Food Aggression and Jess

My lovely food-aggressive girl
By Kay Bradnum

Jess is a medium-sized lurcher, who came to me when she was 15 months old. She had been living with a young girl, who loved her very much but could no longer care for her. Her owner had done the best she could, but I believe she was given some very poor advice. Jess had had very little socialisation and, from her behaviour when she came to us, I am very sure her owner was told to take the food bowl from her occasionally ‘to make sure you can if you need to’. This is a sure-fire way to teach a dog that it needs to guard.

By the time Jess came to live with me, she was convinced she could lose her food at any time. When I put her food down, all she would do was pace up and down in front of it, snatching the odd mouthful, and growling constantly. She would snatch any food she could reach and warn all dogs very clearly that they would be in a world of pain if they came near her!

It was obvious that Jess was very stressed and struggling to cope with life.


The first thing I did was to put her food bowl in a separate room (utility room). Each mealtime, she was fed in there with the door shut. In time, Jess realised that no one was going to take her food and she began to relax. After about a month, I started leaving the door open so she could hear and see us, but I still made sure no one went in the utility room until Jess had left of her own accord. I have four dogs, so the others were all fed separately, and all bowls were picked up and washed immediately. This is good practise in any case for anyone with several dogs. Some dogs are fine fed together, but I don’t take the chance.

Once was I sure Jess was tucking in and eating her food happily and confidently, I would walk in and quickly out of the room again. At first, her body would tense and she would freeze, but she soon understood that this was not a threat. Then I would walk through the utility room, past her (while she was eating), to the back door, and back again. Once she was happy with this, I started dropping a bit of sausage or cheese in the bowl as I went past. It took a while, but I knew I had won when Jess started to look around for her treat whenever I went in the room. I built up to the point that, when I put the sausage in her bowl and my hand was right next to her head, she wouldn’t even bat an eyelid.

I know some people like to pick the bowl up, add the treat, and put it back down. I don’t think that’s necessary. I like to be left to eat in peace, and I think my dogs have the same right. I don’t give them a bowl of food unless they can have it. Why would I need to take it away again?


Larger treats were only ever given in a separate room, and Jess was kept separate from the others until she had finished. This is no longer necessary, but all dogs are supervised, and I spread the dogs out before treating.

Smaller treats which could be eaten immediately weren’t too much of a problem. Jess got hers first, and then the others in order, so everyone knew which treat was theirs. I also use each dog’s name before dishing out bits of sausage or cheese, so they know which is theirs.

Scraps on the Floor

I had a couple of scares, where Jess would attack any dog closer to a crumb on the floor than she was. She has taught me to be very tidy in the kitchen (she’s a dreadful thief anyway so counters are always kept clear) and my kitchen floor is regularly swept. I have relaxed this a little now, but I’m still careful if meat is involved, especially chicken, which is her favourite.

Teaching Jess to Give up her ‘Treasures’

While all this was going on, I taught Jess a good, solid ‘swap’. I started with stuff she didn’t really want, something like a toy she had lost interest in, a bit of paper, or anything else that had little value to her. Then I said `swap’, took it back, and gave her something she would like, such as a bit of sausage or cheese, or a quick game of tug. She’s a bright girl and soon caught on. Nowadays, if she has something I’d rather she didn’t, I can say ‘Hey Jess! Swap?’ and she immediately spits out whatever she has because she knows something better is coming.

This would work equally well for any dog who likes to steal objects. To start with, leave them with an object that doesn’t matter. If it is readily available, and the dog doesn’t get any attention from you, then it will lose value. You can also start working on a ‘swap’.


I have been lucky. Jess has never had anything I needed from her urgently, but I’ve no doubt such a situation could arise. If this had occurred before I had taught ‘swap’, I could have run into the garden excitedly, or rang the doorbell, or offered a walk. Anything to grab her attention and distract her in a hurry. Of course, if you do this you have to give them a game in the garden or take them for a walk; otherwise, they will soon get wise. In the real world, there are very few emergencies that absolutely must be dealt with. I may have had to sacrifice the odd bacon butty, though I have learned to store food in the microwave if I must turn my back!


I would say Jess is still a risk to other dogs when chicken is around. She seems to have a real addiction to it, so if we are eating it, she is separated while I’m cooking. We eat at the table alone, and all bones and leftovers are binned or fridged before the dogs are allowed in again. I could perhaps work hard on changing her behaviour around chicken, but our regime works just fine for us. Sometimes management is the best solution, and asking her to show restraint around chicken would be like asking an alcoholic to show restraint around whisky… Or me to show restraint around chocolate!

I have accepted this as one of her quirks, and I don’t think a dog always has to be perfectly behaved to be a perfect dog!