Dog displayed food aggression for the first time
December 6, 2017 5:40 AM   Subscribe

My dog growled, raised her hackles, and peed when my partner approached her while she was eating today. What do we do?

My partner and I adopted a 10 month old, 30 lb. mixed breed dog about two months ago. This has been a great experience. Before we adopted her, I made a point to try to provoke her by touching every part of her, wrestling with her, taking a toy away. She showed no signs of aggression. This has pretty much been the case, until today...

My partner woke up in the morning and fed the dog before her morning walk. The procedure is to fill the bowl and then make the dog wait for permission before eating. The dog does this without fail. After the dog started eating, my partner walked near the dog to get something from the fridge. The dog then raised her hackles, growled, and PEED. This really scared my partner. Normally she would have no problem taking control of the situation and scolding her immediately for bad behavior, but she was really scared. My partner let the dog finish eating (she's a fast eater). Then my partner tried to bring the dog back to the scene of the crime to scold her. The dog then did the same thing again! I was called in, and she raised her hackles and peed again!

This behavior is totally out of sync with our time with the dog so far. She is fun, playful, and easy going. We're totally confused, and we don't know what to do next. The only other time she has shown any food aggression is with Himalayan dog chews, which I need to trade peanut butter for in order to take back from her. She has been fine with everything else.

What do we do? I love this dog, but this kind of thing won't do.
posted by soy_renfield to Pets & Animals (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Your dog sounds frightened/possessive rather than aggressive. Your and your partner's response to this behaviour- scolding- is likely to make the dog more stressed around food and her feeding area, and therefore more likely to react in the way she did today. Try not to think of this as a naughty or defiant behaviour and let your fear/anger with her cloud your response. It will, guaranteed, make things worse.

Here is a good article on how to fix resource guarding. The website also has general information and tips about positive dog training which can help you have a better relationship with your dog. Another good article here and also a great, informative website.
posted by mymbleth at 5:56 AM on December 6, 2017 [19 favorites]

Then my partner tried to bring the dog back to the scene of the crime to scold her.
Please don't ever do this again. From your dog's perspective, she was being scolded for being where she was standing. There's no chance whatsoever she was connecting her punishment to an earlier behavior. Dog brains don't work this way.
posted by xyzzy at 6:24 AM on December 6, 2017 [55 favorites]

Best answer: This is totally fear aggression/ fear resource guarding. Yelling at her is only reinforcing it's something to be aggressive about, scolding her afterwards means nothing to her & will confuse her & now you are scary people that randomly yell at her so now I have to guard my food even more because these people are unpredictable.

Chances are your dog thinks you're going to take her food & not give it back to her.

Start small, not all of you "ganging" up on her, do it in an area she doesn't' relate to fear. Start with a low value object/toy the dog likes. Take the toy away, pretend to play with it, return the toy, work up to something the dog really really likes. Take the toy/treat away pretend to chew/play with it return it. If you have trouble taking the object away offer a high value treat in exchange. Remember lots of praise & positive reinforcement make it a fun game. See nothing bad happens when you give up your stuff, you don't get randomly yelled at for no reason, in fact you get pats AND get fun thing back.

Now you're ready for the food bowl. Start putting it in a new location & use a different bowl. Work on standing near the dog while she's eating. Approach her personal space until you know she's noticed you but BEFORE she reacts. Lots of praise, throw a delicious yummy treat into/near her bowl then leave her alone. Slowly make the zone you can approach smaller each feed. When you can get near enough the bowl to reach use an object the dog isn't scared of to reach out & touch the bowl, or at least toward the bowl. Stop BEFORE the dog gets scared & reacts. Lots of praise & walk away & let her eat in peace. When you can touch the bowl work on pulling it toward you & picking it up. Again in slow stages. You do not want to set your dog up to bite you, you want this to be the fun happy game that gets her lots of praise, taking things from her is a good thing not a contest of wills.

This is a case for nothing but positive happy reinforcements. Scolding will only make the dog think this is a subject to get scared so aggressive over as you're getting aggressive over it so I have to defend my food/toy.

Making the dog wait for her food is fine & good keep that up. You can also switch brands to a type of food the dog doesn't like as much for a while to make it of lower value so less likely to be guarded so strongly.

