Dogs with food related aggression, also known as guarding, may display the following if approached while around food they consider theirs: stiff/tense body, fixed/hard eyes, curled lips, exposed teeth, growling, lunging and/or trying to bite. Some dogs may try to use their body to block you from the food. Generally, the higher the value of food, the more pronounced the aggression response. Some dogs will bite if they perceive that there’s a threat to their food; even if it’s imagined.
While this behavior is unsafe and unnecessary in today’s domesticated dog, it meant the difference between starvation and survival centuries ago when they were wild. One can still observe this behavior today in wolves, coyotes and other wild canines.
A trained professional will be able to properly diagnose food related aggression. Behaviors related to this can range from mild to severe but should always be taken seriously and addressed immediately and appropriately. In some cases, behavior modification may be necessary. This should be done with an experienced and trained professional.
The beginning of a food guarding program may include desensitizing and counterconditioning. This teaches the dog that when people approach their food, good things happen. Initially the dog will be provided with some mildly valuable food like dry kibble. Once eating this from the bowl, the trainer will drop in some tasty canned food (providing the dog displays only appropriate behavior and body language). The trainer will continue to do this until the dog begins lifting its head upon the trainer’s approach to the bowl. The trainer will now only drop the canned food into the bowl when they approach the bowl and the dog lifts their head. Once the dog is reliably lifting their head from the bowl when the trainer approaches, the next step is to bend down and drop the canned food into the bowl after the dog’s head lifts. Over time the trainer will increase the amount they bend until they can approach, the dog’s head lifts and they can place the canned food completely into the bowl with the dog displaying appropriate behavior the entire time. Once this is accomplished the trainer should now be able to take the bowl and reward the dog with the canned food. The final step is to practice with at least two other people in alternate locations. This helps the dog learn to generalize the behavior to other people, environments and circumstances.
Throughout the process, the dog’s guarding behavior should reduce and it will display more appropriate behavior when people approach and remove food items. Dogs going through this process should also be taught their basic obedience and manners to help build a better foundation. Mental enrichment should also be provided by feeding from food dispensing toys, like Kongs or Kibble Nibble Treat Balls. Behavior modification should be conducted by trained professionals to ensure safety and success.
Once behavior modification is complete, the owner will need to practice lifelong exercises through positive reinforcement training and management to ensure ongoing success. The most important thing is to avoid all triggers that may elicit a food-related guarding response. Avoid giving rawhides or bones. Feed meals and treats in a space where they cannot be disturbed (such as a side bedroom with a closed door or a closed kennel). Children should not be allowed to walk around with food in their hands and regularly sweep floors to keep them clear of food scraps.
If a dog only guards their food from another dog, feed them separately and in secluded areas to minimize any potential risk. The same should be done when giving treats. Before releasing the dogs after eating, make sure that both are completely done, bowls are picked up and there’s no food left. Some dogs will hide their biscuits so be especially vigilant in removing food from their hiding spots, like the favorite couch cushion.