Many dog fights arise when food is present. Dog fighting during meal time, and even a dog’s aggression toward humans when food is present, is due to food aggression.
The Causes of and Dog Psychology Behind Food Aggression in Dogs
Food aggression in dogs can be a frightening form of aggression that can lead a dog to start snapping, growling, snarling and there’s even instances where food aggression leads dog fights or dog bites involving humans.
But why do some dogs act aggressively when food is present? And what can be done to remedy a situation involving a food aggressive dog?
A Dog’s Pack Instinct: The Roots of Food Aggression
In nature, canines live within the hierarchy of a dog pack. The hierarchy of the dog pack determines which dogs eat first, which dogs get the best mates, the best sleeping areas, and so on. In short, a dog’s level of dominance and social standing is a huge determiner of his quality of life.
In the home, the domestic dog views the family (comprised of human members and other pets) as his “pack” with a distinct social hierarchy. Ideally, the humans should be at the top of the pack order – the alphas. And among the dogs within the household, there will be a distinct canine hierarchy within the larger household pack.
In the canine world, there is a great deal of competition for food, with dogs at the top of the pecking order eating before dogs who are lower in the pecking order. So dogs emphasize and defend their place within the pack by exhibiting aggression over food, sleeping areas, toys, etc.
It is not unusual to see wild dogs re-arrange the pack order on occasion and this is done by fighting and by challenging other dogs in certain situations, including at meal time. So it’s natural for a dog to exhibit aggression at meal time, and he’s likely to view others who approach during meal time as “challengers” who are looking to challenge his social status and position within the pack.
The Significance of Food Aggression Toward Humans
In a domestic home setting, food aggression is always a sign of a larger problem: a human who is not in the alpha role or an indistinct pack order.
Instinctively, a dog will not exhibit aggression toward a pack member who is above him in the pack hierarchy. If the alpha dog approaches and wishes to eat a less dominant dog’s food, the less dominant dog will always back off without any protest.
When a less dominant dog approaches the alpha during meal time, he can expect to be greeted with aggression on the alpha’s part. So a pet dog’s food aggression toward a human is significant in that it suggests that the dog believes he is higher than the human on the social ladder.
To solve food aggression toward human family members, the key is to reinforce the human’s position as the alpha and more dominant individual in the relationship, while simultaneously reinforcing the dog’s standing in the less dominant role.
Food Aggression Between Dogs and Dog Fighting At Meal Time
Food aggression between dogs and fighting at meal time indicates that the pecking order is lacking distinction.
Food aggression and dog fights over food most commonly occur when the pack is experiencing flux. A new dog in the household or the death of a dog in the household can make the dogs’ pack order unclear.
Many owners also insist on treating their dogs “equally,” but this is confusing to the dogs, who are naturally inclined to live within a hierarchy. For instance, if an owner feeds the less dominant dog first, this counters the dog’s instinct, which has him expecting that the most dominant alpha dog will receive his food bowl first.
Dominance-related fights, including dog fights over food, are also common as a puppy reaches adolescence. Puppies are automatically at the bottom of the pack hierarchy, but as the puppy matures, he must find his position within the pack. Fighting over food, toys and sleeping spots are common and very natural ways for dogs to establish the pack order.
Resolving food aggression between dogs involves reinforcing the pack order (in the order that the dogs have selected – not the order that the human feels is fair) and temporarily feeding the dogs in separate locations to avoid potentially dangerous dog fights in the interim.