On Food Reactivity….Nothing Personal. Really.

  I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection.
  – Charles Darwin


Food reactivity is a serious issue and needs to be handled delicately.  It is one of the very few issues that I feel could justify rehoming a dog, as I always feel a human’s safety must take priority. If you’ve ever faced this issue, you know how frustrating and gut wrenching it can be. It’s one of those times that you see your dog as, well, an animal. Sometimes we forget that our big-eyed, cuddly friends are actually still animals. And food is a fundamental resource to all animals, including humans. So, in all honesty, it makes perfect sense why your dog may be reactive to if someone gets too close to him while eating or tries to take his food away.  He is surviving.

Now what do I mean by reactive? Well, let’s say you put down your dog’s food, either in a bowl or an enrichment toy. If you choose to go over and take away the food or the toy while your dog is eating you may hear a grunt, a growl or you may even get bared teeth. Your dog is telling you to back off, that this is his food and you are to be nowhere near it. Now, in the wild or for a stray dog, this is perfectly acceptable. Their resources (food, water) are their survival. However, this is unacceptable, and dangerous in a house, especially where there are kids or situations that may arise where your dog may have some food that is highly detrimental to his health. Of course, children should always be taught to never take food or put their hands in a dog’s food bowl. However, it’s our job as responsible owners, to try and make sure our dog has the tools to act correctly in an inappropriate situation.

A dog being temperament tested at a shelter.  The fake hand is inserted into the food dish to gauge a dog’s reaction.  I’ve seen fake hands absolutely shredded by an otherwise calm, sweet dog.  

The first step to dealing with food reactivity is to stay calm. I cannot emphasize this enough. Do not take the barking or the growling personally. This has nothing to do with you. To him, this is surviving. Your job is to let him know that you are the source of the food, which means can touch it and take it away if you need to. The worst thing you can do in this situation is yell. If you feel like you won’t be able to handle the situation calmly, then walk away.

You can start by hand feeding your dog. Sit down on the couch and have your dog sit in front of you. Wait until he’s calm and then give him a small handful of his food. After he’s finished, wait for him to calm down and give him another handful of food. This is re-emphasizing that you are the handler of the food and that good things happen when he’s calm. Try not to stand or move around while doing this at first. It’s important to stay calm and control the situation by not adding any extra or unnecessary energy.

After hand feeding, work with an enrichment toy on taking the food away. Keep your dog on a leash so that you feel safe. Let your dog eat and when you feel like you would like to intervene with the food walk towards your dog. If he doesn’t back away from the toy and you don’t feel comfortable reaching for it, give him a quick correction with the leash and use a command such as “sit”. If your dog backs away without any issues (no growling) you can reward him with a higher value treat (string cheese, hot dog). This emphasizes that again good things can happen while you are around the food.

If your dog starts growling and barking stand your ground. Stay calm and still but hold your position. Your dog is trying to back you up, so it’s important to make him realize that the growling and barking are not acceptable and are also not going to intimidate you. So, stay calm and still until the reactivity subsides, once it does take a small step forward and see what the reaction is. If nothing, you can continue towards the food. If your dog reacts to the next step, repeat your calm and still body language. However, always make sure you feel safe. If you feel as though you cannot move forward, then stay where you are until you feel your dog’s energy has dropped. Then slowly back away from the situation. Avoid quick, abrupt movements that could be seen as possibly “threatening”.

This is why we temperament test dogs before we adopt!

This is an issue that is a long and thoughtful process. When I first adopted Porter his food reactivity was very high. It was scary to see my goofball dog change into this wild animal. But then I realized, he’s just doing what he’s supposed to and I have to help him realize that he doesn’t have to be stressed or worried during dinner time. It’s something we work on daily and has taken more patience than almost anything else I’ve done.

A lot of these issues can be addressed before they arise while your dog is still a puppy.  Feed them by hand.  Keep your hand in their food dishes as they eat.  Constantly poke and prod them while they are eating their food, or gnawing on a high value item.  Take food away, and reward with praise and a higher-value food item if they accept this with calm (example: you let me take away your dog food, and you’re calm, so here’s some boiled chicken).  Give them a treat and then fish it out of their mouth.  It sounds cruel, but euthanasia is much worse.

Using the PAW method early on can prevent this reaction in your adult dog. 

If you’re having serious issues with food reactivity please message us or set up an appointment as this can be a dangerous situation and is something that needs to be dealt with immediately. But remember, your dog is doing nothing wrong. He’s purely being a dog. So, take some deep breaths and try and communicate with him in a way that he’ll understand.

Danica and Porter
Danika and Porter – making significant progress together.