Food Guarding in Dogs
Guarding possessions from humans or other animals is normal behavior for dogs. Wild animals who successfully protect their valuable resources—such as food, mates and living areas—are more likely to survive in the wild than those who don't. However, we find the tendency to guard valued items undesirable in our domestic pets, especially when the behavior is directed toward people.
Resource guarding in dogs can range from relatively benign behavior, like running away with a coveted item or growling at an approaching person, to full-blown aggression, such as biting or chasing a person away. Some dogs only direct resource guarding toward certain people, often strangers. Other dogs guard their resources from all people. Dogs vary in what they consider valuable. Some dogs only guard chew bones or toys. Some guard stolen items, such as food wrappers from the trash can or socks. Many dogs guard food.
In many cases, food guarding doesn't need to be treated. Plenty of adult dog parents with food guarding dogs simply take reasonable precautions to ensure everyone's safety. They leave their dogs alone while they're eating, or they might even feed their dogs in a separate room, in a crate or behind a barrier. They provide their dogs with adequate amounts of food so that their dogs feel less motivated to guard. They never attempt to take away stolen or scavenged food from their dogs.
However, if children live in a home with a resource-guarding dog, the situation becomes unacceptably risky. Children are more likely to get bitten because they're less able to recognize a dog's warning signals and more likely to behave recklessly around the dog. In some cases, the risk of living with a dog who guards resources is too high for adults, too. For example, some dogs guard food on tables and counters, leftover food on dishes in the dishwasher and food dropped on the floor. Because it's impossible to avoid these situations, it's impossible to prevent the guarding behavior.
An Ounce of Prevention
Young puppies are prone to guarding behavior because they often have to compete with their littermates for limited amounts of food. Breeders often feed puppies from one large communal pan, and the puppy who manages to eat the most will grow the quickest and become the strongest. If a breeder is not observant, this situation can deteriorate into one or two puppies monopolizing most of the food. A history of being rewarded for aggressive behavior can become firmly established in these puppies.
If you have a new puppy or adult dog who doesn't guard things, it's important to do some simple exercises to prevent the development of guarding behavior. As soon as you bring your new dog home, make sure you hand feed several meals. Sit with your dog and give him his kibble one bite at a time. During hand-fed meals, speak pleasantly to your dog and stroke him while you offer him food with your other hand. If he shows any discomfort or wariness, stop hand feeding him and see the exercises outlined below. If your dog seems calm and comfortable with hand feeding, switch to holding his bowl in your lap and allowing him to eat from the bowl. Continue to speak to him and stroke his head and body while he eats. After a few meals, place your dog's bowl on the floor and, as he eats his regular chow, periodically reach down to drop in a piece of something especially tasty, like a small bite of cheese, chicken or beef. If you do this intermittently for the first few months after you bring your dog home, he should remain relaxed and unthreatened by your presence while he eats.