Food aggression in puppies
In the past few weeks I have been asked by clients to help them with their food aggressive puppy. Food aggression is an instinctive behaviour that involves guarding food (standing over it); growling and bearing teeth and in some cases, biting. The puppy is just doing what comes naturally but it is a very disturbing sign and has led to puppies being put to sleep in rare cases.
This behaviour is often exhibited in puppies that have come from large litters. A bitch only has eight teats so if there are nine or more puppies then every puppy learns to fight for every meal from the first day of their life. There are other puppies that just by their very nature are defensive and become aggressive when food is present. Some puppies and dogs are just naturally defensive when there are other dogs around too as an alpha dog will take the food away from another dog to maintain its pack hierarchy.
Some foods have a higher value than others. Raw meat such as, chicken or beef, and bones have a much higher value than dry kibble or canned food. This is because they taste better. Also, some puppies become aggressive with foods that take longer to eat and therefore there is a greater chance that they may lose the food to another dog. I have seen happen with bones and also pig’s ears and raw hide chews.
There are two things to keep in mind when re-training this type of behaviour. The puppy has to learn that its owner is allowed to take its food away. This can be done by conditioning the dog to respond to a clicker or a squeaker and redirecting it away from the food and rewarding it for leaving it. The other thing that will make this learning process quicker is to give the food back to the puppy. If it learns that if it allows you to take the food away and you will give it back then it will be happier for you to take the food away.
It is important that you take action immediately if your puppy shows signs of food aggression or guarding. You may have to put it on leash and wear heavy duty gloves to keep yourself safe. At no times should you allow children to participate in this type of re-training as their reflexes may not be quick enough. I always encourage my clients to make sure that there is at least one other person with them when working on this problem. By putting the puppy on leash you will be able to pull it away if it snaps at the person taking away the food. Wearing leather gardening gloves will protect your skin from bites.
If you don’t feel confident I would suggest you hire a professional who uses positive based training methods. If you were to use a choker to correct the dog or if you hold the dog down then you may increase its aggression or redirect it onto something or someone else.
It is important that you deal with this issue immediately but that you focus on rewarding the puppy from leaving the food (what trainers call redirecting) and don’t focus on punishing the puppy for being aggressive. It is only using its natural instincts to protect the most important thing in its life and won’t understand if you punish it for doing so.
Here are the steps you may like to follow to help you get rid of this behaviour:
1. Before you give your puppy any food which may make it aggressive train it to respond to a clicker or squeaker. All you have to do is ‘click’ then ‘treat’ repeatedly until you get an automatic response from your puppy. This means when you click it immediately stops what it is doing and comes to you. You don’t have to use treats with this type of training. You could use pats instead but food aggression is a serious problem and you’ll need to stop it as quickly as possible so I’d advise using very special treats, such as cheese or a deli meat. You might want to spend a week practising this before you go on to the next step.
2. Give your puppy a bone then click and encourage it to leave the bone and come to you. If it doesn’t then it’s not conditioned properly to the click so you’ll need to practise that some more.
3. When it does come step backwards quickly, luring the puppy away from the bone. Get someone else to pick the bone up and remove it completely from sight.
4. Make a huge fuss of your puppy from patting to treats
5. Ask the person to replace the bone on the ground for the puppy and encourage it to start eating it.
6. Repeat the steps again.
7. At no time become angry or aggressive – your puppy will feed on your aggression and become worse
8. Do this every day until you feel safe giving your puppy a bone or its favourite food.