Dogs that are aggressive when it comes to their food, is also called Resource Guarding. Resource guarding in dogs is a topic that hits close to home for me. When we took in our dog Ginger as a foster dog, we noticed her resource guarding right away. She would flip out anytime our other dog, JJ, walked by her food bowl.
By flip out, I mean she would go into a growling, lunging, attack mode. When this happens, it is loud and extremely scary. As a natural reaction, I would scream at the top of my lungs to get her to stop. She never actually would bite but certainly sounded like she was going to kill our other dog. Poor JJ was on the other end of her reaction and learned quickly to stay away from her any time she was eating.
In our case, since we wanted to continue taking in foster dogs, it was extremely important to figure this issue out quickly. Everybody’s situation is unique, but if you have kids or other dogs, you need to take your dog’s resource guarding seriously. We were lucky enough to have contact with a dog behaviorist through our foster network, and he was able to give us some great pointers to help with her resource guarding, which I talk about later in this article.
What is resource guarding in dogs?
Resource guarding is when a dog displays behavior such as growling, attacking, and snapping, in order to convince people or other dogs to stay away from a resource. The resource can be food, bones, toys, bed, or any item that the dog feels belongs to her.
It is actually a natural reaction in dogs, but with the domesticating of dogs, it has subsided in many dogs today. It is also important to note that resource guarding is usually a sign of an insecure dog NOT a dominant or aggressive dog. A dog that lacks confidence feels the need to protect what is theirs.
I talk specifically about resource guarding food in this article, but the same concepts can be applied to other items such as toys and furniture. If it’s your bed or the couch your dog guards, then you should revoke his privileges to those furniture items right away.
The warning signs: Why does my dog growl at me?
Your dog will usually give warning signs before going into attack mode, such as a stiff body and whale eyes (large white area of eyes exposed), a low “under the breath” growl and sometimes will show teeth.
How do you stop a dog from being food aggressive?
This information is helpful if you have a mildly resource aggressive dog. If you are afraid of your dog, fear that she will bite or attack you, please call a behaviorist and do not try to “fix” your dog on your own.
Now that you understand that resource guarding is usually caused by a dog that is insecure and not dominant, let’s go over the DO’s and DON’Ts of how to handle a resource guarding dog:
- DO NOT Punish the growl. If your dog gives you a warning sign by growling, do not punish her. This is her way of talking to you, and she is saying “please leave me alone”. Growling does not equal aggression. Growling is your dog’s way of avoiding aggression. You defiantly don’t want her to think she’s not allowed to growl because then she is going to stop warning you and just go right into the lunge and bite.
- DO NOT Try to claim her food. She is protecting her food because she is afraid of you taking her food away, so if you keep taking her food away, then you are only reinforcing that fear.
- DO NOT Feed multiple dogs in the same room or area.
- DO NOT Hit, kick or otherwise punish your dog. This will only create a more aggressive dog!
- DO Feed your dog on a schedule, no all-day free feeding.
- DO Feed your dog by hand, making her do something for her food. Simple as SIT, DOWN, COME each time you give her a handful of food. Some trainers believe your dog should work for all of her food, all of the time. Honestly, I don’t have the patients to feed both of my dogs by hand twice a day, but I can see the benefits.
- DO Teach your dog the DROP or LEAVE IT command.
- DO Teach your dog that you are not going to take her food away by offering her something better as a trade.
- DO Give your dog the space she needs. Move her feeding area to a low-traffic spot in the house. Even possibly feed her in her crate.
- DO Built the dogs confidence with confidence building experiences such as agility.
- DO Find a dog behaviorist. Look for a trainer that CAAB certification – Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs)
This information is not intended replace professional help when dealing with dogs with potentially dangerous behavior issues. Please consult a dog behaviorist or trainer for your dog if the resource guarding makes you feel unsafe in any way.
[Related: If you need help training your dog, you may also want to read
How to Find the Perfect Dog Trainer.]
