Earlier this week, a visitor to our discussion board asked about an 11 month old Cairn Terrier that had just recently started displaying food aggression.
She stated, “Only when given her food in a bowl , does she growl and get aggressive. What is the best method to stop this behavior?”
It is important to understand that food aggression is a dominance behavior. In the dog’s mind, he is correcting the owner for going near HIS food. This is not, and should not be confused with a fear induced aggression. The dog is not afraid of the owner. Rather, he is correcting the owner for coming too close.
If you watch any pack of dogs, either domesticated or wild, you’ll notice that the Alpha dog always eats first. Then the Beta. And then the next, and the next… until what ever is left over is eaten by the Omega dog (the dog at the bottom).
However, if ANY of the subordinate dogs try to take or get too close to the food that the Alpha dog is eating… the Alpha will first usually let out a low growl. If the subordinate dog doesn’t defer, then the Alpha will respond with an outburst of aggression (generally, biting… usually to the muzzle, the neck, the ear, or the flank). In doing so, he asserts (or reasserts) his position in the pack, and his RIGHT to eat first.
Now, if only one bowl of food is put down, and the Beta dog happens to be closer (or perhaps the Beta dog is getting stronger with age, an injury to the Alpha, etc…) then he will exhibit the aggressive warning growl as the Alpha approaches. And at this point, the Alpha dog instinctively knows that he has two options:
1.) Submit, and walk away… thus forfeiting his position in the pack as the Alpha dog. or
2.) Correct the dog who tried to correct him… thus putting him in his place (in other words… remind him who’s boss).
In general, the roles and positions in the pack are so well established that it rarely comes to all out aggression. However, if the dog owner is ever going to establish a proper relationship with the dog, then it’s going to be worked out over an issue such as this. And it’s the job of the good dog trainer/dog owner to foresee (or set up) such conflicts in advance so that he is prepared and has the tools (leash, collar, back tie if necessary, double handler, etc…) to come out on top and win the confrontation, ala the Alpha dog or pack leader.
So, what the dog owner needs to do is: Leave a properly sized and fitted pinch collar and 6 foot leash on the dog while she eats. If she starts to growl, then correct her like it’s nobody’s business. Remember, this is what the Alpha dog would do.
However, knowing how hard or how soft to correct, and doing it in a way that doesn’t put you at risk can be tricky. For the 11 month old Cairn Terrier, she may still be young enough that the owner can successfully apply this technique without the supervision of a professional trainer. But, it really depends on the individual dog and the owner’s handling skill.
When it comes to aggression, if you have any doubt about your skill at handling the dog, especially in what might be a dangerous situation, don’t hesitate to contact a professional dog trainer.