A guide to navigating the challenge and adventure of life with your dogs.

The Real Solution to Resource Guarding and Food Aggression

It’s pretty unsettling when your beloved pet fiercely defends a bowl or toy from you. Doesn’t he know who you are? Doesn’t he know that you love him dearly? That you are his best pal? That you were the one to give him that treasured object in the first place? Doesn’t he know that YOU ARE THE BOSS OF HIM?

Take a deep breath. It’s okay.

Many people’s gut reaction to resource guarding is to be deeply offended. I remember when I was a brand new dog owner and my new puppy growled at me when I tried to take a rawhide from her. I could scarcely believe it! Was my puppy… *gasp* …aggressive?!

Now that I am older and wiser and all that, I know that resource guarding and food aggression is pretty typical behavior. All but the most serious cases are fairly simple to fix.

This post is pretty long, but if you’re dealing with this problem, you’ll definitely want to take the time to read it all the way through. Resource guarding is simple but serious.

What is Resource Guarding? Why do Dogs Do It?

It’s when a dog feels he has to defend his belongings or territory. He views people approaching his food or toys as a bad thing, because he’s afraid they will take his stuff away. A dog might protect toys, food bowls, treats, trash, furniture, or even his favorite people. He’ll tense up, bare his teeth, or growl when approached. If these warnings are ignored, he may bite as a last resort.

In this post, we’re talking about dogs who resource guard against humans. Dogs may also guard against other dogs, but that’s beyond the scope of this article and will be addressed in a future post.

Before you get too upset by your dog growling at you, just realize that resource guarding and food aggression is normal dog behavior. Fido doesn’t hate you. He’s not trying to dominate you. This is one of the many behaviors (like jumping, digging, barking, crotch-sniffing, etc.) that are perfectly acceptable in canine society but frowned upon in human society.

Insecure dogs are the most likely to resource guard. A confident dog feels no need to constantly fight for his stuff. When a confident dog has a beloved toy, he’ll leave it lying around. He’ll let people pick it up, he’ll let other dogs approach (he may draw the line at them picking it up). He’s calm, cool and collected. He’s not worried about people stealing from him.

An insecure dog is another story. He’s the low man on the totem pole; anyone could come and steal from him at any time. He’ll spend a huge amount of energy making sure his belongings are safe. When there are dogs or people in the area, he’ll keep his toys close to him. He may carry them around or keep them between his paws where he can see them. At dinner time, he scarfs down his food quickly lest someone come to take his bowl away. In short, he’s pretty miserable.

The way to fix this is to teach your dog that he has nothing to fear from you. The people around him are well-meaning and nobody wants to steal from him.

Ferocious Fur Balls: Resource-Guarding Puppies

Guarding behavior is a common, and even expected, part of puppyhood. In the litter, puppies deal with fierce competition from their siblings. Any time they get ahold of a piece of food or a toy, they have to defend it or else another pup will probably take it. Puppies often carry this behavior over to their new homes.

Don’t freak out if your adorable little baby dog growls at you for coming too near a treasured object. As long as you take it seriously and address it before it becomes a major problem, resource guarding is pretty easy to fix in puppies.

The Wrong Way to Handle the Problem

3 Lost Dogs is not one of those “positive training” blogs that just rag on traditional dog training all the time. That kind of thing gets irritating.

But come on, now.

The traditional method of dealing with resource guarding is so backwards that it would be laughable if it wasn’t so deadly. Because of that, I thought it deserved a mention here.

Food aggression is often treated as a dominance problem: by protecting his food, Fido is asserting himself as the alpha and the owner must show him who’s boss.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Resource guarding comes from insecurity, remember? It’s low-dog-on-the-totem-pole behavior.

The solution that is then used is to punish the dog for showing guarding or aggressive behavior. The dog protects his food bowl? Step in front of the dish and push him away to show him that the food belongs to you. The dog snaps when you try to get him off the sofa? Alpha-roll his ass. This battle of wills is the kind of thing you see on a lot of dog training “reality” shows. While it does make for dramatic television, it offers absolutely no long-term solution.

This ain’t something that can be solved with punishment or corrections, folks. All you accomplish when you do this is confirm Fido’s suspicion that you ARE a threat and he has to protect himself from you. The solution becomes the problem, creating a vicious cycle. There are three things that can happen when people try the dominance approach:

1. The problem gets worse and Fido actually hurts somebody. Fido will probably be euthanized now.

2. The problem doesn’t get any better and Fido’s owners give up, switching to a management approach (i.e. “leave the damn dog alone when he’s eating”).

3. It actually “works” and suppresses the behavior. It does nothing to CHANGE the behavior, so Fido’s owners now have a dog that is shut down: upset, but unable to show it. Suppressing behavior is cruel and dangerous in dogs and people alike.

