It can be a scary experience when a dog growls or snaps at you as you walk past them at meal time. Food guarding, or resource guarding, can be directed at other dogs or humans, or both. In this article we will be speaking about food guarding toward humans.
While this article will give you an idea as to why your dog is behaving this way as well as a brief outline on how to address this issue, I want to be absolutely clear that this behaviour should not be addressed without the guidance of a trainer or behaviourist experienced in this type of issue as poor handling of the situation can result in injury to any party involved.
The Dog’s Mindset
There is a common misguided theory that the dog is guarding it’s food because it thinks it is the “alpha” in the house and it must put the human in it’s place when they try to come near the food, however this is not the case (in most cases). A food aggressive dog is actually quite afraid; feeling threatened by your presence. They are worried that you are trying to take the last meal they will ever eat so they feel they need to protect the food to survive.
In order to help a dog overcome this fear, you need to change how the dog perceives your presence when food is available. To do this it is important to understand your dog’s critical distance threshold.
Critical Distance Threshold
When a dog is reactive to a certain stimulus (in this situation it is a human/dog approaching while eating) there is a distance at which the dog is on the edge of reacting vs not reacting. Closer and the dog will show signs of reactivity but further they are fine. This is the critical distance threshold (CDT). Some dogs have a CDT of 1-2 metres while others may be 50m from their trigger stimulus.
Signs of Going Over Threshold
I want to point out that growling, showing teeth and lunging/biting in your direction is way past the earlier signs that your dog is uncomfortable with your presence around the food bowl. Tense, looking out the corner of their eye, stopping eating or eat slower/faster, ear movements, etc are all behaviours that are less noticed by owners.
Note how your dog’s body language changes as you approach. Anything differing from a relaxed body posture as you approach is a sign that they are becoming wary.
Where is your dog fed?
Is he facing a wall or facing out from a wall? Having the dog face out from a wall rather than into a wall will make this exercise a little easier as you have a clear view of your dog and they can see what is going on rather than facing away from what they perceive as a threat, which can lead to a reaction.
How to Start
The idea isn’t to punish the behaviour, as I’m sure you’re aware at this point. You need to change your dog’s perception of you approaching the food. He 100% thinks that he will lose his food if you approach.
Hand feeding is a good start but this alone will not resolve the issue as hand feeding has the human in possession of the food the entire time, where food guarding results when the dog is in possession of the food, then they begin to worry about it being stolen from them.
This doesn’t mean walk up to the dog. This means walk parallel to where the dog is eating (they must be facing out from a wall) at a distance they are comfortable, say something like “TREATIES” or “COMING IN” or something that indicates you are near and something good is going to happen, then toss something really tasty, like a piece of chicken neck (small enough that it won’t last forever) and keep walking. Don’t stop to throw it at this point. The idea is to be present, reward and move on. You can work on this a few times during a meal depending on how quick they normally eat. Make sure you ALWAYS say “treaties”/etc before throwing the extra yummy treat. In the situation the dog begins to see you arriving as a predictor of yummy extras at meal times, changing his emotion of you approaching from negative to positive.
2. Leave The Bowl
This requires some earlier work before feeding. You want to create a solid classical conditioning to a word (like “treaties”) that means you are about to dish out something REALLY AWESOME. If you are unsure how to classically condition, this should help – Make Your Mark In Training
Once you have created that classical response (this can take time depending on the value of the reward among other factors), you can incorporate this into some scenarios that aren’t around feeding before trying in a feeding session, or with a very low reward food in their bowl.
3. Leave It – Sit
Teach your dog to leave the food bowl and sit for you to put some more food into the bowl. This is an option for those with less intense food guarding and those with a very good sit response. To work on this, you would give the dog some food, then while they are eating, ask the dog to sit. When they have sat, approach a little closer (only to the distance they are comfortable) and toss some extra tasty treats into the bowl then release the dog to eat freely again.
I hope this helps give you an understanding of why your dog is guarding his bowl and how best to approach the situation, but PLEASE consult a professional in your area that is familiar and experienced in food guarding. The techniques that have you standing over your dog’s bowl and claiming it from your dog only reinforce the dog’s thought that you are approaching with the intent to steal the food. This can lead to injuries to you as well as diminish the trust your dog has in you as it’s provider.
The longer you leave this untreated the worse the behaviour will become. Please contact us if you would like to arrange a session to wokr on your dog’s food or other guarding behaviours.