It is normal for dogs to exhibit possession-guarding behavior towards humans or other animals. In the wild, animals that successfully protect their valuable resources have a better chance of survival. However, this tendency to guard valued items is undesirable in our domestic pets, especially when it is directed toward people.
Resource guarding in dogs can range from relatively mild behaviors, such as running away with a prized possession or growling at approaching individuals, to more severe forms of aggression, like biting or chasing people away. Some dogs only exhibit resource guarding towards specific individuals, often strangers, while others guard their resources from everyone. Dogs differ in what they consider valuable, with some guarding chew bones or toys, while others guard stolen items like food wrappers or socks. Many dogs guard their food.
In many cases, food guarding doesn't require extensive treatment. Pet parents of dogs with food-guarding behavior often take reasonable precautions to ensure everyone's safety. They leave their dogs alone while eating or may feed them in a separate room, crate, or behind a barrier. They provide their dogs with adequate food portions to reduce the motivation to guard. They avoid attempting to take away stolen or scavenged food from their dogs.
However, if children live in a household with a resource-guarding dog, the situation becomes unacceptably risky. Children are more susceptible to getting bitten due to their limited ability to recognize a dog's warning signals and their tendency to behave recklessly around dogs. In some cases, the risk of living with a dog that guards resources is also high for adults. For instance, if a dog guards food on tables, counters, dishes in the dishwasher, or food dropped on the floor, it becomes impossible to avoid these situations and prevent guarding behavior.
An Ounce of Prevention
Young puppies are prone to developing guarding behavior due to competition with littermates for limited food resources. Breeders often feed puppies from a communal pan, and those who consume the most food grow faster and become stronger. If a breeder fails to intervene, this situation can reinforce aggressive behavior in puppies.
To prevent the development of guarding behavior in a new puppy or adult dog that doesn't exhibit it, simple exercises can be undertaken. Upon bringing a new dog home, it is important to hand-feed several meals. Sit with the dog and give them their kibble one bite at a time. During these hand-fed meals, speak pleasantly and stroke the dog while offering food with the other hand. If any discomfort or wariness is displayed, hand-feeding should be discontinued, and the exercises outlined below should be followed. If the dog appears calm and comfortable during hand-feeding, transition to holding the bowl in the lap and allowing them to eat while speaking and gently stroking their head and body. After a few meals, place the dog's bowl on the floor and periodically drop in a piece of something particularly tasty, like cheese, chicken, or beef, as they eat their regular food. By incorporating these intermittent rewards for the first few months, the dog should remain relaxed and unthreatened during mealtime.
If there is a risk of being bitten by your dog, it is important not to attempt resolving resource guarding on your own. This can be dangerous, especially if your dog has a history of biting or aggressive behavior. Consult with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB), or a qualified Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT). Ensure that the trainer has the necessary expertise and experience in treating aggression, as not all CPDTs are specifically trained in aggression.
For dogs that present challenges during food guarding treatment, seeking help from a behaviorist or qualified trainer is recommended. If the dog shows signs of stress, refusal to eat, or continues to guard the bowl despite the exercises, professional assistance is necessary. It is essential to seek help if the dog reaches a point where progress is not being made.
Treatment Exercises for Food Guarding
The treatment for food guarding involves desensitization combined with counterconditioning. These exercises are highly effective but require attention to detail.
The exercises are divided into stages. After completing the exercises in one stage, progression to the next stage can occur if the dog remains relaxed and shows no signs of aggression. It can be challenging to interpret a dog's body language accurately, so it is important to observe their posture, ears, eyes, and tail when they are in a pleasant situation. Signs of relaxation include a relaxed posture, normal breathing, eating at a normal pace, wagging, and wiggling. Signs of aggression to watch for during exercises include standing stiffly over the bowl, gulping food, freezing, growling, staring, snapping, snarling, biting, or chasing people away. If any of these signs are observed, the exercises should be immediately stopped, and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, board-certified veterinary behaviorist, or a qualified Certified Professional Dog Trainer should be consulted.
To ensure safety, if uncertainty exists regarding the dog's reaction to the exercises, tethering them to something sturdy is recommended.
Before starting the exercises, prepare bite-sized pieces of special treats for the dog. These treats should be highly desirable and distinct from their regular food, such as small bits of chicken, beef, hot dogs, or cheese. The goal is to convince the dog that approaching them while eating brings something even better than what they have in their bowl.
Stand a few feet away from the dog while they eat dry kibble from a bowl on the floor. Do not move towards the dog.
