First, let’s cover some major facts about resource guarding and food aggression. Guarding food is a natural instinct for dogs. Resource Guarding in dogs does not mean you have an aggressive dog.
A dog may resource guard his owner, food, toys, or any item or space he feels is valuable.
An insecure dog may resource guard out of anxiety or fear. And an alpha or dominant dog may resource guard to show his dominance.
If your dog is only aggressive around his food he is a resource guarding. Food aggression is a form of resource guarding in which a dog uses threatening behavior to force other dogs, animals or humans away. The food can be his daily kibble, bones, treats or any other food source.
Some dogs only show mild food aggression by stiffening his body when people or dogs walk by. A moderate level of food aggression the dog will grow and show his teeth and maybe even snap or lunge at anyone that approaches. In some severe cases, the dog will bite whomever he sees as a threat of taking his food.
Your dog will show signs way before he gets to growling and biting. If your dog stops eating and stiffens his body when you walk by his bowl while eating, he has a mild case of resource guarding. If ignored, it could escalate into a severe case of aggression.
Early signs of resource guarding to watch for are:
Learn more about reading your dog’s body language, How To Speak Dog Language.
When we adopted our dog Ginger she was 6 months old. We knew nothing of her past, other than she was dumped at a shelter’s back door in Tennessee. She was a sweet puppy that was destined to be our daughters’ dog.
A lot of changes happened from the time we began fostering Ginger in January through July. Maybe something during this time frame triggered her resource guarding.
We officially adopted her in February and our other resident dog, JJ, was diagnosed with heart failure in May.
It wasn’t until we started fostering a chocolate lab named Mocha in June that we noticed the resource guarding. It started with her protecting a bone when Mocha would get too close.
Ginger felt the need to protect her bone from Mocha. But why? Could it be that Mocha was also female? Or because Mocha was an insecure dog? Or because JJ was sick and she felt she needed to step up her authority? I honestly don’t know the answer, it could be any one of these, or it could be totally something else that I didn’t notice.
This post contains affiliate links for your convenience (which means if you make a purchase after clicking a link I will receive a small commission, but it won’t cost you a penny more). Click here to read my full disclosure policy.
You see, I’ve never had a resource guarding dog, ever! This was all new territory to us, and looking back, I should have talked to a behaviorist dog trainer right away.
I did enough research on my own, that I did know that Ginger was an insecure dog, which is the root cause of the resource guarding. We started building her confidence by taking agility classes. This seemed to help but didn’t make the resource guarding go away.
With each new foster dog we had in the house, her resource guarding would get worse. Ginger went from mild to moderate to severe in a matter of 10 months. She started with a simple low growl to attacking a foster dog. She would never actually bite the dog, but the loud growling and yelping were terrifying to hear.
Sometimes it felt like she gave no warning, which I know is not true, because there is always a sign… but sometimes it’s so quick we don’t recognize it.
Not only was Ginger exhibiting the resource guarding behavior with other dogs, but started to growl at my, then 9 year old, daughter. When I say growl, it was more like a grumpy grr sound. Not a full-out aggressive growl, but enough of a warning to let her know she wanted to be left alone. Obviously, this was very unsettling to us as parents and we needed to find help quick.
We took a break from fostering dogs until we could manage Gingers behavior. It certainly wasn’t fair to the other dogs, and we had some serious changes to make.
It wasn’t until we attended a seminar about dog behavior, that I received some great training techniques and advice from a behaviorist dog trainer. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to Dog Resource Guarding or Food Aggression. So what works for us, may not work for your dog. Here is what we learned:
The trainer’s advice was to teach Ginger the OUT command. We use LEAVE IT, you can use DROP, or whatever word you desire. But the concept is that the dog needs to be trained to drop any item on command.
The OUT/ LEAVE IT / DROP command should really be taught to all dogs. It can protentional save a dog’s life, but that’s for another time to go into detail.
Because Ginger was already at a high moderate level of resource guarding, the trainer recommended using the Pet Convincer as a tool to help Ginger learn the OUT command.
We created a controlled setting with Ginger and item she was known to guard (her bone). We let her get relaxed with it, then go to her, give her the command, LEAVE IT. She must drop the bone and allow us to pick it up. If she does not drop the bone immediately, we use the Pet Convincer to help her understand we mean business. Just as a side note, we did not use our hands to pick up the bone, I used a broomstick just in case she did decide to bite.
