Responding to Food Guarding in Adult Dogs

In a pack, it is not unusual for dogs to threaten each other over food, but one of them will usually back down and then everything is fine.  If one doesn’t back down, the outcome is decided by the one who is victorious in the resulting fight.  In a home environment, food guarding can be dangerous.  Children are the most at risk, as they are seen by your dog as equal or lesser members of the pack.  food guarding2It is important to respond immediately to any indication that your dog is developing a food guarding inclination.

Basically, you will be using the same steps you would use with a puppy, but in slower progression.  If you have adopted your dog from a rescue organization, you need to establish that you are the leader of the pack. Please do not interpret “leader of the pack”  as physical dominance.  Your dominance can be established without the need for any kind of physical punishment or negative response–far from it.  Using gentle, positive reinforcement will get the wanted result faster and will be longer lasting.  It may be something your new pet accepts immediately, or it may take a little time, but the recognition of you as pack leader will come.   If you have had your dog for a while and she has begun showing signs of aggression, you need to re-establish your role as the pack leader.  This may involve more than just food—it may involve changing the way you interact with your dog on other levels–for instance, not allowing your dog to sleep in your bed.  In either case, proceed slowly and at any point that you are confronted with overt aggression or feel uncomfortable, it is time to consult a dog training professional.

Begin by sitting on the floor with your new dog and her feeding dish.  Feed her a few pieces of kibble one piece at a time so that she understands that this game is going to involve food. Then place a few pieces of kibble in the bowl and tell her to “Take it”.   After you have practiced this a few times, place a few pieces of kibble in the bowl, but leave your hand in the bowl.  If she accepts this with no sign of growling or stiffening, practice a few more times to reinforce.  When you are sure that she accepts your hand being in the bowl, it is time to move on to the next step.  This may all happen on the first day, or it may take several attempts.  Remember that you want to proceed slowly and that if you feel you are not getting good results, it is better to consult a professional than to be bitten.

From a seated position with your dog and her bowl, the next step is to put a few pieces of kibble in the bowl, but before she can eat all of them, remove the bowl.  Add a small treat or a small amount of canned food into the bowl and return it to her.  Practice this several times, each time adding something that she likes more than the kibble in the bowl before returning it to her.  Be sure to use small portions!  You will be practicing this several times, and you don’t want to over-feed your dog.

If your dog is responding well to your removing her food, you are ready to move to step three.  Stand and remove the bowl from her before she has finished eating.  Again, add a special treat or some canned food and return the bowl to her.  If you successfully complete all of these steps, you are on your way to having a dog that does not have a food guarding issue.  Be sure to remember that just because she is OK with you removing the bowl, it doesn’t mean that she will be OK with anyone else.  At any point, if she exhibits any sort of aggression, back up to where she is comfortable and repeat the exercises.  If you continue to get an aggressive response, it is time to consult a training professional.

Once you are getting a consistent positive response from your dog, then you may allow another adult to remove the bowl.  Again, if your dog responds negatively, back up or get professional assistance.  Never allow children to begin to take over the role until you are certain of the response that you will get, and then only under your supervision.  Your presence alerts the dog that as you as pack leader, recognize the child or children as pack members, and that they have higher status than your dog.

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Avoiding Object and Food Guarding

As a youngster, I was attacked by a dog.  In all fairness, I had been warned to stay away from the dog when it was eating.  But, the path behind him was the most direct route to where I wanted to go and as I was about 5 years old, the savings in time was rather important to me.  I received a warning growl and then was bitten in the face.  I was lucky.  He missed my eyes, but the bite did separate my two front teeth and they stayed that way until I lost them and got permanent ones.  Now, for some people that might have led to a lifetime fear of dogs; but, for me, thankfully, there were no lingering fears.

Guarding food or an object that she considers valuable is not unusual for a dog.  In a pack, it is not uncommon for dogs to threaten each other, but one of them will usually back down and then everything is fine.  If one doesn’t back down, the outcome is determined by the one who wins the fight. dog-notouchy In a home environment, object and food guarding can be dangerous if the dog sees family members as a threat.  Children are the most vulnerable, as they are seen by your dog as equal or lesser members of the pack.  In my case, I was visiting the home of the dog—so I had no pack status at all.

As with all training, it is by far easier to teach your dog these lessons when they are young.  As a puppy, they are dependent on you for everything.  By practicing a few simple exercises you can reinforce the idea with your puppy that you, as pack leader, have the right to take any object away from her at any time.

  • When you are feeding her, take the bowl away from your puppy before she has finished eating.  Then return it after a short time.  Let her know that you have complete and full authority of everything she has or may be given.
  • Repeat this exercise with toys.  Practice giving your dog a toy and then take it away, only to return it later.  If your dog shows any aggression (growling) while playing with a toy, put it away.  Playtime is over for now.  Try again later.
  • If your dog steals an object (as puppies are likely to do) “trade” with her.  Offer her a treat or a toy in exchange for the object you want while stating “Mine”.  You can eventually begin weaning her away from the treat. When she has something that you want, say “Mine” and take it without giving her a treat.  Eventually, she will drop what it is that she has stolen at the verbal command “Mine”.

You can substitute a different command if you choose.  Many people will use the command “Give it” or “Give”.  Which ever command you choose, try to be consistent in using it.

In the beginning, while working on these skills, it is best if only adults take on the job of training.  Once you are getting a consistent positive response from your dog, then you may allow children to begin to take over the role—under your supervision.  This alerts the dog that as pack leader, you recognize the child or children as pack members, and that they have higher status than your dog.

It is far better to establish with your puppy, the idea that you have the right to take or remove any object from her at any time, than to try to deal with a full grown object guarding or food aggressive dog later.  If you take the time early on, you will be saving yourself from having to deal with a much bigger problem in the future.