I have a dog that would actually attack you at one point if you got too near his favourite treat or food as he'd come from a house with big dogs that would steal his food/treats all the time & had then been hit/abused by his owner for fighting back against the dog the owner liked more. I can now take anything he has from him with no problem, but it took me months of constant kind gently happy taking away of toys/food/blankets & returning them. Your dog doesn't seem anywhere near as far gone & you can easily head any problems off at the pass I imagine in a couple of weeks (it took me 6 months before I could touch his food bowl without him growling).

If the fear aggression spreads to other things the dog has previously happily done though go see your vet as they may be in pain.

1 to 3 months is often the range where newly adopted dogs feel comfortable & safe in their new homes so are trying to see just how far they can push the new rules. Think of them as the teenage years. Calm reinforcement of your rules is good at this point as it's lots & lots of praise when they do things right to give them a reason to want to keep doing the accepted behaviours.

Good luck, you've got this.
posted by wwax at 7:03 AM on December 6, 2017 [38 favorites]

I had a dog that food aggressive once. The problem went away on its own as the dog came to trust me. Leaving it alone while it ate, just getting it to trust that I wasn't trying to take it's food away was the key. Now it lets me hold bones from it, take food away, etc. Feeding the dog by hand is a good way to engender trust as well. My advice is be really patient and let this one sort itself out. Training the dog by taking its food away is going to teach the dog that you're looking to take its food away. Once the dog learns that it's going to be fed and food will always be forthcoming it should let its guard down.
posted by xammerboy at 7:05 AM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your dog was scared. I know it can be hard to interpret growling and hackles, but the peeing makes this obvious - dogs pee out of fear, not anger/aggression.

It's actually a good thing for dogs to growl when they're uneasy - that's a dog version of a human saying, "Hey, back off, I'm freaked out right now." Dogs that don't growl when they're uneasy are far more likely to bite unprovoked, which is dangerous for everyone. You never want to scold a dog for using its voice to express its discomfort.

Do not yell at or scold her for this again. If you can't commit to that, she needs to be rehomed ASAP.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:06 AM on December 6, 2017 [13 favorites]

The article that mymbleth linked is great. I mean this gently, but it might be worth learning a little more about dog psychology and how dogs learn because punishing a scared dog is at best ineffective and at worst going to turn into a bite from an even scared-er dog.

I'd do a few things - if this is about the place, maybe start feeding her somewhere else while you start training so it's as separate from the previous scary feelings as possible. Then, when you feed her, start making your presence extra-awesome - throwing chunks of cheese (or some other high-value treat) from a distance well before she feels threatened, and then when she gets excited rather than rattled by your presence around her eating space, get just a little closer and start throwing cheese all over again. Ideally, you'll work toward being able to literally put chunks of cheese into the bowl while she's eating - and she'll be fine with it because she'll have learned that your presence around her food begets good things.

At the same time, you can work on trading things, in order to lessen her feelings of possessiveness around things that she likes. Start with lower-value things than her food bowl, probably - maybe you have chews she's kind of meh with, or it sounds like you can use the himalayan chews. You could start a protocol where you trade for it and then give it back 5-6 times in a row, a few times a week, so that your pup learns that giving it to you is perfectly fine and doesn't even mean she's necessarily losing anything. Once she's reliably giving it to you when you show up with peanut butter, you can teach a verbal "trade" cue and then start generalizing that cue to other items.
posted by mosst at 7:07 AM on December 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: 1 to 3 months is often the range where newly adopted dogs feel comfortable & safe in their new homes so are trying to see just how far they can push the new rules.

This is a very important point that many people don't understand about rescue dogs. And it's not even all pushing the new rules but an unfolding and expanding of the dog's personality over the first 6 months or so. We brought home a street dog in March and I think Sept/October was when he really started to settle down as himself, and not the series of states we'd seen up to that point (terrified guy who hid under the desk for a week, little guy who slunk around the house with his tail down, then through a really mouthy teenage phase where he nipped and bit and bared his teeth a lot when corrected, to how he is now - an adorable little cuddlebug and silly pain in the ass.)

I know you'll hear it a lot in this thread but your dog was somehow surprised and terrified by your partner walking by her, as strange as that may seem to you. The growling and peeing was terror combined with fear her food would be taken.

And both of you made things much worse and probably set her trust of you back a bit by insisting on scolding her multiple times which just terrorized her again. I'm not sure where you learned that "training" technique but it isn't valid. If you are doing something that makes your dog pee herself, don't keep doing it?
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:22 AM on December 6, 2017 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the responses. I'm definitely understanding that the dog's behavior was likely out of fear and is probably not something to be scolded about. I think largely we wanted to scold her because of he peeing in the house, which I know is not always recommended, but during housebreaking it was necessary. Positive reinforcement alone did not get the job done for her. Once we introduced a bit of negative as well, housebreaking progressed quickly.

