Some Thoughts on Food Guarding
Updated: Oct 1
Recently, a darling dog (who lives in Katonah, NY) has been visiting at my house and she gets along swimmingly with my two dogs. The only issue she displays is some food guarding behavior, and this has prompted me to write a bit about this topic today.
The first thing I'd like to mention is that food guarding is a normal behavior that carries obvious advantages when you think of it from an evolutionary standpoint. After all, an animal in a natural environment who maintains access to an essential resource lives to see a new day.
Most of our pet dogs live very comfortable lives, with all their needs met, yet this old adaptive trait still tags along. So rather than being angry or dismayed by your dog's aggressive displays towards you (or another pet) when he possesses something he considers valuable, remember there was once a vital purpose behind it. This trait still lingers even though they don't need to fight for resources any more.
Know, too, that there are gentle techniques to resolve this issue. We can actually convince our dogs we're not interested in eating their food or competing for their stinky chews, and even help them become relaxed about relinquishing such prizes to us when necessary.
So, back to my doggie visitor -- the most interesting thing about her food guarding is that it occurs even when she herself has no interest in eating the food put down for her. She displays her guarding behavior in the following ways:
She'll growl if she's in the crate with her food and another dog approaches in the general vicinity.
She'll run over and try to cut another dog off from approaching the crate area when she's free in the house (even with no food inside crate).
It's understandable that my dogs are curious about her food, but I don't want to add unnecessary tension to an otherwise peaceful household. So I arranged some simple props to make the guest dog feel more relaxed. This involved gating off access to the kitchen, where the crate is positioned, and draping a towel over the side of the crate so the view is blocked for all involved. Simple management.
The cool thing is, as the days passed, the guest dog is now more relaxed about her food and I've noticed a decrease in tension and guarding behavior as a result. The gate is no longer needed, and she can be in her crate with food and not grumble at a dog in the vicinity anymore.
Another client (in Bethel, CT) recently adopted an adult dog who would initially grumble if someone passed closely by while she was eating from her bowl. Knowing that the many events leading up to an adoption can be quite stressful for dogs, and that they need some time to relax and settle in to their new home, I suggested they just move the bowl to give the dog more space and privacy. This immediately eliminated the grumbling, and after a bit of time passed, the dog was then able to eat in a relaxed way even if someone walked closely by, and there was never a recurrence of grumbling again.
Yet another client (in Danbury, CT) has an adult dog who displays food guarding with people and, unsurprisingly, the guarding behavior has extended to a new puppy who just joined the household. In this case, the adult dog's behavioral response is exaggerated. He began guarding an empty, food-free crate and actually went after the puppy (without injury) when in the same room simply because the pup had been fed a meal in there earlier. (This is a crate that is never used by the adult dog.) He displays tense body language within an extended area from where he is fed, even after he's already eaten everything in his bowl, if the puppy happens to meander into the general area.
Before we even begin working on a behavior modification protocol, we need to start with some strict management, including:
Dogs do not hang around when meals are prepared.
Pup is fed in a crate in a separate room, where the adult dog never goes.
Adult dog is fed in a finished basement area, where the puppy doesn't go, and he then observes the owner removing the empty bowl and taking it away. The owner then waits a few minutes before the dogs are reunited.
Treats are not carried or doled out, for now, when the dogs are together. Training sessions are done with the dogs completely separated, and then treats are put away before dogs reunite.
Food puzzles and special chewies are unavailable when the dogs are together.
Extra water bowls were added (though it turns out the adult dog doesn't feel the need to guard the water).
Toy play was monitored, and happily the adult dog doesn't guard these items either.
Right now, it's incredibly important for the adult dog to have TIME to adjust to this big life change. The goal is to fill every day with nothing but relaxed and positive interactions between the two dogs. What they practice and enjoy together every day -- playing, sharing toys, lying side by side -- will grow into positive habits. And by preventing tense posturing or squabbles, we don't allow those unwanted behaviors to become habits and ill will to develop between them.
A few suggestions for you readers at home -- if you're thinking of adding a second dog to your family, be sensitive to the fact that this significant life change can be stressful. Be proactive about using management strategies to prevent the rehearsal of unwanted behaviors. Do your best to manage the dogs and the environment so their early experiences with one another are consistently pleasant.
Even if you're just having another dog come to your home for a visit, unless you're already 100% certain that BOTH dogs have zero guarding issues, take some simple preventative steps and remove access to food and high-value chews when the dogs are together. No reason to tempt fate! I do this myself when visiting my sister-in-law, whose house is littered with fabulous marrow bones and chews and buried biscuits. Her dog displays no guarding behavior at all, but my dog, Bond, feels like he's won the lottery when he lands in that house and I don't want him to act like a knucklehead when he finds an unusual prize.
Guarding of food and other resources (toys, chewies, owner attention, comfortable resting spots, etc.) can be resolved using positive reinforcement training protocols. It's important to create a plan for the individual dog and to work in small enough steps so you are consistently setting him up for success, while preventing the rehearsal of any aggressive behavior. I love working on this particular behavior and have had a lot of success in the past, including with several of my own adopted dogs. There's also an excellent book by Jean Donaldson called Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding, if you'd like to learn more.
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, along with pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies.
She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120