Watch Your Fingers – Food Aggression

Watch Your Fingers I Might BiteDear John,

We have a Golden Retriever pup, named Cook now 8 months old. He has a bit of a food aggression problem. Every so often he will seize up and start ferociously growling. I don’t feel confident that his place in the pack is clear.

M.F.

Dear M.F.

This problem popped up out of no where, at least in inordinate numbers a decade or so ago. I see the same thing with Labrador Retrievers but not as often. It might be genetic and it can be learned.

Some books and trainers recommend that while a puppy is young the owner should playfully handle their food and take it away while they’re eating. I’m not so sure about that. Imagine doing that with a hungry baby or child or a dog trainer named John. You’d better make sure there wasn’t any sharp cutlery on the table because you may find your hand pinned to the table. I think people think it works because most dogs end up fine around their food. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that most dogs this isn’t done to are also fine around their food. A better strategy is to feed a quarter of the food and when it’s finished, add another quarter, etc. That would be a more positive approach. It wouldn’t be bad either to act like an exuberant waiter working hard in anticipation of a well earned tip as opposed to one who keeps swiping your burger.

Wild pack carnivores can get a little antsy when it’s meal time. You see a lot of that stiff shouldered hovering over the food, attempts to keep both eyes on the food and potential thieves as well. I can’t help but wonder if that guarding gene pops up every now and then. I can’t be sure but it seems to happen more with family friendly breeds and I’ve wondered recently if with the move to food based training we haven’t been inadvertently been breeding for dogs that are motivated by food and once in a while we get one that’s really good at being motivated by food but in a bad way. If this is genetic there’s no stopping it but with training perhaps suppressing it is possible.

At the breeders, pups jockey for position when it’s meal time and when one consistently doesn’t position well, it goes hungry and the very idea of meal time eventually evokes a visceral “I’m a wolf.” response. Once they’re purchased they carry this baggage into their new home seeing the owners as big a threat and attempt to assert themselves in the new pack. Another possibility is that some people only feed puppies once or twice a day. Particularly with larger breeds this is going to create an awful anxiety as they are starving by the time meal time. Four times a day minimum when they are growing so quickly.

There are a few ways at going a this, one would be flooding the dog with food. Unlimited supply, all the time. There is a risk with larger breeds, particularly with deep chests, that gastric torsion would occur which is potentially fatal, but then again, so is biting. Check with your vet first to do a risk assessment as other factors like water access should be considered. As with most aggression problems it’s a good thing to make sure the dog believes you’re the teacher before you start telling them what they can or can’t do and that’s only going to come from the sort of training that results in a stay meaning “Don’t move until I come back for you.” as opposed to, “When I blink, you can get up and get your treat.” This is a pretty serious problem so contact a private in-home trainer for guidance.

-John

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