It is not at all unusual for my dog training clients to call me with concerns regarding their dog's aggression around their food bowl. In many cases, dogs don't like people to get near their dog dish when eating and can get very possessive when people are too close to them at meal time. When you stop to think about it, it makes perfect sense. Many moons ago, dogs had to work hard to get their food and had to protect it once they had it. So, is it natural for dogs to be protective of their food? Instinctually, yes. Is it good to let this behavior persist? No, especially if there are small children in the house.

I've heard many different approaches to counter-conditioning and/or desensitizing food aggression with their dogs. Some believe it is good to routinely take a dog's food bowl away from him when he is eating just to get him used to human hands taking away and giving back the food. I've also heard of the approach to pet a dog when he's eating to build a different association with having human hands close to him when eating. Depending on the dog, this may or may not work. These techniques may actually make the problem worse and make the dog more protective in anticipation that he (or his food bowl) is going to get messed with at this particular meal. Some argue that you should just never mess with a dog when he's eating. For those of you who want to make sure that your dog doesn't respond unfavorably should a strange or little person come up and mess with him while eating, I advise getting your dog used to having hands around his bowl by using upgrades.

Who Doesn't Love an Upgrade?

I love upgrades-especially at no extra charge. What's that? You want to give me a Rib Eye steak instead of a Sirloin at no extra charge? OK!

If you'd like to work on desensitizing your dog to having human hands around his bowl, rather than taking his dish away, try this trick.  Add something he likes even better to his food when he is eating. For example, let's assume your dog is enjoying his normal meal of high grade, grain-free kibble. It's fine…he's had this meal a thousand times. Then you approach his bowl with with a handful of ground beef (or anything he would consider an upgrade) to sprinkle on his food. He will welcome you with open arms. If you are approaching his meal with something better than he already has, not only is he becoming desensitized, he will begin to associate hands around the bowl as a good thing. Your dog will see this as an addition of something good as opposed to a removal of something good. 

If this technique is practiced often and the association with hands around the bowl becomes more and more conditioned to be a good thing for the dog, there is a more likely chance that it will transfer to a real life situation when a child or stranger that doesn't know any better approaches your dog when he's eating. That being said, I'd have a talk with your children to avoid dogs when they are eating because this "upgrade exercise" is not being practiced in all homes, I assure you. In general, I recommend teaching your kids to not mess with a dog when he is eating – it's better to be safe than sorry and playing with a dog who's eating is a bad habit for a child to get into.

So, do your best to prepare your dog to be interrupted at feeding time by delivering upgrades (chicken broth, hamburger meat, etc.) to the meal in his bowl and create better associations with hands near the dog dish.

If your dog's aggression around the food bowl have you concerned and you're not convinced you can pull this off without harm, obviously call in a pro. For most of you who are looking to nip a small problem in the bud or looking to prevent this behavior from occurring in the first place, this "upgrade food exercise" should help you out.

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Nutrition Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2013