Some people do not agree with using the Pet Convincer, but all it is a loud burst of air that breaks the mindset the dog is currently in. I think of it as like tapping a person on the shoulder to get their attention. But you can’t tap a dogs shoulder when they are threatening to bite you, so that’s when the Pet Convincer comes in handy.
A newer option has recently come on the market, called the Doggy Don’t. It is the same concept as the Pet Convincer, but instead of air noise, it creates a buzz sounding noise.
Another training Technique for Dog Resource Guarding / Food Aggression is to teach the PLACE command. This teaches the dog to go to his pillow, a rug, or whatever place you choose, on command. The dog must stay at this place until you release her.
You can read more on how we use the PLACE command at: Why You Need to Teach the PLACE Command to Your Dog
The PLACE command is another one that should be taught to all dogs, it can solve so many other behavior issues.
Making your dog work for his food is my favorite technique for food aggression. This can really help create a strong bond between you and your dog.
Simply spend 5 minutes training your dog with his daily food. You don’t have to feed piece by piece but feeding small handfuls when he performs a command is a great way to keep your dog mentally stimulated and fed at the same time.
The concept of the trading game is to trade your dog for something even better than the item he is guarding. For example, when your dog is eating their regular food, offer something special such as cheese or meat.
The goal is to have your dog stop eating their kibble to take the treat from you. This teaches your dog no one is out to steal her food if she steps away from it and even better it leads to something even tastier.
Spend lots of time with puppies while they eat to get them comfortable with your presence. If you have another dog or animals in your household that is not food aggressive, feed them in the same proximity. Pet the puppy while they eat and occasionally put your hand in their bowl and let him eat from your hand.
Use the work for food method mentioned above. It’s great to use the food as training treats. There is no rule that your puppy needs to eat from a bowl. Use part, or even all, of his meals as training rewards.
Be proactive and do not leave toys laying around. When you want the dogs to play with toys, place them in their crates or in PLACE command. Believe it or not, toys are not a necessity for dogs. Toys should be a privilege earned, not assumed… hmmm, kind of like kids!
It’s actually a great idea to keep toys away when the dogs aren’t playing. This not only will keep the toys fresh and exciting for your dog, but they will also last much longer. Most toys aren’t meant to be left with your dog unsupervised anyway, they are prone to chewing and destroying toys which can become a choking hazard.
Recommended Just For You: Is Your Dog Bored with Her Toys?
We have learned to feed our dogs in separate areas. It really is normal for your dog to not want to share his food. Not that we want to give our dogs permission to guard his food, but let’s just prevent it from being an issue. Your dog should feel safe when eating.
Think about this scenario… if you are eating dinner and someone walks by and takes a bite out of your sandwich. What would you do? Now I suppose if it’s your spouse or kids, we may (or may not) let it slide. But what if some random person took your food, would you be okay with that? Your dog feels the same way. It’s his dinner, he’s hungry, and he doesn’t want to share.
This behavior of a dog resource guarding his owner or people needs to be dealt with immediately. This can get out of control really quick if the dog thinks it needs to claim his owner. I recommend talking with a dog behavior trainer as soon as you see any signs of a dog resource guarding his owner.
I’ve asked myself this question many times over. Will we ever not have to worry about Ginger attacking another dog over a resource item? Some trainers will tell you it is possible, but so far I’m still always on guard when we have a new foster dog or in any situation around food.
We have stretches of good times and she does not resource guard for months. This is usually when we don’t have a foster dog.
We use the LEAVE IT and PLACE command every day to prevent any situations where she would feel she needs to resource guard.
Our entire family has learned how to read her body language, so we know when she starts to feel nervous about the situation, and we can change it before she feels the need to take it in her own hands.
There is hope, don’t give up on your dog. With the above training techniques, you and your resource guarding dog can live normal lives. Normal will just need to include you being more present and aware of your dog’s feelings.
You shouldn’t be embarrassed if your dog isn’t perfect. Heck no dog or human is. So I’m here to admit, our dog Ginger is far from perfect. But to tell the truth, writing this post helped me look back and assess where we were and where we are today. It’s been a great reminder to keep positive, how even the bad can turn into good, and there is always hope.
If you want to learn how to read your dog’s body language, please read How To Speak Dog Language
Debi McKee is a dog blogger, foster home, and all-in-all dog fanatic. Debi’s mission is to guide you through every step of your dog journey, from adopting the perfect dog for you and your family, to training your dog and keeping your dog happy and healthy. Sign up for her free resource library of must-have resources, containing valuable downloads to help you in your dog journey.