Teach your dog that you approaching her food or taking her bone is a good thing. Scenario: Dog is eating her dinner, you walk near the dog and offer her something even better… a piece of steak or her favorite treat. Only give her the treat if she walks away from her food bowl to take the steak from your hand. Say “good” when she takes it and doesn’t growl at you. If she growls, DO NOT give her the treat. This would only reinforce the behavior.
- Figure out what item(s) your dog guards and what causes your dog to guard that item(s). How close can you get to your dog before she starts to show signs of resource guarding?
- Find something your dog likes even better than the item she guards, a high-value treat. It could be a piece of steak, fresh chicken, a special treat, something she can not resist.
- Set your dog up in a situation in which she will resource guard. For example, give your dog a bone, leave the room and return with the high-valued treat. Get as close as you can BEFORE your dog will show any signs of guarding. Either offer a piece of steak from your hand if you feel safe enough to do so, or you can toss it toward your dog, as close to her mouth as possible. Do this a few times and leave the room again. If your dog leaves the bone and follows you in search of more steak, ignore her, don’t say anything, don’t look at her. Repeat this 2-3 times the first day.
- The next day, take a few steps closer, making sure you don’t receive any warning signals from your dog. You do not want to set the dog up to fail, so at the first sign of body stiffness, take a step back until she relaxes again. Offer or toss the steak to your dog and a step back. These steps are conditioning her to your presence while enjoying her bone.
- Repeat, gradually getting closer and closer to your dog. Your dog will start switching her thought process from thinking you are going take away the bone when you walk by, to when you walk by I get a delicious treat! Continue this until you can stand right next to your dog without any signs of guarding. If your dog leaves the bone she was guarding and comes to you, again ignore her and let her return to her bone.
- The amount of time you need to repeat steps 3-5, will vary for every dog. But when you can approach your dog and stand next to her without any resource guarding signs, start conditioning the motion of you reaching toward the bone. At first, just use the motion, don’t actually take the bone from the dog and do not look your dog face to face, as she may take that as a sign of threat. If she shows any signs of guarding, go back to step 5. Do this as many times as necessary so your dog remains relaxed. Gradually move your arm and hand closer and closer to the bone, until eventually, you are comfortable taking it away and giving your dog the high-valued treat.
- As with any training, practice, practice, and practice. This doesn’t mean you need to continue every day or even every week. But occasionally, every few weeks, once a month… something to keep your hard work fresh in your dog’s mind.
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The trainer that worked with Ginger for us, suggested using the Pet Convincer. This tool has been a life-changing training tool for us. The Pet Convincer is simply a small hand-held air compressor used to stop bad behaviors in dogs. (Update: there are newer training tools that work better than the Pet Convincer, such as the Doggy Don’t)
- Teach your dog the command DROP with a low-valued item.
- Set up your dog with the item she is known to guard. With Ginger, I used a bone. Leave the room, allowing the dog to chew the bone for a few minutes. Return and walk towards the dog, give her the command “DROP”, and if she doesn’t immediately drop the item, use the Pet Convincer. The dog should drop the item. If she does not, use a broomstick or something you can use to reach the item without posing the risk of getting bitten by your dog. Hold the item with the stick until the dog moves away.
- Pick up the bone, say GOOD, for releasing the bone and put the bone back on the floor. Allow her to chew on it for several minutes, then repeat step 2. Practice this a couple times a day, until your dog will drop the bone upon command.
Resource guarding can seem overwhelming for any dog owner. I know for us, even as seasoned dog owners, we struggled with how we could live with a dog like this. Ginger is our first dog that has been resource aggressive. It does create a heightened awareness on our part, we need to be prepared any time there is food in the room. But honestly, I think overall, it has made us better dog owners. The PLACE command has also helped tremendously.
[Related: Learn Why You Need to Teach the PLACE Command to Your Dog and the steps on how to do teach him Place.
So hang in there, there is light at the end of the tunnel. You and your dog can overcome resource guarding. That’s not to say your dog will someday become a carefree dog and never guard again. But with the proper training, a lot of structure and patients, you and your dog can live happily ever after.