Treatment of Food Aggression in Dogs is About Finesse, Not Force

35 | Posted:

Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

1966-2014 R.I.P.

What’s up with the dog that eyes people who approach his food bowl or stiffens and even growls, snaps or bites if others interrupt his meal? Don’t they understand that you’re the provider of the things they want and not a threat to them?

Like many dogs that are otherwise easygoing, this type of Fido has a food fetish, and he feels it’s his duty to guard each bowl as if it holds his last meal. While this behavior may seem odd for owners who provide plentiful amounts of food for their pooches, anyone who’s watched free-roaming and stray dogs in developing countries such as Bali or Costa Rica knows that this type of behavior is common. These street or village dogs have to search for their food and never know if they’ll have enough. As a result they may defend food with the vigor of a dog whose life depends on it. This food defense behavior may then just become a habit whether the dog’s hungry or not. Pet dogs can develop the same behavior starting in puppyhood, especially if they experienced strong competition for food.

Often in cases of food bowl aggression, our instinct is to show Fido who’s the boss. For instance some trainers recommend that you force the dog into submission by holding the dog down on its side. After all, they say, that’s what a higher ranked dog would do. What they neglect to point out is that in many cases where a higher ranked dog tries to take food away from a lower ranked one, a fight can and often does occur. The fight may only involve loud growling, spit, and drool, or it may include an actual bite.

Similarly, the problem with humans trying to force dogs into submission in an attempt to show the dog who’s boss is that the boss may turn out to be Fido. If so, the showdown could be ugly, and dangerous as well. Even if it ends quickly and you’re injury-free, the situation may not be resolved. Rather, you may be in for multiple rematches because, now, your dog knows each mealtime means a fight.

What’s even trickier is that sometimes after one all-out battle, everything looks okay on the outside, but, get into Fido’s head, and you might see trouble waiting for your guard to drop. Instead of learning goodwill around the food bowl, Fido has just learned to hide his inner anxiety. He smiles on the outside but he simmers and seethes on the inside when you’re in his feeding space. Then, when he can’t take it anymore, rather than warn you with stiff posture or growls and nips as before, he breaks out in a full-blown bite.

For those who battle this bad behavior with brawn, a third scenario is that, while Fido may decide you are top dog when it comes to the food bowl, all other humans have to fend for themselves. Fido may even behave nicely around the bowl when you’re there to back guests and other family members up, but if you’re out of sight, he may tell them how it is.

So what can you do? Instead of teaching Fido that mealtimes will be a fight and that his fear of having food taken away will come true, train him to associate the presence of people around his food with even better things happening to him.

possession aggression

Method One: For Easy Dogs

At every meal, while Fido’s eating his plain dog food, stand a safe distance away and toss a steady stream (10-30) of bite-sized treats that he loves. Then, when he’s finished and has nothing left to guard, move closer and toss more treats to him or into his bowl. Note that you’ll have to cut back on his regular food so that he gets his normal daily caloric alottment of food. After a few meals using this method, move a bit closer each day, always staying outside Fido’s defensive range. If Fido tenses up or even growls, then you’ve moved too close, too quickly, so watch his body language closely. The key is that he stays relaxed at all times around the bowl and learns to expect even better treats from you. If this method takes you any more than a week, or Fido looks tense, or you’re in any doubt about your ability to safely read Fido’s mood, then you should go to method 2.

Method Two: For More difficult Dogs

A variation on this method is to teach Fido to sit for special treats when he’s eating his meal. Start by teaching Fido to perform say please by automatically sitting during non-meal times. Don’t yell, “Sit, Sit, SIT,” while he’s jumping up to get your attention or a treat; instead, just ignore him by standing as still as a tree. When he happens to sit on his own, quickly deliver the tasty bite-sized treat so that it gets to him within a split second. In fact, since this is only a practice session you can actually use his regular kibble. Next deliver several more sequentially to reward him for remaining seated patiently. Repeat the exercise by briskly walking several steps away as if you’re playing a game and want to get him to follow. Then wait for him to follow you and sit again. Repeat this until he clearly gets the game and thinks it’s fun. Then, randomly practice this throughout the day. If you train him when he’s hungry or motivated for the food reward, he should be an ace at this behavior in just a day or two.

Leave-it, food on the ground: Now apply this automatic “say please by sitting” game to getting other things he wants. We’ll start with the leave-it exercise. This leave-it exercise will teach Fido that he will get what he wants if he just exhibits some self control, so he has no need to be possessive. It also teaches him he gets a lot of things he likes when he’s calmly sitting and looking at you.

