Dog aggression is a difficult behavior problem. It’s hard to say why a dog shows aggression. Common causes are poor puppy socialization, being taken from the litter too soon, fear and poor obedience training. Unfortunately, dogs can’t tell us why they are behaving the way they do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t manage the behavior. Here’s a reader whose dog was showing unexpected aggression towards the family’s new dog.

Your Question:

After years of being a one-dog household, my husband and I decided to adopt an older rescue dog. Our first dog, a 6 year old mix, has always been a little nervous, but never gave us any major problems. That’s why we are stunned about the way she is reacting to our new dog, a 2-year-old mix. They seem to get along fine most times, but when it is time to feed, our older dog becomes very aggressive: growling, snapping, guarding. She is doing this not only to our new dog, but to my husband and I as well. We are feeing them in separate rooms for now, but is there another way to fix this problem?

– Louie

My Answer:

Food aggression can be a complex problem. In general, the solution is to get your dog desensitized to having other people and dogs around during meal time.

You’re doing the right thing to keep them separated — but it’s only a temporary solution. It’s a solution that is keeping all family members safe, but if you don’t address the root of the problem, it will eventually get worse.

Because you are experiencing a new problem with an old dog, I would guess that your dog is reacting to a perceived lack of structure in the family. One thing to start immediately is to make both dogs perform a sit for you in order to earn their meals. This reinforces that you are in charge and control the resources. This is actually very comforting to your dog, who instinctively looks for a leader.

If your dog has serious aggression around her food bowl, it may be time for you to consider a good trainer or behaviorist to begin working on a more rigorous behavior modification program to directly address the underlying issues around food aggression.

(C) Jim Burwell 2010