Food is one of the basic requirements all animals need to survive.
It is also something that we often enjoy, and do not always want to share or risk losing our access to a favourite. The same is true for dogs.
A dog guarding food harks back to their history and instincts as wild animals, when food was a precious resource and their very survival might rely on keeping control of their access to food. Another factor that may contribute to a dog guarding food is having come from a background of neglect, where they may have been starving and not known when they might get more food.
A dog guarding food is a type of resource guarding and can be a common problem, whether it shows as guarding food from other dogs, the people around them, or protecting it from anyone and everyone in the area. Resource guarding is a completely natural behaviour among dogs, but can be a problem for us when it takes place in our homes.
The initial signs of an issue developing with a dog guarding food can be very subtle and easy to miss unless viewed with an educated eye. The signals to watch for in resource guarding include moving their body while still eating to block access to the food by the approaching dog or person, and/or any of the following:
- Eating faster than usual when their food bowl, treats, or chew are approached by others.
- Freezing and stopping eating, showing a fixed and hard-eyed stare.
- Freezing with their head or body positioned over the food to block access
- Growling while eating.
- Stopping eating to curl their lips back, displaying their teeth as a warning to stay away.
- Snapping at the approaching figure – this is not a bite that misses. Dogs are fast, much faster than we are and a dog that does not make contact with their teeth never intended to make contact.
- Lunging and biting if no signals they give work to make the dog or person go away and leave them with their food.
It is clear that, although a dog guarding food is a completely natural behaviour, it is can be a problem in our homes. This is especially the case in a home with young children. How can we go about making things better and keeping everyone safe?
Management is the first step in any situation of a dog guarding food. When the dog has a meal or a chew, give it to them in a safe area like another room behind a baby gate, or in a pen. Nobody approaches the dog while eating, so the dog can enjoy the food in peace and feel no stress or need to guard. This may be all that is required in some examples, if everyone in the home can understand and stick to the management protocol.
If management is not possible – for instance if not everyone in the home will reliably stick to the feeding protocol or there are small children who don’t understand and cannot be reliably kept away while the dog is eating – it is safest to find an experienced canine behaviour professional to help in modifying the dog’s behaviour. Unmanaged and unmodified, the consequences of a dog guarding food can be terrible, for both the dog and those around them.