Is it Time to Rethink Food Aggression in Shelter Dogs?

By:

What’s the most common problem behavior we see in shelter dogs? Do you want to take a guess? I’ll bet the answer isn’t what you’re thinking. According to the data we have collected through the online version of the Match-Up II Shelter Dog Rehoming Program, it’s highly excitable, exuberant behavior we call “jumpy/mouthy” behavior. As I wrote previously, Match-Up II Online identified about 37% of dogs as displaying “jumpy/mouthy” behavior, the number one problem behavior in the Match-Up II database. But this blog post isn’t about jumpy/mouthy behavior. It’s about food aggression, a topic that has received a lot of attention lately from the Center for Shelter Dogs, among others. This spotlight illuminates how complicated this topic is and how much we don’t know yet about it. So what percent of dogs display aggression over food or food items, either on the Match-Up II Behavior Evaluation, in the shelter, or in reports from past owners? Is it more than aggression to people? Is it more than aggression to other dogs? Is it more than fearful behavior? According to our data, it’s about 7% of dogs. That’s out of 5,791 dogs, a subset of the data in the database. Just think about that – 7%. How does that feel to you, do you see more dogs than that? Or less?

In fact, the prevalence of food aggression could vary widely in different shelters, depending on intake policies, what information is collected at intake and how accurate that information is, how food aggression is defined (over just food or bones, rawhides, other food-related items; just on the behavior evaluation or is past owner history included, etc.). So the 7% in our database is not a representative number for all shelter dogs; after all, these are only the dogs who were admitted to a shelter and completed a behavior evaluation. We don’t have data on the number of dogs turned away or euthanized prior to evaluation because of food aggression. In one study from the ASPCA (Mohan-Gibbons et al, 2012), sheltering organizations reported an average of 14% of dogs at their facilities to have displayed food aggression, with a range of 7% to 30%. So rates do vary widely.

How does that compare to other problem behaviors? You already know 37% of the dogs entered into the Match-Up II Online database were identified as jumpy/mouthy. According to our data, 16% of dogs evaluated with the Match-Up II program have been identified as aggressive toward people, 18% as aggressive toward other dogs, and 25% as fearful of people. The prevalence of food aggression is about the same as fear of being alone (separation anxiety), much lower than the problem behaviors listed above. Yet, shelters and rescues report food aggression to be a difficult challenge to manage and adopt out. In our survey of 1,300 sheltering organizations, 43% reported dogs with food aggression to be a challenge to place, placing them in the top three challenges behind aggression to people and aggression to other dogs. A similar finding was reported in a survey of 77 sheltering organization (Mohan-Gibbons et al., 2012). Although the prevalence may be lower than other problems, food aggression is clearly a difficult behavior to handle when placing dogs. Perhaps the reported prevalence is lower because shelters see these dogs as challenging and don’t admit them!

The really interesting thing about all this is the feedback from adopters of these dogs. Dogs with severe food aggression or resource guarding are usually not placed but many dogs with mild or moderate forms of these behaviors are adopted out and do well. In fact, two studies reported that owners are attached to these dogs (Mohan-Gibbons e al., 2012) and do not consider the food aggression to be a problem (Marder et al., 2013). So perhaps some of these challenging dogs are not as difficult to adopt out as we think.

What does this all mean? Let me turn that around and ask you – what does this mean to you and your organization? Does any of this change how you see these dogs? Is it time to re-examine your policies related to food aggression and placement decisions for these dogs? How might you manage these dogs in your organization? If would like to learn more about food aggression in shelter dogs, how it is identified on behavior evaluations, and how those dogs do after adoption, please register for our upcoming webinar, “Wondering About Food Aggression in Shelter Dogs?” on Wednesday, February 18 from 2-3 pm ET.

References:

Mohan-Gibbons, H., Weiss, E., & Slater, M.(2012). Preliminary investigation of food guarding behavior in shelter dogs in the United States. Animals, 2, 331-346.

Marder, A., Shabelansky, A., Patronek, G., Dowling-Guyer, S., & D’Arpino, S. (2013). Food-related aggression in shelter dogs: A comparison of behavior identified by a behavior evaluation in the shelter and owner reports after adoption. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 148, 150-156.