Identifying Food Aggression in Shelter Dogs

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New analysis by the Center for Shelter Dogs finds that a standardized behavior evaluation is one of the best tools for identifying food aggression in shelter dogs, though all sources of information should be considered for the most comprehensive view of this complex problem.

Food aggression is a common problem sheltering organizations face when working with dogs in the shelter.  Accurate identification of dogs likely to exhibit aggressive behavior over food items is important so that shelters can quickly assess the degree of severity and, if appropriate, begin behavior modification training programs as well as make appropriate placement decisions.  Food aggression is commonly defined as an aggressive behavior that appears when the dog or dog’s food item is approached or touched by a person while the dog is eating.  Aggressive behavior over food may occur not just over a meal (i.e., dry or wet canned food), it also may appear when a dog chews or eats a delicious food item such as a rawhide, bone, table scraps or stolen food.

The Center for Shelter Dogs examined the records of 377 dogs placed by the Animal Rescue League of Boston (ARLB) in 2009 and 2010 and identified 15% (57) as having shown food aggression.  Breaking this out further, 3% (12) of the dogs exhibited aggressive behavior over delicious food items, 5% (18) over a meal, and 7% (27) over both delicious food items and a meal.  Our analysis revealed that the behavioral history reported by the surrendering owner identified 50.8% of the food aggressive dogs; 64.9% (37) of the dogs were identified by the Match-Up II Behavior Evaluation; and 21.1% (12) were identified by their behavior in the shelter.  Because dogs could be identified as food aggressive by multiple sources, these numbers add to more than 100%.

Does this mean that the Behavior Evaluation is the best source for identifying dogs with food aggression?  In one sense, yes.  First, all dogs at the ARLB are evaluated using the Match-Up II Behavior Evaluation, therefore, all dogs have at least this one source of information.  Second, not all dogs have a behavioral history (e.g., strays) nor are owners always truthful or accurate when reporting their dog’s behavior.  Third, while the dog is in the shelter, staff are not likely to be near the dog while it is eating so the opportunity to observe aggressive reactions over food is limited.  This means that the one consistent source of information about how a dog will behave over food items is the standardized behavior evaluation.   However, the stress of the shelter may make food aggression either more or less likely, depending on the dog.  A limited study conducted by the Center for Shelter Dogs investigating the ability of a behavior evaluation to predict a dog’s behavior in the home showed that the behavior evaluation was relatively good at predicting frequent food aggression, but did miss some cases.  The Center for Shelter Dogs is now investigating what sources best predict a dog’s behavior in a new home but until that project is complete, we recommend using a comprehensive system like the Match-Up II Shelter Dog Rehoming Program to collect and incorporate information from all available sources in order to accurately identify dogs with possible food aggression.