“The other day I was playing fetch in the park with my dog Bosco. Another dog got interested in our game and tried to retrieve our chew toy – that’s when Bosco attacked.”
Hundreds of dog owners can relate to this experience where their canine pet becomes overly aggressive as soon as another dog or human being shows interest in their food or toys. This is termed as resource guarding, a behavior which can be quite annoying to a pet owner, especially when the aggressive behavior is directed at them.
Victoria Sitwell, a world renowned dog specialist, says “Guarding resources is usually a manifestation of the dog’s deep-rooted insecurity and inability to cope well in a social situation”, and further attributes this behavior to the dog’s natural instinct to survive.
A dog that practises resource guarding will usually try and control access to food, items or territory he considers important to him by using aggressive body language to keep his “competitors” at bay. And while some dogs only show this behavior towards certain animals or people, others guard their resources from everyone else.
Resource guarding can take different forms ranging from relatively harmless aggression, like growling at someone coming towards them, to full-scale hostility like biting someone or chasing after them.
In certain cases, dogs guard food dropped on the floor or leftovers they find on the table, behavior which can pose a threat to household members when the dog is overly aggressive. The situation can become especially risky if there are children in the home, because they may not recognize the warning signs given by the dog.
Table of Contents
- Why you shouldn’t react with anger to guarding
- How to approach resource guarding behavior
- Training using a step by step approach
- Step 1- Teach him how to say “please”
- Step 2 – Give him treats, but from a distance
- Step 3 – Take your first step towards him
- Step 4 – Stand by your dog and drop him a treat
- Step 5 – Feed him from your hand
- Step 6 – Feed him from your other hand
- Step 7 – Pick up the bowl
- Step 8 – Teach the other family members
- Limiting food aggression
Why you shouldn’t react with anger to guarding
While some people have learned to live with dogs that have resource guarding issues, others get angry and combative with their pets mainly because they don’t understand the reasons for this kind of behavior.
Confronting your dog, however, is not the solution and may, in fact, make a bad situation worse by driving your dog to guard the resource even more. The last thing you should do is use physical punishment as a deterrent because it achieves the opposite goal and actually reinforces guarding behavior. At the very worst, it damages the relationship with your dog.
Instead, as a pet parent, you should try and understand where your dog is coming from and work at instilling more confidence in him instead of making him feel threatened.
How to approach resource guarding behavior
Sometimes guarding behavior is the result of how we raise our puppies. Take the example of a dog shelter where many people get their pets from; you will find that members of the same litter are often fed from one pan, which forces them to compete for food from an early age.
They quickly learn that aggressive behavior pays, because puppies who dominate others eat more and grow bigger and stronger, helping them to continue monopolizing resources. Once the guarding habit is ingrained in them it can become almost impossible to eradicate.
Once you understand the reason behind your dog’s guarding behavior you can start taking the necessary steps to reverse it.
Animal Behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin believes “It’s all about finding a way to help the dog feel like no one’s going to steal his stuff.”
She recommends that you try figuring out
- What object your dog is afraid of losing and to whom
- How you can help him have more positive feelings about people and other dogs who show interest in his stuff
- How you can train him safely with minimal risk to others
- A way of telling whether he’s learning to let go of his stuff
- How many times you need to practice before you can trust him completely
Use hand feeding to discourage food guarding (for puppies)
It’s always best to discourage your new puppy from food guarding the minute you bring him home. Start by hand feeding him for the first few meals, and show him affection as you do this. For example, you can feed him with one hand as you stroke him with the other.
It’s also a good idea to first feed him from your lap before transferring his bowl to the floor. As he feeds, reach down occasionally to add treats to his bowl – this is important for building trust between the two of you.
Use caution with grown dogs
When approaching your dog during meal time read his body language to gauge his mood. Usually, if you’ve studied what he looks like when his relaxed you’ll be able to tell the difference when he’s wound up.
- A relaxed posture is shown by relaxed muscles, normal breathing and a wagging tail, as well as eating his food at a normal pace.
- If your dog stands stiffly over his bowl, gobbles down his food, growls, stares, snarls or snaps his teeth, then these are clear signs of aggression that should warn you to stay away
It’s also a good idea to keep him tethered to something stable as you start training him against food guarding, that way you’ll remain out of range if he becomes aggressive.
If you don’t feel safe around your dog during meal time, it’s better to get a professional dog handler to help you deal with resource guarding.
Training using a step by step approach
In the example of feeding a puppy, we add delicious treats as he feeds for a reason, we want the dog to believe that when someone approaches his bowl, it’s a good thing for him. This is classic counterconditioning – getting him to associate a stranger’s approach with good things.