In a conversational tone, say something like, "What have you got there?" while tossing a special treat towards the bowl. Repeat this every few seconds until the dog finishes eating.
Repeat this exercise during each feeding until the dog eats in a relaxed manner for 10 consecutive meals. Then proceed to Stage Two.
During your exercises, if your dog leaves the bowl and moves toward you to ask for more treats, just ignore him. Wait until he goes back to his bowl and starts eating again before tossing more tasty treats.
While the dog eats dry kibble from a bowl on the floor, say "What have you got there?" in a conversational tone. Simultaneously, take one step towards the dog and toss a special treat towards the bowl. Immediately step back.
Repeat this sequence every few seconds until the dog finishes eating.
While the dog eats dry kibble from a bowl on the floor, approach them saying "What have you got there?" in a conversational tone. Stand next to the dog's bowl and drop a special treat into it. Then, turn around and walk away immediately.
Repeat this sequence every few seconds until the dog finishes eating. When the dog eats in a relaxed manner for 10 consecutive meals, you are ready to move to the next stage.
While the dog eats dry kibble from a bowl on the floor, approach them saying "What have you got there?" in a conversational tone. Stand next to the dog and hold a special treat in your hand. Bend down slightly, offering the treat an inch or two in the dog's direction. Encourage the dog to stop eating from the bowl and take the treat. After the dog eats the treat from your hand, turn around and walk away immediately.
Repeat this sequence every few seconds until the dog finishes eating.
While the dog eats dry kibble from a bowl on the floor, approach them saying "What have you got there?" in a conversational tone. Stand next to the dog, bend down, and touch their bowl with one hand while offering a special treat with the other hand.
Continue this sequence every few seconds until the dog finishes eating. Once the dog eats in a relaxed manner for 10 consecutive meals, you can move to the next stage.
While the dog eats dry kibble from a bowl on the floor, approach them saying "What have you got there?" in a conversational tone. Stand next to the dog, bend down, pick up their bowl with one hand, raise it six inches off the floor, and drop a special treat in the bowl. Immediately return the bowl to the floor for the dog to continue eating.
Repeat this sequence every few seconds until the dog finishes all the food in the bowl. Gradually raise the bowl slightly higher off the floor each time until you can lift it to waist height and stand upright.
Continue the sequence, but instead of returning the bowl to the floor, walk over to a table or counter with it. Put a special treat into the bowl, then return to the dog and place the bowl back in its original location on the floor.he floor.
Stage Seven: Making It Work for Everyone
In the final stage, all adult family members should go through stages one to six individually. Each person should start from the beginning and progress through the steps in the same way, ensuring the dog remains relaxed and comfortable throughout the exercises. It cannot be assumed that because the dog is okay with one person approaching their bowl, they will automatically be comfortable with another person doing the same. Consistency is key, and all family members must follow the same rules.
The entire treatment program is gradual, allowing the dog to relax and anticipate the special treats instead of feeling threatened and becoming aggressive. Through these exercises, the dog will learn that people approaching their food bowl bring even tastier food and are not there to take it away.
Treatment Troubleshooting and Tips
If you are unable to feed the dog kibble, make sure the treats offered during the exercises are more desirable than the regular food.
Ensure that the treats offered by hand during the exercises are still more enticing than what is already in the bowl.
Managing Your Dog’s Behavior
Apart from the treatment sessions, careful management of the dog's behavior is necessary to avoid aggressive encounters. Do not allow others to approach the dog while they are eating. If the dog guards food from children, it is crucial not to attempt these exercises with any child under 18 years old. Instead, seek help from a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB), or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) with expertise in treating aggression.
If the dog guards food from visitors in your home, it may be easier to manage their behavior rather than resolving it. Remove all food items from the area when the dog and guests are in the same room. Alternatively, confine the dog to a separate area of the home while guests are present. Be aware that dogs may also guard food intended for people, even if it is on a table or countertop. If food will be present during guest visits, confining the dog is necessary to ensure everyone's safety..
What NOT to Do
Punishing or intimidating your dog when they guard food is not recommended. Approaching a food-guarding dog can trigger a defensive reaction because they perceive the person as a threat to their food. Attempting to dominate the dog or show strength by forcefully taking their food is dangerous and unnecessary. It can exacerbate resource guarding and harm the relationship between you and your dog. It is safer and more effective to change the dog's perception of people approaching their food through desensitization and counterconditioning techniques.