Q&A: What is the best way to deal with food guarding?


We just adopted a small mixed breed dog named Luna, and have three mini Schnauzers as well. Luna is guarding her food, and last night I gave all four dogs raw hides. After an hour or so, she started stealing the other dogs’ raw hides.

She is nipping at the other dogs even if they walk past where a raw hide is laying on the floor. What can we do to start Luna on the right path?

- Aurora


Hi Aurora,

Firstly, I am not a big fan of raw hide as a chew toy for dogs. I worry about the potential for them to soften it up and tear of bits which might cause an intestinal blockage. I would suggest alternatives such as food stuffed white sterilized bones, bully sticks, and rubber food stuff able toys such as the Monster Mouth, and Twist n’ Treat.

In regards to resource guarding, the natural inclination of a dog is to gain and maintain possession of valuable resources. At the core, this is about survival, especially when in regards to food and territory. However grateful we are to mother nature for all of the wonderful qualities of dogs, resource guarding is one of those normal and natural behaviors that doesn’t tend to bode well for a dog to be as successful as possible in the home. Nobody wants to fear their dog will nip them if they try to take away a food bowl or toy away, and it can be very stressful to worry your dog’s will get into a fight.

Helping your dog learn to curb their natural instinct to guard should begin when they are a young pup. Unfortunately, most people don’t see the benefit of this early preventative intervention because they don’t see signs of guarding or aggression that warrants their attention. However, it is important to understand that while the vast majority of puppies won’t show obvious signs of an impending issue that does not mean there won’t be one. In fact, resource guarding issues usually become glaringly obvious only once a dog is between 6 to 9 months old. The more subtle indicators are typically only apparent to professional behavior experts.

Regardless of whether or not your pup shows early warning signs of resource guarding, all pet parents should err on the side of caution and be proactive about preventative exercises. As with any behavior problem, it is always easier and safer to focus on prevention rather than cure. If your adult dog is already exhibiting resource guarding issues you should contact a professional who can guide you through the process.

The two primary areas of focus should be to prevent the dog from practicing any form of resource guarding (even the mildest) so as to decrease the likelihood of this becoming a habit and a serious problem, and to condition the dog to tolerate and even enjoy relinquishing things to people. Follow these steps to get on the right anti-resource guarding path.

  1. Management – Management is a way of preventing problems from being practiced but also a way to help your dog understand that you control a valuable resource, i.e. his or her access to you and your home. The following two management tools are also valuable as calm, non-emotional time outs for inappropriate behavior:
  • On leash supervision: When you are home and can supervise your pup keep him or her on a leash tethered nearby or while you step on it. This allows you a way to prevent problems, maintain control, and give a time out if necessary.
  • Short term confinement: When you can’t watch your pup, use short term confinement to prevent him or her from getting a hold of inappropriate items and potentially practicing guarding or getting hurt.
  1. Controlling resources- Perhaps the most important part of any training protocol, controlling the things your dog wants in life is the first step in getting him or her to understand why paying attention to you and figuring out what you want is important. A dog that gets everything he or she wants in life for free is likely to have a hard time understanding why you (and listening to you) are valuable. Doggie resources are:
  • Toys
  • Attention
  • Life rewards (anything else you can think your dog wants, such as walking out the front door, being allowed to play with other dogs, sitting on the couch, etc.)

Get control of all of these things and use manners exercises such as sit, down and hand targeting to show your dog how to earn what he wants. That is, ask for a sit before giving a tummy rub, to hand target before giving them dinner, etc. This is sometimes referred to as a Learn to Earn program and is basically a way of helping your dog learn to be polite and mannerly in part by saying ‘please’ for what they want by responding to your requests.

The only exception this program is that your dog should always have one or two food stuffed toys to keep occupied. You will be practicing give and take games with toys like these to help your pup learn to be happy to relinquish them to you.

  1. Object exchanges–Sit on the floor and hold a nicely stuffed bone or rawhide for your pup to chew on. This is an interactive game for you and your dog. One more way to set your dog up to think you are the golden ticket in life and to enjoy passive interactions with you. Teach your dog to happily give up objects to you (or anyone else!) by continually taking toys like this away and replacing with an object/toy/treat of equal if not greater value.  With repetition, your pup should start to happily anticipate your hand reaching to take things away because it means there is a strong likelihood something better is coming! If your pup shows any signs of guarding (stiffening, grabbing the toy and turning away, growling, or snapping). You should begin using objects of relatively low value to your dog before you build up to giving things of higher value which you take away as this is probably more challenging.
  1. Food bowl bonuses –When you have time, hand feed your pup some of their food in exchange for some of the manners exercises mentioned above. You can also work on approaching the food bowl and adding a bonus treat or two so while your pup is eating. This way he will look forward to you approaching the bowl. The treat should be something a bit more yummy that the regular kibble.  The bonus can be tossed in or the bowl can be lifted, bonus added, and put back down. If your pup is showing any signs of being displeased or uncomfortable when you approach the bowl (stiffening, standing over the bowl, growling, etc.) – it is very important that you ONLY TOSS THE TREATS into the bowl and contact a professional trainer ASAP.

In regards to your dog’s tendency to guard food and/or objects from other dogs in the home, it is important that they are securely separated when they are eating and playing with toys. This is vital to prevent a fight, and also to allow each dog to enjoy their food and toys without stress.

I’m glad to hear you will be working with a trainer in your area and hope these tips help as a start. If you need help finding a positive trainer, check out the Association of Pet Dog Trainers at www.APDT.com.


Andrea Arden