Place Fido on leash and hold it at a constant 4-5 foot length. Then toss a treat greater than 4-5 feet away. Fido will run to get it. Don’t say anything. Just hold the leash firmly at the given length as if the leash is tied to a tree. When he gets to the end let him figure out that no matter how hard and long pulls he’s not going to get any closer. Eventually he’ll realize he’s not going to accidentally get rewarded for the rude, uncontrolled pulling behavior and then like magic, he will turn to you and sit. When he does, get a treat to him within 0.5 seconds! Fast!

Continue to give him a string of treats every 2-5 seconds for sitting and looking at you. They should come fast enough so that he just wants to focus on you. Continue until his gaze is stably fixed on you so its clear he’s no longer thinking about running to get the treat on the floor. Then, tell him “Ok!” or use another release word. Then, point and simultaneously walk towards the treat on the floor making sure that you get there fast enough so that he’s on a loose leash. If you’re too slow and he pulls you, then you’ve just negated part of what you trained. If he gets to pull, he won’t learn that leash tension means to stop and look at you. Rather, he’ll learn that pulling just gets him there faster.

For cases where the dog is really possessive about dropped food, especially in cases where you have kids in the house, you may decide that you never want him to pick up dropped food off the ground. In that case you can continue giving him treats for remaining seated and looking at you during this exercise while you walk over to the treat on the floor, pick it up, and give it to him.

Once Fido is good at immediately sitting and looking at you when treats are tossed out of range, you can also teach him the cue word “leave-it” by saying it in a happy voice, as if it’s a game, right as or after you toss the treat out of his range. In training, only use the cue word if you’re sure he’ll sit within a second or two, otherwise it will take a long time for him to learn to associate the word with the actual behavior.

Work on this game a lot so that it becomes a habit within just a day or two.

Go for the full-bore Learn to Earn Program if You Think Fido’s Really Difficult: Note that if you feel your dog is an extremely difficult or dangerous case, you should also put him through the full bore learn to earn program where he actually learns he has to control his impulse to get everything he wants. That is, he has to automatically say please by sitting to earn every single kibble when you’re home with him, to get his leash on, to go out the door, to get petted, during the leave-it game, to have his toy tossed, and for everything he wants. In essence you’re using everything he wants to your advantage to teach him that he can have what he wants but only if he controls himself and looks to you for permission. So it’s not about the human trying to be the boss, it’s about the dog learning that politely asking permission gets him what he wants when it’s ok with you.

Specific Food Bowl Training

When he’s good at the above exercises, expect Fido to sit to receive his meals, too. If he’s a particularly difficult or aggressive dog, tether him on leash away from where you will place his bowl so that he can’t lunge and injure you.

Hold his food bowl, which contains his boring kibble, and wait for him to sit. Put the food bowl down outside of his leash range and tell him “leave-it,” just once. If he gets up, that’s okay because he’s on leash and can’t get to the food. Just wait for him to sit. When he’s sitting, give him a few treats and then unhook his leash and give the release word and let him get his meal.

Make sure you’re standing outside his defensive/protective zone (the zone he guards around his food bowl) when you release him so he doesn’t feel threatened. Just let him eat his meal in peace. When he finishes the meal, slowly approach with a mouth-watering morsel and stand right outside his food-bowl protection zone. When he says “please” by sitting, give him a tasty treat. Note that to make this treat special, it has to be one that he only gets during these practice sessions. Peanut butter on a dog biscuit or a piece of real meat are good choices for the early sessions.

Now make this your new daily feeding routine. When Fido regularly sits every time you approach after he’s finished his meal, you can up the ante by approaching during mealtimes-but just to the edge of his feeding space at first so that you don’t cause him to feel defensive. Then give him a treat or two when he sits and then walk away. We want your approach to mean something good to him and your walking away to signal he can resume eating his meal. Again, if he consistently sits immediately upon seeing you approach, you can move closer the next time.

Always wait until he sits to go all the way up to give him his treat. The benefit to this “say please by sitting” technique is that you can better judge what Fido’s thinking. If he sits and looks expectantly to you for treats as you approach, then he sees your approach as something good. Conversely, because you’re only allowed to approach him when he sits and looks expectantly to you for something better than his meal, you’re not likely to mistakenly approach him when he’s feeling he has to protect his bowl.

