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Living With Food Aggression in a Multi-dog Household

This blog post is about the behavior of food aggression in dogs and discusses safety and management of a multi-dog household when severe food aggression with other dogs is present. I use examples from my nine years of experience living with my dog, Chester, who had extreme food aggression with other dogs (NOT with people).


Female smiling and holding up a white powdered donut, while her red and white pit bull looks longingly at the donut.

 

What is Food Aggression?


There are different ranges of resource guarding, and there can be different levels of food aggression. It is actually pretty normal for dogs to guard what they consider their resources, like special toys or food, and they often communicate with their body language or vocalization to get other dogs (or people) to leave them alone. It becomes a problem and a safety issue when the resource guarding intensifies to biting and dog fights.


For this blog post, I am talking about extreme food aggression with other dogs that leads to fights.


A dog with food aggression might show defensive and/or offensive body language, such as body stiffening and leaning forward, growling, lip curling, staring, nipping, and various degrees of biting. The dog may start with defensive behavior, such as growling, and move to offensive behavior, like biting, if the perceived threat does not back off. 


My dog Chester had almost no defensive or warning behaviors. He didn’t ever growl first or show his teeth, and I often wondered if the growl had been punished out of him, which can lead to the dog feeling like there is no choice but to jump to offensive behaviors. If a dog is punished for growling, then the next time, the dog might just go straight to a bite. Chester’s body language before an incident was incredibly quick and often so quick that there was no time to intervene or prevent what was already in motion. His body would stiffen, and he might lean forward a little - all in a second. And then he would immediately attempt to bite and hold. 


Potential Triggers


Potential food aggression triggers might be:

  • Dog food in dishes

  • Empty dog dishes

  • Bags of pet food, full or empty

  • Trash bags full of human food

  • Dog treats

  • Stuffed Kongs, toppls, etc. 

  • Special chews like bully sticks, etc.

  • Flavored/smelly toys, such as bacon-flavored chew bones

  • Being in the kitchen while cooking is happening

  • Being near the table while people are eating

  • Being near a couch while people are snacking

  • Something dropped on the floor

  • Food smells on carpets, floors, couches, etc. 

  • Things found on the road during walks 

  • New people in the house

  • New dogs in the house


The list of your dog’s triggers can also change or grow so it’s important to always be aware of what could become a trigger. When I first adopted Chester, it was mainly just dog food in dishes that he reacted over. Over the years, many more triggers were added - some that never were an issue previously - which required a constantly evolving management plan. A plan that had been just feeding the dogs in their crates and picking up food dishes, went to no being around the dinner table while there was food on it, no being around full or empty dog food bags, no being around the trash, no special treats or chews anywhere ever, etc. In the last few years of Chester’s life, after his last incident, I just managed anything I thought he could possibly perceive as food-related.


Trigger Stacking


According to the AKC, “trigger stacking refers to a phenomenon in which a dog experiences multiple stressful or scary situations within a short timespan. As a result, a pup may feel overwhelmed and exhibit a large reaction to an otherwise minor stressor.” 


I think this happens more for anxious and reactive dogs, but any dog can experience trigger stacking that puts them above their normal tolerance threshold. What may not seem like a big deal to you, could be stressful to your dog, like even simple changes in routine.


For example, your dog might normally tolerate being hugged (though truthfully, most dogs don’t enjoy this). But say one day, your dog has a vet appointment, then a couple new people come over to your house, and there is a low battery smoke detector beeping in the house that’s making them anxious. If all those extra things stress your dog out, and then you go to hug them, they might react differently because they are already over threshold, haven’t had enough time to recover and calm down back, and the discomfort of being hugged is too much. 


Or just think about a time you’ve felt overstimulated or overwhelmed, and suddenly minor things become super irritating or upsetting. 


So, in 2014, not too long after adopting Chester, I had gone on vacation and he was staying in a boarding facility. The day I returned and picked him up, we went home and one of our friends was over with his newly adopted dog inside our house (the dogs had met before but only outside). We were all eating at the table when Chester and our friend’s new dog went after each other under the table. At the time, I didn’t realize this series of scenarios could stack on top of each other to increase the possibility of Chester having a food-related incident. 


In 2017, I sold one house, my dogs and I moved in with my dad in his new house for a few months, and then I bought a new house. One night soon after we moved into the new house, my dad was over to help with some projects, and he and I were eating pizza at the table. Chester kind of stepped on my feet under the table which hurt, so I gently pushed him away from me with my leg, and suddenly, he started attacking my other dog, Phoebe, under the table. He had never done that to Phoebe around the table in the past, but he was already stressed and anxious from moving and unpacking and being in a new place. Add that to the presence of food, and my little push was actually a big push over the edge.


Manage, Manage, Manage!

 

Set your dog up for success! This can be challenging and takes effort, especially in a multi-dog household. Many things have to change and everyone that lives in or visits the house has to be on board with rules and routines. 


Crate all dogs while eating or receiving a special treat, like a bully stick or stuffed Kong. 

Three large metal white crates lined up next to each other, with dogs inside each crate eating out of dog food dishes.

It didn’t take me long to realize that Chester had to eat in his crate. And after one time of forgetting to pick up Phoebe’s dish, it became clear that ALL the dogs had to eat in their crates, with a very strict mealtime routine. All the dogs knew to go into their crates at meal times and happily did so, the crate doors would be shut, meals prepped, then one at a time, I would open a crate and put the food in and close the crate, and move to the next dog. When everyone was done, I would open the crate, take out the dish, and send the dog out of the room before letting the next dog out. 


