. Like the experience of early childhood poverty, early dog-hood starvation leaves an attitude that is hard to change. Such a dog should be tested for any tendency to defend his food against a human who might be approaching the dog while eating -- eg test by approaching and watching dog's body language carefully for any signs of tension; if no tension, touch the bowl with a stick or long grasping tool (eg BBQ tongs are ideal), with one's hands, arms , face etc well away from the dog's mouth.

Now for dogs who are defensive against other dogs approaching while they are eating , the answer is very simple. I would ALWAYS feed the food-guarding dog in a separate space, eg feed that dog in a crate or X-pen or put him in the bathroom, bedroom, etc with door closed. Do not open the barrier or let the two dogs approach each other until both dogs have finished their meals and licked their plates clean. You should pick up the empty plates from both before letting them be together again. If there is possibility that the food-aggressive dog might react aggressively if someone dropped a tasty morsel from the kitchen table or dining table, then again the answer is to put this dog out of reach during such activities as might lead to food dropping onto the floor. Again, put him in a crate or an X-pen or another room or tie him to any reliable anchor point.


For dogs who show any sign of possible food-defensive aggression against humans, even if all the dog is currently doing is acting a bit "stiff" at human approach, while you could confine the dog in a safe space for meals, I would recommend making the effort to use the food-guarding rehab protocol. The protocol is designed to desensitize the dog to people approaching the food or bowl and to teach the dog instead to welcome such approaches. A detailed protocol is set out in Jean Donaldson's book "Dogs are from Neptune" and another detailed protocol is set out in Dr. Karen Overall, DVM's book, "Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals". Basically you just start by giving only 1/3 of the meal in the bowl and then twice during the meal you approach and pour (hands out of reach of dog's mouth) an additional 1/3 into the bowl. Next step would be before pouring in added food, touch the bowl with a stick or tongs and move the bowl just an inch along the floor before adding the additional food. Next step is to use the tongs to pick up the bowl just a few inches before adding more food. Next step is to use the tongs to lift the bowl up to your waist before adding more food. By this time the dog should be reacting with happy anticipation at any approach you make to his bowl. Have other adult members of the house do all these steps , starting with the earliest step. Finally have the older children do it. Even after sucess seems complete, one should continue once or twice a week to approach while the dog is eating and add some tasty goodie. ie one continues the rehab so the dog does not backslide.

For the dog whose problem is not too severe, this protocol can completely change the dog's attitude, sometimes very easily and swiftly. But for the severe case where full change of attitude cannot be achieved, one can and should go back to the management tactic of confining the dog safely for meals so that no one can approach and get bitten and so the dog can eat in peace. For a case history of a food guarding dog, one whose problem proved to be severe, see A case history of a Food Guarding dog.

BREAKING UP FIGHTS -- especially what NOT to do !

For breaking up fights, it is terribly unwise to put any valued body parts anywhere near the front end of either dog. When dogs are fighting mad and trying to bite each other, they will not notice that a human part has strayed into the line of fire and they will not notice that they are biting human flesh rather than the intended canine target. You, me, or the Queen of England : if we stick a hand into a fight , we can get badly bitten.

I've got a pretty good scar on my left forearm from being so foolish. As one dog lunged towards the other, one canine tooth just brushed against my arm, opening a painful gash.

There is a product called "Direct Stop" which is a small canister of citronella spray. Squirting it directly into the faces of fighting dogs is safe for them and will often break up a fight. Direct Stop may well be the very best way to break up a fight. Another indoor alternative is to spray the contents of an ordinary fire extinguisher direct into the faces -- sometimes works but makes an unholy mess. Outdoors if one has a garden hose connected (and has already run any hot water out of it if it has lain in the sun), a torrent of water direct into nose and mouth of the combatants will usually cause them to let go in order to breathe. Indoors or outdoors, if the combattants intermittantly let go of each other, it may be possible to interpose in between the dogs some barrier such as a piece of plywood or a lawn chair or whatever else you can grab up. Ideally , one person would interpose the barrier while a second and third each grab one of the combattants and move them to opposite sides of some more formidable barrier, such as a door that can be closed.

Finally for both indoor and outdoor use, a cattle prod zapped to the butts of one or both of the dogs will usually break up a fight --- be sure to use the kind that has at least 18" (preferably more) of wand separating your hand from the zapping end, because the dog getting zapped my whip around to bite at the source of the zap. Most dogs once they have received a few zaps, get conditioned to the sound the prod makes when the button is pressed, and will leap apart at that sound , or even at sight of you approaching with the device. While using a cattle prod may sound horrible, the amount of pain inflicted is only momentary and so is less severe than the pain from the fight injuries is likely to be , and of course the prod's zap does not inflict any injuries. I resorted to using the prod when I had two bitches, Sweetie (should have been named Livia) and Pixel, who had had several very bloody battles -- bitches can fight with that fury unto which hell hath no equal. This ended the recurrent battles and helped Sweetie accept a lower rank relative to Pixel.

site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 4/19/03 revised 8/02/04, photo 2020
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