Always read his body language for signs of aggression and understand your limits. A step by step approach is recommended so that you know when you’re ready to go to the next level of training.
In this exercise you will have two meals: kibble in a bowl and high value treats like hotdogs or chicken which you cut up into small bits.
Step 1- Teach him how to say “please”
The first behavior you need to train your dog is to say please by sitting, if he wants to get his food. Use a high reinforcement rate to teach him this behavior – say 100 rewards over one or two days, before you start training him on the food guarding issue. Once his natural behavior is to sit and wait for his food the minute he sees you holding a bowl, then you’re good to go on the training.
Step 2 – Give him treats, but from a distance
- Set the bowl of kibble down, once he has obeyed the sit command and move some steps back.
- Wait a few minutes for you dog to start eating his kibble and then call him by his name to draw his attention.
- Use a conversational tone to say something like “How do you like your meal today?” and toss a tasty treat towards the bowl. Do this every few seconds until he’s done eating his meal.
- If your dog leaves his food and moves towards you to get a treat, ignore him. Let him get back to his bowl and resume eating before you toss him any more treats.
- Repeat this routine at least 10 times until your dog learns to eat in a relaxed way, after which you can go to step 3.
Step 3 – Take your first step towards him
- Once you’ve set the bowl down and taken several steps back, start up the conversation again as in step 2 when he starts eating his kibble.
- This time, take one step closer before tossing him a special treat and immediately step back.
- Do this every few seconds until your dog is through with his meal.
- Take a step closer each day before tossing your dog the treat, and continue this way until you find yourself standing within 2 feet of his bowl of kibble.
- Once your dog is able to relax as he feeds, even as you repeatedly approach him with treats, then you’re ready to move to the next stage.
Step 4 – Stand by your dog and drop him a treat
- As he eats his kibble from the bowl on the floor approach your dog with the routine line “how do you like your meal today?” and stand by his bowl. Drop a treat into it and immediately turn and walk a few steps back.
- Keep up with this routine every few seconds until your dog is done eating. Once he’s able to eat in a relaxed manner for 10 straight meals, you’re ready for the next step.
Step 5 – Feed him from your hand
- As he eats his kibble from the bowl on the floor, approach your dog as usual with, “how do you like your meal today?” this time stand by him with your treat in hand and bend down slightly.
- Hold out the treat to him – about an inch from him – to entice him to stop eating the kibble and take your treat.
- Once he eats the treat out of your hand, immediately turn around and walk a few steps back. Repeat this action every few seconds until your dog is finished with his meal.
- Each day, inch a little closer towards your dog as you offer him the special treat, making sure that your hand moves ever closer to his feeding bowl. Do this until you’re able to hold the treat right next to your dog’s bowl of kibble.
- If your dog can eat while relaxed, even as you repeatedly approach and offer the treat near his bowl – for 10 consecutive meals – then consider yourself ready for the next step.
Step 6 – Feed him from your other hand
- Approach his bowl in the same manner as step 5 but this time touch the bowl with one hand and offer him the special treat with the other.
- Continue this way every few seconds until your dog finishes his meal.
- When he’s able to eat while relaxed for 10 meals in a row, you’re ready for the next step.
Step 7 – Pick up the bowl
- As he eats his kibble from the bowl on the floor, approach your dog as usual with, “how do you like your meal today?” Stand by him with your treat in hand.
- This time pick up his bowl with one hand just half a foot off the floor and drop the treat inside and immediately return the bowl to allow your dog to eat from it.
- Repeat this routine every few seconds until your dog is done eating off his bowl. Each time you pick the bowl raise a little higher until you’re able to hold it up without bending.
- Repeat the routine but this time when you pick the bowl, go with it to a table or counter and put the treat in the bowl.
- Walk back with the bowl and place it on the floor for your dog to eat.
Step 8 – Teach the other family members
- This last step should involve the other adult family members.
- Let each of them go through step 2 to 7, ensuring that your dog is always relaxed as they practise the feeding routine.
- Avoid the temptation of skipping any one of the steps, because you think the dog has already learned to control his aggression. Let him know that the same rules apply no matter who is feeding him. Consistency is key when training him.
- Eventually, your dog will learn that when people approach his bowl, it’s actually a good thing. He’ll also understand that rather than taking his food away, there’s a chance they’ll add a tasty treat in his bowl!
Limiting food aggression
Sometimes it may not be possible to get rid of guarding behavior completely, so you may be forced to try the next best thing – manage his behavior.
Ensure that whenever you have visitors over you remove all food items in the room where your guests are. Alternatively, you can confine your dog in a different area from your visitors until they leave.