Guarding possessions from humans or other animals is normal behaviour for dogs. Wild animals who successfully protect their valuable resources—such as food, mates and living areas—are more likely to survive in the wild than those who don’t. However, we find the tendency to guard valued items undesirable in our domestic pets, especially when the behaviour is directed toward us!
Resource guarding in dogs can range from relatively benign behaviour, like running away with a coveted item or growling at an approaching person, to full-blown aggression, such as biting or chasing a person away. Some dogs only direct resource guarding toward certain people, often strangers. Other dogs guard their resources from all people. Dogs vary in what they consider valuable. Some dogs only guard chew bones or toys. Some guard stolen items, such as food wrappers from the trash can or socks. Many dogs guard food.
In many cases, food guarding doesn’t need to be treated. Plenty of owners with food-guarding dogs simply take reasonable precautions to ensure everyone’s safety. They leave their dogs alone while they’re eating, or they might even feed their dogs in a separate room, in a crate or behind a barrier. They provide their dogs with adequate amounts of food so that their dogs feel less motivated to guard. They never attempt to take away stolen or scavenged food from their dogs.
However, if children live in a home with a resource-guarding dog, the situation becomes unacceptably risky. Children are more likely to get bitten because they’re less able to recognize a dog’s warning signals and more likely to behave recklessly around the dog. In some cases, the risk of living with a dog who guards resources is too high for adults, too. For example, some dogs guard food on tables and counters, leftover food on dishes in the dishwasher and food dropped on the floor. Because it’s impossible to avoid these situations, it’s impossible to prevent the guarding behaviour.
Young puppies are prone to guarding behaviour because they often have to compete with their littermates for limited amounts of food. Breeders often feed puppies from one large communal pan, and the puppy who manages to eat the most will grow the quickest and become the strongest. If a breeder is not observant, this situation can deteriorate into one or two puppies monopolizing most of the food. A history of being rewarded for aggressive behaviour can become firmly established in these puppies.
If you think your dog is likely to bite you, please do not attempt to resolve his resource guarding on your own. Doing so could place you in serious harm, especially if your dog has a history of biting or has attempted to bite in the past. With some dogs, treatment for food guarding can be tricky, you need to manage your dog’s behaviour carefully to avoid aggressive encounters. Do not allow others to go near your dog while he’s eating.
If your dog guards food from visitors to your home, it might be easier to manage his behavior than resolve it. If your dog and guests are in the same room, just remove all food items from the area. Alternatively, you can keep your dog confined in a separate area of your home while guests visit. Be aware that dogs sometimes guard food intended for people, even if the food is situated on a table or countertop. If food is going to be present when guests visit, you’ll want to confine your dog to ensure everyone’s safety.
Do not punish or intimidate your dog when he guards food. Remember that when a person approaches a food-guarding dog, the dog will react as though the person intends to take the food away. This makes sense because dogs naturally compete for food. Some people insist that “dominating” your dog and showing that you’re stronger and able to take away his food will make him stop guarding it. On the contrary, doing so is dangerous and unnecessary. It can sometimes cause resource guarding to get worse, and it can damage your relationship with your dog. 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.