Speeding up the Progress: To speed your progress, during the first several sessions you can start with one-fourth of your dog’s meal in the bowl so that you can get four practice trials each meal. Once Fido gets the idea that he should sit when you approach you can go back to putting the entire meal in his bowl and then practice approaching him with something better during his meal 1-4 times during his meal.

Later you’ll want to practice having other family members go through the same routine. He should generalize to them almost immediately unless he has some underlying fear of them. The goal of the training is that Fido learns that people approaching him while he’s eating means something good. He’ll get something great and still get to eat his regular food. As a result his underling motivation for being protective will disappear and he’ll be good in general to people approaching him while he’s eating out of his bowl.


Proactively work with puppies and newly adopted dog

Incidentally, as a proactive plan, you can also perform this feeding game with puppies so they don’t become protective of their food. These plans may sound too good to be true, but stick with it, practice patiently, and practice with different people, and Fido’s food bowl fetish will gradually fade away.

NOTE: If your dog is aggressive to the point where you fear he may lunge, nip, or bite, you should enlist the help of a veterinary behaviorist, veterinarian with special interest in behavior (, certified applied animal behaviorist (, or certified pet dog trainer ( who has worked with many food possessive dogs and uses similar techniques.

Sometimes there can be other contributing medical and behavioral factors that need to be addressed and often owners need coaching at how to perform the techniques skillfully. Also there are additional variations of these exercises that can be used.

To see video of this watch Ben Guards the Food Bowl. This training took the owner a long time at first because they were afraid of Ben and later because we tried several other techniques (for easier dogs) first. Once we started this actual technique described above it just took several weeks.


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35 responses to “Treatment of Food Aggression in Dogs is About Finesse, Not Force

  1. My dog came from a hord she is very frightened of men, if I tell her no she cowers and sticks to the floor. Yesterday when I was gone she got on the counter and was eating a pie my friends husband tried to take it from her and she bit him twice and drew blood. There are other dogs in the house who latley they have been playing very aggressive. She Sedona was on Prozac I took her off of it I thought she was doing better. She means everything to me..

    1. We’re sorry you’re having this problem with your dog. We always recommend that animals with aggression issues be seen by a certified behaviorist.

    2. Hi Donna , my name is Doreen and I have an adopted Herman Shepherd that I am having the same issues …last night he bit ME and I’m his one and only out of the entire family…it was over spilled food on the floor that had broken glass with it and i was desperate to push him away with my leg as he does growl …I would love to know how you handle your situation and if it works . Thank you in advance,

  2. My dog simba will get into anything he can get his paws onto. You cant leave food sitting around bc he will snatch it, eat it, and when i try to take it away from him, he growls at me, snaps, and will bite me. Other then that he is a very sweet lovable dog.

  3. Lola only has food aggressive toward her food and anotjer dog what can i do she has attacked the other dog twice

    1. My dog Major with my dog LaLa ( female) is arggessive with food and toys where as he will bite her. How can I train him not to be arggessive with her.

  4. adopted 2 lab puppies 2 days ago, the male is very shy and gentle, the female is sweet but she gobbles her food so fast and then tries to get his. we have been holding her to keep her from getting his. Once she realizes his is gone too, back to sweet puppy

  5. Would this apply to human food?? My little pom is not allowed human food so If food drops down and I got to take it form her she’ll growl and bite the moment I try to get it out of her mouth. She’ll also run away and eat very fast.
    She never does that with dog food or treats or anything. I can take that stuff out of her mouth no problem.
    I’m wondering how to train her for this. I think I may to be blamed too because since she was a puppy whenever she would have something in her mouth I didn’t want her I would chase her around trying to get it from her.
    Any thoughts?

    1. When she picks up something you don’t like don’t chase her. Keep dog treats handy and show her it tell her to drop the food and than pick it up give her the treat. This shows her that giving things you don’t want her to have is a rewarding experience. Rather than you’re the play ground bully stealing her toys.
      Worked with my Fenris also cured his food aggression.

    2. We have the same problem with 4 month old female pom. It doesn’t have to be dropped food. It happens with anything she finds that she knows she shouldn’t have. It seems to getting worse. It’s gone from growling and snarling to now biting to point of drawing blood. With her regular food it’s no problem. We can take that away all day long.

