Taking a Bite Out of Food Bowl Aggression


Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Could there be a magic cure for aggressive shelter dogs? Emily Weiss, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and ASPCA Senior Director of Shelter Behavior Programs, believes there is a cure for at least one type of aggression - food guarding - and she has developed a protocol to prove it. (Food guarding refers to dogs being aggressive over food only - not toys or other items. While food aggression may be a relatively easy behavior to modify in the shelter, possession aggression is a different and often more difficult problem that requires an entirely different behavior modification protocol.)

Fifty dogs participated in her original study which took place at the Wisconsin Humane Society in 2004. After shelter staff implemented the protocol, forty-eight of the fifty dogs had no observable food aggression in the shelter or in their adopive homes. Since then, several other shelters throughout the country have implemented the simple in-shelter and in-home behavior modification plan and all report success rates of over 90%.

Food Guarding = Death

One commonly used method for testing food aggression in shelter dogs has a shelter worker take a rubber hand on a stick, approach a dog while he is eating and then push his face away from the food dish. Dogs that freeze, growl or attack the hand are often considered unsuitable for placement and euthanized.

But is this a true measure of placement suitability? The tremendous stress dogs feel in shelters magnifies all of their behaviors. If food is valuable at home, it's even more valuable in the shelter. "It's difficult in a shelter when there are so many dogs and the canine can't predict when he will get fed. Food becomes a really valuable resource," comments Natalie Zielinski, Behavior Program Manager at the Wisconsin Humane Society. The first goal of the Weiss protocol is to decrease the value of food in the shelter. All dogs who enter the food guarding program must have access to a full bowl of food at all times for at least 24 hours before starting the program and the dogs must be free fed consistently throughout the program. "Free feeding alone solves a lot of problems," says Alison Nozemack, Training and Behavior Manager at the Maryland SPCA.

Shelters using the Weiss protocol generally adhere to the criteria used in the Wisconsin study for determining which dogs can participate in the program. The dogs generally must be over six months of age; score "1s" and "2s" on all other parts of the ASPCA MYM SAFER™ temperament assessment (developed by Dr. Weiss); and show aggression only toward food items. Bully breeds are not chosen, and adoption is restricted to adopters without toddlers and those willing to continue to work with the dog in the home. Follow-up is conducted by calling the adopters on the third day post adoption, the third week post adoption, and third month post adoption focusing both on general health/behavior of the dog and behavior regarding food. (In the initial study, adopters were also asked to videotape the behavior of their dog at ‘dinner time' so the dog's actual behavior in the home could be observed.)

There are variations from shelter to shelter. One shelter interviewed for this article limits dogs in this program to small and highly desirable breeds; one shelter leaves it to adopters to initiate follow-up calls ("Food guarding frequently goes away in a home setting. If they have problems, they call us"); and another doesn't restrict placement. "We counsel potential adopters, but don't prohibit adoptions based on the age of the children. However, most people self-select."

Approximately 3 million adult dogs enter shelters each year, and roughly five to twenty percent of them have food guarding issues. Given such numbers, this protocol has the potential to save a hundred thousand canine lives per year!

Public Response

The Weiss protocol states, "All dogs placed for adoption from this program must be clearly identified so adopters can be properly counseled, go home with the food-guarding program and be flagged for follow up."

Do adopters feel they're getting damaged goods? Do they change their mind when they see the dog has a problem? Are these dogs bad for the shelter's image?

It seems the opposite is true. Sharon Wirant, Canine Behavior Manager at the Monadnock Humane Society, takes adopters in the dog rooms and demonstrates the protocol. The response has been very positive. "adopters think the work is fun." According to Natalie Zielinski, "Most adopters accept the dog's food guarding very easily. I haven't heard any negative comments."

And at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, "The signs on the kennel make people ask questions. A few will choose another dog, but generally, if they're interested in the dog, the food guarding component doesn't scare them off," says Connie Howard, Director of Operations. "They say this is the dog and the breed I want and I'm willing to work with him. People feel good about helping the dog and say, 'I'm proud I adopted a behavior modification dog and look how great he's doing!' The people who adopt these dogs are really committed to them. And our donors strongly support this program. Most of our dogs with behavior problems come from our own community, and we have a commitment to help local animals."

Ringing Endorsements

The shelter behaviorists and trainers working with this protocol couldn't be more enthusiastic.

"This protocol is a revolutionary boon for shelters euthanizing for aggression. The turnaround we can do when animals stop worrying about us taking something away from them is truly amazing," reports Sharon Wirant.

"The program is fantastic," says Natalie Zielinski. "When we started, I was nervous about what would happen. It was a relief to learn that with slight modification and a stable environment, food guarding was not an issue."

Says Connie Howard, "This protocol has and will continue to save lots of dog's lives. It's a great first program."

Sheila Segurson, DVM, Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Behavior, Koret Shelter Medicine Program, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, concurs. "For organizations that want to start behavior modification programs, food guarding is a great place to start - it's the problem easiest to fix and most likely to respond to treatment. I'm excited to see Emily Weiss has this protocol out there - it looks like a good solid plan to me."

Comments Jean Donaldson, noted author and Director of The San Francisco SPCA's Academy for Dog Trainers, "I like the protocol, as well as the taming of hysteria that food-guarding is a big deal. It's nice to see food bowl information that's not the subject of drama, drama, drama."


As we work toward the no-kill nation goal, dog behavior issues will loom larger and larger. But it's encouraging to know that shelters can eliminate one problem right away, and give many dogs a second chance at life.

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