January 28, 2013

Testing for food aggression

As a foster, I need to be prepared to answer questions about dogs in my care. One question not always thought of is "What can trigger an aggressive response?" Many of the dogs come with incomplete histories, so I often run the pups through a gantlet of scenarios to see how they react. Right now I want to talk about food aggression.

Even the best of dogs can have some food issues, so I don't typically consider it a deal breaker. However, it is vitally important that we can paint an honest picture of dogs available for adoption to make sure the match is forever. Food aggression could mean nothing to a family with no children or other dogs, or everything to a family with both. When we get a foster dog I end up checking their levels of food aggression and their triggers systematically.

Dogs first start out with meals in their crates. This actually ends up being very helpful to nervous dogs who are over whelmed with all the changes. From here I can also see the pace and interest in kibble. Some dogs inhale the food, others graze, some only eat when they see others eating. If I have multiple fosters in the house, my next step is to start each meal with pups in their crates. Then I will let them out, one at a time, directing them to their specific bowl, based on the speed that they eat. I always stay in the room to play referee. Invariably, one will try to wander over to another bowl. I just guide them back to theirs and pick up all the bowls once a meal is done. What I'm looking for here is which dogs try to muscle and how each dog reacts to the proximity.

From this baseline of kibble at meal time, I can test if different foods trigger different responses. We feed a variety of food and snacks here, and expose our fosters to them little by little. Biscuits, dried meats, can food, home made dog food, bully sticks, cooked meats, raw meats. Those last three are the ones to watch for severe reactions.

Before any snack I make sure that each dog is sitting. Once they are chomping away, I approach, and then walk away. A little later, I come back, this time a little closer, and walk away. Lastly, I walk on over, say "good boy/girl" and give them a pat. With Relay it doesn't matter what the food is, if I came over and took it straight out of his mouth, he would not react at all. Some of my fosters may growl a little until they figure out I mean no harm. Only on two occasions have I encountered an aggressive response.

It was actually our very first foster, Holly who bit me. We had never had any indication of food aggression up to the incident. I gave her a bully stick and she went over to the couch to chomp away. Both Jeff, Relay and I were in the living room, moving around. I sat on the couch and she growled. Thinking I would send her to 'time out' I motioned towards her, and snap. This sweet little beagle, loving as the day was long, clamped down on my hand and took out a chunk for good measure.

Looking back I can tell I took her sweet, submissive demeanor for granted. Also, I wasn't paying enough attention to her physical cues. But the good news was I now knew that there was a problem to address. I trained with her over the course of the next few weeks until I was able to give her that same bully stick, take it away and give it back, and sit next to her, petting the whole time as she enjoyed it. And before she was adopted, I made sure to inform the family.

I am by no means professional dog trainer, but a year of living with pups, smoothing out their rough edges, research, and good old fashioned trial and error is helping me become a better foster mom. As I figure things out, I'll be sure to share my two cents, but I'm always looking for insights. So, what about you? Ever encounter food aggression? What worked, what didn't?


We have been lucky so far (thank goodness) as we have not fostered any dogs with food aggression. 

When I had my first foster last year - I would do some of the same things you do.  She was the only dog so I would walk by her bowl, drop some treats into it and move on.  Gradually, I moved up to taking her food away and putting it back down with no reaction from her at all.  She'd actually back up and let me do it and learned to "wait" for her food.  With Blueberry she's also really laid back about her food when I come around.  

I wish more people understood that it takes time to train some dogs to not be food aggressive.  Especially when you first adopt or foster - don't be foolish enough to put your face or hand near a dog that is eating unless you've worked up to that point.  Great post!

Good advice. I hadn't thought too much about aggression issues until we started fostering. One of our fosters was fine the first few days, but then as he got more comfortable with our 3 dog household, he started being more and more aggressive towards the other two. Lots of slow careful work is the only way to treat this.

I would love to hear how you worked with Holly to get her to accept giving back the bully bone.  Bella will occasionally guard a resource (me, for example) but we can take her food bowl away from her.  I'm not sure I know how she makes her decision of what she needs to guard and what she doesn't (you'd think her food bowl would be more important than her human but...)

Regardless, I'd still be interested in learning what you did to work with Holly.

Good rescues will try to do a sort of behavior assessment for you. I typically shy away from dogs who have show aggression in any form because I worry about Relay and my relative inexperience. But I hope if I ever do come across a bad case I'll rise to the occasion. If it ever happens, I'm sure you will, too.

 Couldn't have said it any better! And as always Blueberry is perfection, so this comes as no surprise.

 And that's just it. Slow and steady can overcome most any obstacle. I wish more people would work with their dogs on problems they are partially responsible for creating, instead of giving them up.

Well in the immediate sense, I put a pinching pressure on the back of her neck until she let go. Then she went into her crate. After time had passed, and my cuts were cleaned and bandaged, I checked in on her. She sat and looked repentant. I sat next to her crate for a bit, spoke to her in calming tones, and let her out. She immediately came over to be pet and we did that for a few minutes apologizing to one another. Anthropomorphism, I know.

From there I started from the beginning. Proximity during feeding. Interrupting by throwing in a treat. Removing the food bowl entirely, having her sit again and returning it. And then moving on to treats. Trading her what she had for something better. Just hanging out whenever she was working a bone. Petting her and giving her praise. Praise, praise, praise, praise. Even the slightest growl would result in the loss of the treat.

I looked at her being calm and not resource guarding like a trick I was trying to teach her. The change in the frame of mind helps turn the situation from a negative to a positive. It helped to structure each feeding by having them sit and stay calm. And of course she took plenty of cues from Relay. Sometimes the best aid is a teacher's pet. :-)

Thought I should mention that this whole subject should not dissuade anyone interested from fostering. However, should you be concerned, please bring that to the attention of your rescue so that they be more selective with a poochie's placement.

We always feed all our fosters in their crates. It is great for crate training and for food aggression.
The only tip I would give you is when you start approaching moving closer each time, throw them a really really yummy treat and then walk away. That way they see that when you come by something awesome happens.

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