Food guarding, a form of resource guarding, is a common problem among dogs. If a dog wants other dogs or humans to stay away from their food (or treats, toys, a bed), they will use threats such as growling, snapping, and sometimes even biting and chasing to protect their food. For puppies, this is common since they are competing with their brothers and sisters for food, but food guarding behavior can begin at any age.
Food guarding is a normal behavior for dogs to display, they are simply protecting resources they deem valuable, it’s a “survival of the fittest” tactic. But it can certainly be scary and sometimes even dangerous to you and any other animals around. If you have children, food guarding can be a big problem because kids don’t tend to recognize warning signs and end up getting bit.
Don’t Free Freed
It’s important to not let a dog who food guards “free feed,” which means leaving food available all day for them to eat. If you allow food to be available all day, this makes the dog think they constantly need to be on the defensive. Only feed your dog at consistent times each day (talk to your veterinarian about what times would work best and how much food to give them as well) and once your dog is done eating, remove the bowl promptly.
Change the Behavior
Instead of having the dog believe that you or another dog is going to take their food away, change their behavior by training them to associate you walking towards their food bowl as a good thing, not a threat. When your dog is eating, approach them slowly and drop a treat into their bowl and then walk away. Training your dog to “drop it” is especially useful if they food guard. If you provide a reward (a treat, for instance) every time your dog drops whatever is in their mouth, they will begin to learn that if they listen to you and “drop it” something good will happen.
For more information about how to help desensitize your dog to food guarding, the ASPCA offers a detailed step by step guide for treatment exercises to stop food guarding.
Create a Barrier
If you have two or more dogs in your household, create a barrier when it’s dinnertime. Feed the dogs in separate rooms, for instance, and never take away their food bowl if they start to food guard – this just makes them want to guard even more. If you have children, feed your dogs in an area of the house where the kids won’t bother them. It’s also important to teach kids that dogs should be left alone while they are eating (or resting, or chewing on a bone/another chew toy).
What Not to Do
According to the ASPCA, it’s important NOT to punish or intimidate your dog if he is guarding food. Some people think they will stop their dog from food guarding by “dominating” them and showing “who is the boss.” But the ASPCA states that this is dangerous and that, “It’s easier and safer to simply change the way your dog feels about people approaching him when he has food through desensitization and counterconditioning.”
If you’re still having issues with food guarding, the ASPCA recommends seeking help from a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB), or a Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT) with education and experience in treating aggression. The best place to start would probably be with your vet, who can rule out any medical problems and then make a referral to a behavior specialist if needed.
If you see any signs of food guarding, it’s important not to ignore it! Your pup will not grow out of the behavior and usually, behavior problems left alone almost always worsen rather than improve. By taking the appropriate steps to help curb food guarding, you can help keep you, your canine best friend and your family safe and happy!
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