Punishing a dog for growling is dangerous. And kind of absurd, since growling is actually a good thing. Say it with me now:

Growling is a Good Thing

Growling is not aggression. Growling is a dog’s way of avoiding aggression. A growl is the equivalent of saying “knock it off” or “something’s not right.” Read more about growling here. When you punish a dog for growling, all you’re doing is teaching him not to give warnings before he bites. Uh oh.

The Solution

We address several types of resource guarding here, so feel free to skip to the solution for your dog’ s particular variety. The basic principle is the same for each one: condition Fido to view people approaching as a good thing. Human hands giveth, they don’t taketh away.

Food guarding

No free-feeding:

Don’t leave a bowl out for Fido to pick at whenever he wants. Fido has to learn that dinner comes from people, not from the magically-refilling bowl on the floor.

Play with your food:

At dinner time, take a minute to feed Fido some kibble by hand. Fill the bowl. Before you put it on the floor, have him do some tricks. Reward each trick with a piece of food. You only have to do this three or four times, and then you can put the bowl on the floor. If Fido is too aggressive for this to be safe, skip to the next exercise and come back to this one later.

The treat tossing exercise:

Feed Fido his regular food. Give him less than normal, since you’re going to be adding to it as you work. Get some really good treats, like cooked chicken or ground beef. While Fido is eating, approach the dish and toss in a couple treats. You want to keep Fido “under threshold.” If at any time Fido growls or shows other warnings, you’ve gone over threshold. Stay far enough back that Fido shows no warnings. Depending on how good your aim is, you might have to settle for tossing treats near his dish, and that’s okay.

Work on getting closer and closer while tossing treats into the dish, all the while keeping Fido under threshold. Later, you can add a brief pet on the shoulder or back before tossing in the treat.

The refill exercise:

Feed Fido a very small amount of his regular dinner. Wait for him to finish it. When the bowl is empty and he has nothing left to protect, pick up the dish. Add a handful of regular food plus a really good treat. Put it back on the floor. Repeat until Fido has eaten an entire meal this way.

Furniture guarding

Teach Fido the “off” command:

Invite Fido up onto the couch. When he gets up, toss a treat or toy on the floor while saying “off.” When he jumps off, praise him and let him get the treat/toy. If you train with a clicker, click as soon as his feet hit the floor.

Repeat this for about three minutes each session. When you’re not training, try to keep Fido from getting up onto the furniture by himself. Either keep him out of the room by using a crate or baby gates, or put something up on the couch so that he can’t sit on it. Cardboard boxes or folded-up folding chairs work well.

If you’d like, once you reach the point where Fido will happily get off the couch when you tell him, you can give him back the privilege of regular couch access.

Toy/object guarding

Teach the “drop it” command:

Start by giving Fido a toy that he finds low-value. Then present him with a very good treat. When he releases the object, say “drop” or “give” or whatever, and then give him the treat. As soon as he’s done chewing, give him the toy back.

Start with very short sessions to prevent Fido from getting frustrated. I’m talking two to four “drops” and then done, leaving Fido to play with the toy in peace. You can gradually work your way up to longer sessions and higher-value toys.

You can generalize this by approaching Fido whenever he’s chewing on any toy, tossing him a treat, and then walking away.

The exchange game:

Again, start with Fido chewing a low-value object. Approach with a higher-value object, like his favorite toy or a chew. Ask Fido to drop the low-value toy. When he does, give him the good one.

What About When You Really DO Have to Taketh Away?

All of the exercises in this post rely on you being able to either return the treasured object or exchange it for a better one. But sometimes there will be times when this isn’t possible. You might be out on a walk when Fido picks up something he shouldn’t. When you tell him to drop a piece of trash or roadkill, you can’t exactly hand it back to him.

That’s why it’s so important to spend time working on all the above exercises. Even after Fido’s resource guarding has been “cured,” continue to play the exchange game and the drop it game and the treat tossing game on a maintenance basis. The more you do, the more trust you build between you and your dog for those real-world moments.

How Long Does This All Take?

Some dogs will figure this stuff out right away. After just a training session or two they’ll look forward to you approaching the food bowl or toy. Other dogs may take days or weeks of daily training.

When Should You Seek Professional Help?

  • If it’s been several weeks with no improvements
  • If Fido has bitten someone or you think he probably would
  • If you have young children in your home
  • If you are uncomfortable doing this training or feel like you’re in over your head.

Just remember that not all trainers are created equal. Find a trainer who is familiar with the training methods and philosophies described here, as these are the most up-to-date and effective that currently exist. Watch out for any trainer who wants you to dominate your dog. Use this guide from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers to learn how to find the right trainer or behaviorist.