Why is my dog aggressive around food?
(Q) I have a seven-month-old Cocker Spaniel and two Westies - a male aged 10, and a bitch aged nine. They have all been neutered. Unfortunately, the Cocker is trying to gain dominance over the other two by food guarding. I don't give any of the dogs human food, but whenever there is food around the Cocker stalks - even when I open the fridge door - and if either of the Westies approach he will growl and start snapping. I've started putting the Cocker in his crate when we are eating just in case.
We have a big family party coming up soon, with a lunchtime barbecue, but I'm terrified that the Cocker will do something to one of our visitors.
(A) Behaviourist Claire Arrowsmith says: The desire to guard food is higher in some dogs than others. Ask your vet to examine your Cocker to make sure that there are no underlying reasons for his extreme appetite. Once this has been ruled out, you can begin to follow a programme to change his behaviour. Early experiences influence how a puppy feels about resources such as food.
If he struggled to get enough food from his mother, or if he had to compete with his littermates for food from one bowl (or too few bowls), he will quickly associate mealtimes with stress and competition. This leads to the pup exhibiting possessive behaviour. At your Cocker's stage in adolescence there are a lot of challenges, and it is important to manage all of your dogs until he reaches an easier stage in his development.
Discuss your puppy's diet with your vet so that you know he is definitely getting all the nutrition he needs. Growing pups have much higher demands than adult dogs. It might help to bulk out his main diet with vegetables and bran to ensure that he never feels hungry. It's also possible to slow down his eating by placing a couple of balls in his bowl among the biscuits so he has to forage around to get at them.
Spend time with your puppy teaching him to relax around food. The main cause of aggression around food is anxiety and this is usually associated with the perception that the food will be lost. To help your puppy to relax it would be sensible to feed him completely separately. Feed him in his crate in a separate room until all the dogs are calmer at mealtimes. Then you can bring the crate into the same room as your Westies while they eat. This should begin to teach your Cocker that they pose no competition, so keep them away from his crate.
Family barbecues are difficult times for young dogs. It would be best for your dog to remain away from the food preparation and eating areas since the risk of an incident is much higher. Explain to everyone the importance of keeping food away from him and why this will help your training. Seek a consultation with a behaviourist as soon as possible. Change is always easier when you catch the problem early. Ask your vet to refer you to a specialist.