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The "F" Zone - Food Aggression

"There is a critical area around the dog's mouth that can be best described as the forbidden zone," writes John Fisher in Think Dog! "Anything inside that area belongs to the dog."

In the wild, even submissive animals will defend their food as part of their survival instinct. Often, family dogs don't display a high degree of this food guardian instinct because they are well-fed and don't have to hunt or fight for their food.

However, if the dog displays a motionless stance and/or stares when you approach during chow-down time, he's warning you to stay away. If this sign goes unheeded, the dog typically will issue a warning growl-and then possibly bite.

Here are some suggestions for coping with food-guarders, compliments of Fisher and behaviorist/author Jean Donaldson (Dogs Are From Neptune):

* Practice being close to the dog during feeding time by hand-feeding. Encourage the dog to take the food without grabbing or nipping-say "gentle." (This is a good technique to practice even if the dog has not exhibited food aggression.)

* Feed twice vs. once daily (the same daily amount fed over two meals).

* Change the food bowl as well as its location to a place free of stimuli that might trigger mistrust.

* If you have two or more dogs, feed them in separate areas, or even in their crates.

* Buy two similar feeding dishes. Place one bowl on the floor and put the food in the other. When he dives into the empty bowl, put a couple of spoonfuls into the floor bowl, adding food in small quantities, until the dog finishes the food, then take the bowl away.

* This slows down a gulper and also establishes you as controller of the food.

A behavior modification plan:

* Start with a low-intensity version of the bite-triggering scenario. Stand at a distance from the dog and the food. Then as the dog appears comfortable with you at a certain distance, gradually decrease the distance.

* Use a less desirable food item.

* Vary the setting and stimuli. Try a new food, new dish, different room and different time of day for feeding.

* Decrease the distance and increase the desirability of the food item very, very gradually.

* Never smack a dog in response to a food guarding response; this tends to teach him to dislike your hand and often will toughen a dog's resolve to protect his food. However, you do need to nip this behavior in the bud. Once the dog learns that aggression allows him to "win" the food, he may try this tactic with resources and possessions other than food.

An effective strategy is to establish yourself and other people in the home as the controller of all resources.

* Call your dog to you, and immediately reward his arrival with a small food treat and say "take it" at that moment. This will reestablish a conditioned response.

* If the dog tries to snap the treat from your fingers, command "GENTLE!" and withhold it until the dog takes it politely. Then praise "good dog." Repeat this several times.

* Next, delay giving the treat for a few seconds. If the dog jumps for the treat, close your hand and say "OFF." Ignore the dog until he calms down. As explained on http://canines.com, the dog will learn that the owner controls the treats.

Caution: if food aggression appears well-entrenched, consult with a good canine behavior specialist without delay.

Last Updated: April 26, 2018 (LET) PawSupport