  6. Hi, my beagle(3 years old) isn’t really aggressive when it comes to his normal meals(dog food) or when he is eating; but when he eats out of the trash or gets something from the kitchen counter or the dining table that isn’t meant for him to consume and we try to get it from him, he snaps and growls. What can I do to stop this behavior? Thank you in advance.

    1. Our food tends to be allot tastier than their dog food. If you go running towards them screaming no no no! Your dog takes as you wanting to do battle approach them calmly have treats ready..speak gently don’t approach if still growling try kneeling to their height and offer them to treat.

  7. First, I’m gad I’m not the only one with this problem. My dog is 2&1/5 yrs, and has always been a Dr Jecklye & Mr. Hyde. Sweet and friendly to everyone except if there is a toy or bone around He has bitten me twice and lately, a visitor who had been somewhat bossy with him. I feel guilty because I did not use the correct approach to his barking, etc. Now I have an unpredictable dog and I am worried this behavior is set. I do not trust him, nor him, me.

  8. My dog layla ( female jindo ) is aggressive with food and toys today she bit our little dog luna and broke her leg. How can I train her not to be aggressive with the other dog.
    im very scared that one day she will kill her.

    please help us.

  9. I just brought home a 1.5 year old male rottie. He is neutered. Previous owners say he’s amazing with kids and people in all ways. I asked about food aggression and they said he had zero issues. They have 5 kids who he’s never done anything to. I put down a bowl of food and patted him on his rear and he immediately stopped eating and began growling at me. His little tail nub stood straight up and he lowered his head as well. At one point I couldn’t even walk past him with his food because he started coming towards me and still growling. I have a 2.5 year old who doesn’t understand the situation but has yet to meet him (she will be home in 3.5 days).
    Is there some way to help correct this behavior before she gets here?! Or at least start the correction??

  10. I have a 3 year old Korean Jindo mix that we got from a shelter. We’ve had him for over a year but ever since we moved to a new state he has developed food aggression. It used to be only directed at our other dog but now he’s turned it to me as well. I have had trainers tell me to give him pieces of kibble or treats from my hand before I give him his food bowl, but that only makes him aggressive and causes him to growl and snap at me. He’s like Jekyl and Hyde and I don’t feel safe. What should I do?

  11. We adopted a dog 2 weeks ago, he doesn’t have an issue with his regular food just treats like peanut butter in his kong or a pig ear…how can i fix that?

    1. Don’t give him those treats. He gets enough food from his regular meals. Give him small kibble rewards when training.

      1. my dog has started to try and bite me after i give him food i walk him and feed him most of the time my wife has no problems with feeding he will not eat from aa bowl he is hand feed please help

  12. I got my dog as a puppy and his brother would rush in and eat his food. I put the food in different areas away from the other dog but he would find a way to get to it. Now I put the food in the other room where his brother can’t get to it. If we go in the room and leave access for his brother the first thing he does is look for the food. This has caused my li the guy to become aggressive to the point of biting not only his brothers but if I am eating something on the couch he sits on the couch watching me, if the other doge start to move even if it’s not toward me he growls, snaps and today he bit me because of something I was eating. Now we have never given any of our dogs people food ever and they get treats daily for following commands, what can I do to suppress this anger he has? I put him in the other room as punishment and then he’s sweet as can be and it could only be 5 minutes later. He doesn’t show aggression when we give them all treats and I have him on a calming tablet to try to help. He’s not aggressive toward anyone else in the family except me and the other dogs. Do you have many suggestions that can help?

  13. my dog has started to try and bite me after i give him food i walk him and feed him most of the time my wife has no problems with feeding he will not eat from aa bowl he is hand feed please help

  14. Hello Dr.Sophiayin.
    My dog is a mongrel.Its 7months old.
    He has food aggression. I’m trying to treat it.
    Is this problem persistent? Can it be treated?
    Can it come out of the problem?It tends to growl or bite when seeing me.
    Revathy Shanmugam.