For a while, Chester could have a stuffed Kong next to Phoebe without issue and even trade Kongs with Phoebe (this makes me cringe to think about now!). But eventually, in time, if he smelled a spot on a rug where another dog had previously had a special treat, that became a trigger. In his last incident, in 2019, I had a foster dog in the living room chewing on a special treat while the other dogs were gated in another area of the house. When the foster was done, I waited about ten minutes, then opened the gate and let all the dogs back together. Chester went over to the spot the foster dog had been chewing the treat and started smelling the rug. I instantly felt uncomfortable in my gut and started to stand up off the couch but it was already too late - just a sniff of the rug and a millisecond of stiffening his body as a warning, and Chester was in fight mode.


From that moment on, our house became even more strictly managed. No one got special treats or frozen Kongs anymore, unless in their crates, but even that didn’t happen much. There were never dog treats or human food on the floor or yard, no “find it” games, and if something was dropped, we had to use cleaning spray to get the food smell off the best we could, just in case. 


Gates! 

A black dog, a brindle dog, and a red and white dog, all sitting and standing next to each other at a gate in a doorway.

You will feel like you’re living in a very crowded gated community or like you’re constantly walking through an obstacle course in your own house, but having multiple gates set up can make your life so much easier. You can separate dogs when cooking, when sitting at the table, if you have a snack in the living room, or if you’re not there to supervise the dogs interacting together. There are ALL kinds of gates on the market to suit your needs and aesthetic. 


A brown dog and a black dog laying on separate dog beds in one section of the living room, with a red and white dog in a dog bed on the other side of a black wire gate separating the room.

Teach your other dogs.

Obviously, you can’t explain to the other dogs in your home that one of them has food aggression and can be dangerous. But, you can try to teach the dogs in your home certain skills that might help. When it was just Chester and Phoebe, and before Chester’s triggers got worse, Phoebe learned to automatically lie down in her bed away from Chester whenever we were eating or cooking. She knew the cue “go to your bed” but usually did it herself. 


The “leave it” cue can be hugely helpful for all the dogs in the home to know. If a piece of food is dropped on the floor and you say “leave it” and all dogs stop in their tracks, it could prevent a head-on collision of possessive feelings when they reach the piece of food. 


Make sure everybody knows.

Make sure to inform anyone who might be interacting with your dog that they have food aggression, what the triggers are, and what the consequences are. That means daycare* and boarding staff, groomers, veterinarians, dog walkers, pet sitters, your friends, and your family. Don’t risk somebody not knowing and making a mistake that could be dangerous. 


*I listed daycare because for years, Chester did actually go to weekly daycare with Phoebe. I explained his issues so the owner and staff were aware, and he would often get treats at daycare next to other dogs without reacting. Eventually though, I decided daycare was not a safe place for Chester due to too many opportunities for a slip in the management plan. If your dog has food aggression to the level that Chester did, I would advise avoiding daycares, dog parks, and ANY place where there are too many variables out of your control. 


Utilize tools, IF needed.

Have safe tools handy to help break up dog fights such as break sticks and air horns. In the last few years of Chester’s life, I actually had an air horn and break stick downstairs, and an air horn upstairs. I never had to use them but I felt a little better knowing those tools were there if needed. 


Resources


  • How to Break Up a Dog Fight Safely – This goes into types of dog fights, hands-off and hands-on techniques to break up a fight, what not to do, and tools to have in a fight kit. I can tell you from experience, it’s VERY difficult not to instinctively jump in and grab the dog’s collar with your hands to try to pull them away during a dog fight. This is risky to do and can result in the dog redirecting and biting you, which Chester did do twice. 

  • Webinars by Michael Shikashio CDBC at Aggressive Dog 

  • Muzzle training by the Muzzle Up Project – Muzzles can be a great tool and can give you peace of mind. Make sure to use a proper fitting muzzle and one that allows your dog to breathe and drink, and acclimate your dog to the muzzle so it’s not a stressful experience. 

  • Losing Lulu – Started by trainers Trish McMillan and Sue Alexander, this is a private Facebook group dedicated to supporting people affected by behavioral euthanasia. This is NOT a support group to be in while you’re working through things with your dog, but rather, a resource to lean on after, if behavioral euthanasia is the outcome.


Conclusion


When you have a dog with severe food aggression, the dog’s world, and sometimes your own world, gets smaller. It can be tricky to bring your dog on vacations or trips with you, and it’s risky to find a pet-sitter or boarding facility that you trust will manage your dog’s issues and prevent a dangerous situation, so going away happens less. There are less public places you can bring your dog. It’s difficult to have parties or dinners with other people over, and your dog might have to be behind a gate or in another room during those events. Your dog might not get as much enrichment from special treats, stuffed Kongs, puzzle toys, or “find it” games as other dogs can.


It’s very, very hard. It’s incredibly taxing to a person’s nervous system. It requires effort and commitment and dedication. You may feel like a total control freak. It requires certain household set ups, which are not always possible. It requires all members of the family to be on board and following the “rules,” which is not always possible either (i.e. if you have small kids). It requires a lot of learning and observing, and a lot of remembering and hyper-vigilance. 


BUT things are not all doom and gloom! You and the dog, and the other dogs in the home, can still have a good life. Chester went to agility classes and even got to a couple competitions, went to public Paws in the Pool events, participated in Green Mountain Iron Dog, we tried barn hunt, we tried disc dog, we went to Dog Mountain, he saw the ocean, he went to daycare for a few years, and shared his home with several foster dogs over the years. When I look back at his life, what we accomplished together, and what a great “breed” ambassador he was, the food aggression is just one part of his story.



 

References


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