The thing I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around is how this got started today. We have walked near her many times at meal times and never had any issues before today. We don't take food from her, with the exception of bully sticks and Himalayan chews when they get too small, and even at that I have taken to trading her for them. We do forcibly remove other non-food items (socks, shoes, inedible things on the street) from her when she won't give them up willingly using the "leave it" command. Maybe we should trade for those as well?

I will definitely begin training her according to wwax's advice.
posted by soy_renfield at 7:54 AM on December 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

All the comments about fear aggression and giving a rescue dog about 6 months to get comfortable are spot on. I just wanted to add one thing:

Even if this dog otherwise does every single thing you tell her, obedience classes can do wonders to build up the confidence of any dog, but especially of a fear-aggressive dog. Please enroll with her asap, and definitely consider having your partner be the one to be in class with her. Besides learning stuff like commands, she will learn self-control, and all about being around strangers and strange dogs. But above all that, she'll form a stronger bond with the person who's working with her in class. And do the homework/practice outside of class!
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 7:55 AM on December 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh yeah, if you give your dogs bones, watch for the times it eats them next to you. This is a sign, from the dog, that it's starting to trust you. Also, if you're going to take food away from the dog, at least in the beginning, trade it for a treat or something of higher value.

And finally, if this does become a permanent problem, so what? Just feed your dog in a cage. It's a lot to expect an animal to walk away from its food. It shouldn't be a deal breaker. I brought my dog to an animal psychologist once and all his solutions were like that - food guarding? feed it in a cage. reactionary? separate it from the other dogs. pulling while walking? get a choker leash. Barking? Get a bark collar. Not every problem can be fixed the way one would ideally like.
posted by xammerboy at 8:25 AM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Where is the dog's dish and can you move it to another room? The kitchen is a high traffic zone and some dogs are more comfortable eating off by themselves.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:31 AM on December 6, 2017

I think largely we wanted to scold her because of he peeing in the house, which I know is not always recommended, but during housebreaking it was necessary.

The idea of "returning a dog to the scene of the crime" is equally old school and useless. A sharp "NO" while the dog is peeing or defecating in the house is effective; you then obviously immediately take the dog outside and praise if the dog does any toileting out there. Reprimanding the dog even 30 seconds after the event is not associative for the animal.

If you miss the moment when the dog is going in the house, that's on you. It is literally your fault because you are giving the dog too much freedom and not enough supervision for where she is in her training development.

If you are finding these concepts challenging (and I completely get that modern dog training can be counter-intuitive to humans!) you and your partner might holiday gift one another a few sessions with a trainer to see how this all works in practice.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:36 AM on December 6, 2017 [17 favorites]

It it possible that she's going into heat? Making her agitated/stressed/antsy etc.
posted by TomFoolery at 9:08 AM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

All great advice above. I wanted to second nakedmolerats's suggestion of moving the dog's food to another room. If the dog has a crate, that would be even better (also, associating crate=food is a bonus). When we first got my current dog, we also had a super bossy Corgi so we fed them each in their crates. It's been years since the Corgi passed, but my dog still does not like to eat out in the open.
posted by radioamy at 9:53 AM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to add that you might be in your puppy's fear impact period. You may want to read up on it. The things dogs become afraid of during these times last forever if you don't handle it right.
posted by Bistyfrass at 12:12 PM on December 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

I learned a while back, to feed dogs at night. They run around and hunt when camping and will run all day, then eating at night when all is done seems better. I would not feed a dog before a morning outside or walk.
posted by Oyéah at 6:57 PM on December 6, 2017

OMG yes, puppy fear stages! Totally agreeing with Bistyfrass. My puppy went through every stage:

Mine suddenly became anxious while riding in the car (she's ridden in the car every day since I got her at 8 weeks), fearful of children, and kids on skateboards. She has no issues with severe thunderstorms or fireworks. Fear stages are the strangest things. Yours appears to be right on track at 12 months of age. Mine got over the car thing, although she still hates kids on skateboards.

Agreed, stressing your puppy out more by scolding her isn't going to help. Look into some sort of obedience or training with a dog behaviorist. Be patient with her.
posted by ATX Peanut at 9:10 AM on December 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

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