  15. Yes I would like to ask someone a question who could possibly help me define what type of aggression my dog has started to have and we would like to fix it as soon as possible before it becomes worse. The problem arose one day when she had the other female dog in the house come into her room that she probably considers her own and jump on the bed to play with myself she was snappy and the other dog and I told her no and she stopped. The next time she was a bit More snappy and told no and snapped again but then stopped. This evening was probably the worst and she was not in her room or her territory however she was near me and also near a new bone that was given to her and the other dog walked in the room near the bone close to me and she went to attack y more snappy and told no and snapped again but then stopped. This evening was probably the worst and she was not in her room or her territory however she was near me and also near a new bone that was given to her and the other dog walked in the room near the bone close to me and she went to attack The other dog I do not want her to get out of control and I would like to catch this behavior problem now so if you could give me any suggestions on what type of aggression you think she has I would greatly appreciate it thank you

  16. We got a dog 5 months ago . Dont think he was looked after too well.
    He has become very protective around any food .. he has now bite my gtown up son and my self ..dont know what to do with him .

  17. We have a great dane. He is a year old, and last night bit my son in the face while i was cooking. the two of them have been best friends since we had him. I have noticed that the dog growls at the other dog when i’m preparing their food, and he will growl alot when we’re in the kitchen around food. I’m very worried about this. I always make him sit before i give him his food, and he isn’t allowed to eat it unless i tell him so. He will then eat his food so fast that mealtime doesn’t even last 30 mins. I really want to give the dog a chance, but i’m so worried about him biting my child again.

    1. If he has bitten your child in the face you need to protect the child! I’m sorry but no animal should be kept in the same area as a child in the kitchen. He needs to be kenneled before meals to protect your child. I personally would not keep him if he bites a child. Next time it could be tragic!

  18. I took my puppy from a dog foster home about a year ago. I love him to bits; he has a great personality, and I feel that he loves our family so much. BUT, whenever I take him for walks, we have problems. He hates other dogs and other people sometimes even growls at us. My husband and I were thinking about taking him to ‘doggy school’, but then again, it’s extremely expensive, and the nearest ‘doggy school’ is far away from us. Maybe you have some advice? THANK YOU!!!!

    1. I feel for you…we had problems with our dog also. He used to hate other dogs/people… Both my husband and I work a lot and had no time to take our Bud to dog training classes. We asked one friend who works in foster care (he is always surrounded by dogs) what we should do. He recommended one online dog behavior trainer. I love this trainer It helped us a lot, and I strongly recommend it for you.

  19. We have a 1 yr old german shepherd. We joked that he was a golden retriever in a german shepherd body because he loves everyone and washed out in PAO training because he has zero bite drive. My wife and I have had a number of GSD’s and this one is absolutely the most affectionate cuddly guy. Having said that, about 5 months ago he started growly when we approached him during eating. This coincided with a month long visit by my elderly mother. My wife fed him by hand for a month, but when we eased back in to regular feeding the hostility was back. Two weeks ago he attacked my wife while she was playing with him right after we took up his dish. Since then he growl at her when she walks near him if he is near his water bowl, has a dog bone or chew. In contrast, he seems to be fine around me, I can walk up to him and take his bone or anything away (although he does growl a bit when come near him during eating, but much less intensely than my wife). This dog is the center of our life, he goes everywhere with us and accompanies us everywhere around our ranch.

  20. I have 7 Dogs 2 of them being pit bulls. For the longest time all my dogs get along great and my pit bulls have been very sweet. But now one of my Pit Bulls she is suddenly being aggressive, she attacked my mother a few days ago trying to come into the house to visit me, she bit her right on the leg. And now today she is suddenly attacking my other pit bull and growling at the other dogs when they get close to her. I think she i suddenly being mean because of food. Sometimes we eat at the kitchen table and make meals. Sometimes we give the dogs some of the leftovers, but only stuff that dogs can eat. Whenever all the dogs be waiting at the table she will always be growling at the other dogs. What can I do to stop this behavior? I do not want to take her back to the pound she has already had 3 owners, they might euthanize her if I take her back. Overall she is a good dog and gives the best hugs. Sometimes we will cuddle in the bed and when another dog wants to jump in the bed she will start growling at them as well. One second she will be growling at them and sometimes snip at them and then the next second she will be playing with them and licking them. I am not sure why she is acting this way.

  21. how to force feed an aggressive dog who is sick and is not eating at all..when i try to feed with a syringe he bites and growls.. when he is well he is okay and isnt agressive, but now he is sick and isnt allowing us to force feed him.. please help

    1. Have you tried things like adding chicken or beef stock to his food, using pate style canned food, or the like? What are you trying to feed him and how big a dog is he?

  22. When I give my 7 month old Yorkshire terrier a treat she is so protective of it and when my daughter dog is next to her when she has a treat she snaps at her, also when my daughter tries to take it from my dog she snaps ather too .Help please

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