- April Schrader, CPDT-KA
3 Things Humans do That Cause Food/Toy Aggression
Also known as resource guarding, toy/food aggression is when a dog will exhibit behaviors such as growling, lunging, barking or even biting over items they find of value such as food and toys. However dogs may find ANYTHING valuable to them, from the comfy spot on the couch, their favorite human, bones, paper towels... You get the point! No matter the breed, age or sex of the dog they can all be equally effected by food aggression.
While in the wild this behavior is necessary for survival, as a domesticated pet it's not so great and can be scary for humans. The severity of resource guarding can vary greatly from dog to dog, some will simply freeze, raise a lip or eat faster while other dogs may lunge, growl or try to bite. It is important to know how interactions with your dog could cause possessive aggression or exacerbate it. Below are 3 things that you may be doing that WILL definitely cause food/toy aggression.
Taking bones, food, toys or treats away from your dog without trading them: When we take items from our dogs and give them nothing in return they will inevitably begin to guard that item. Your dog has no idea why you took the item or that you thought it was wrong they had it, they just know that you took something of value to them. If a dog feels their valuable items are at risk of being taken away, it's completely natural for your dog to display behaviors to avoid losing those items. Instead of just taking things from your dog, trade them for a high value treat. For example when your dog picks up your dirty sock, offer them a treat, when they drop the sock let them have the treat then pick up the item and put it away where they can no longer access it. Management comes in to play here as well, if your dog is known to resource guard specific items keep them put away to prevent guarding from happening.
Putting your hands in their food or petting your dog while they are eating: Petting your dog or putting your hands in their food is counterproductive and quite dangerous advice. Let's just break this down, we put our hands in their food and or pet them while they are eating and we expect them to be okay with it? Would you enjoy someone touching your food or patting you on the head while you're eating.....NO, and your dog doesn't either! It is annoying and it will evoke defensive behaviors such as growling, snapping or biting. Instead quietly walk up to your dog while they are eating and toss a high value treat in or around their bowl and then walk away. You should repeat this throughout the time your dog is eating and at each meal, however do not linger or hover over your dog.
Punishing your dog for growling: Your dogs growl is first and foremost communication.. growling is how they tell us they are uncomfortable with a situation. Believe it or not by the time your dog growls they have already tried to communicate their discomfort in many other ways such as avoiding eye contact, tongue flicks, paw lifts etc. When you punish your dog for growling you are teaching them not to tell you when they are uncomfortable. "The dog bit without warning", we hear it all the time this occurs because the dog was punished for growling in the past. If your dog is displaying food aggression it is always best to work with a certified professional dog trainer. A certified trainer can establish a plan to help your dog feel more comfortable in those situations as well as teach you how to manage the behavior appropriately.
Food/toy aggression is evoked by your dog's simple wish to get out of an unpleasant situation that is causing them uneasiness or fear. Remember your dog is not human they do not communicate the same as we do, their communication can be subtle and easy missed if uninformed of what to look for.