Dogs of all ages and breeds may guard their food zealously—snapping, growling, or glaring over their bowls when somebody approaches.
Thankfully, you can correct this behavior. In this guide, we’ll teach you how to stop food guarding in dogs at home or with professional intervention.
What is Food Guarding?
Food guarding, also known as food aggression, is a territorial response that dogs have to protect the food or treats they’re eating. Dogs may guard food that drops on the ground, treats they are given, or food in their bowl.
Dog food guarding is a form of resource guarding—an intrinsic hereditary behavior that dogs have from the days when they would have to hunt for food in the wilderness.
How to Recognize Dog Food Guarding Behavior
Dogs who are food guarding may show a few or a combination of these behaviors:
- Hard stare or glaring
- Growling or barking
- Baring of teeth
- Stiff body
- Whale eye (the whites of their eyes are visible)
- Lowered tail
- Flattened ears
- Frantic eating
- Leaning or hovering over food to shield it
Why Do Dogs Guard Their Food?
There are quite a few reasons why dogs guard their food, and you may not be able to identify the specific cause.
Puppy food aggression can be learned when dogs are young and have to compete with littermates for food. A dog guarding food from another dog may be doing so because they are anxious about where their next meal is coming from.
Dogs can also develop food aggression later in life. Adult dogs can exhibit guarding behaviors after experiencing trauma—such as physical abuse or neglect, a move to a new home, an owner passing away, or fights with other dogs. If your dog’s behavior has significantly changed, consult a veterinarian to make sure that an underlying medical condition isn’t to blame.
Remember, a dog’s food doesn’t have to be under threat for them to start guarding their food. They just have to perceive a threat—which is why resource guarding is something that needs intervention.
How to Stop Your Dog From Guarding Food
Step 1: Prevent Dog Guarding Food Behavior
Unfortunately, food guarding is something dog owners don’t think about until it happens. But since any dog can develop food guarding, prevent the behavior before it even begins.
You may have accidentally taught your canine companion to guard their food. If you take away an object from your pup, like food or a toy, they learn that things can be taken from them unless they’re protected. Instead of taking things from your dog, trade one item for another.
You can teach your dog the “leave it” or “drop it” commands so they learn to release objects when told. This prevents them from eating or taking items you don’t want them to and allows them to recognize that leaving items is normal. Reward pups with a treat to encourage them with positive enforcement.
Step 2: Desensitize Them to Your Presence
If your dog is already showing signs of food guarding, you’re past the point of being proactive—now you need to take action to correct the behavior.
One of the first things you should do to end your dog’s guarding is to get them used to you being around their food. Stand a few feet away from your pup as they eat from their bowl. Toss treats in their direction. You can walk by your dog and throw treats, but give your dog plenty of space. Do this until your dog finishes their food.
Watch their body language carefully, and take a step or two back if their body language shows signs of aggression. When your dog reacts positively with a relaxed posture, you may move closer.
Go through this process slowly and repeatedly so you don’t startle your four-legged friend. The goal is to eventually be able to approach your dog’s bowl.
Step 3: Feed Them in Other Areas and Consistently
When your dog is eating in a room with other dogs, they may feel that they have to gulp down their food quickly so other dogs don’t get it first. Feeding dogs in separate rooms gives each dog confidence that no one will steal their food.
After feeding dogs separately, you can try gradually feeding them together in a new location. Be aware that, if you return to feeding them together, their old food guarding behaviors may return.
Additionally, dogs know when it’s time to eat. Be regular with mealtimes so your dog doesn’t get anxious about when they’ll eat again.
“One of the other ways to manage this behavior in your dog is by never backing away from his food bowl, because that’s what your dog wants. Every time you walk away and your dog shows aggression, the dog feels he has won,” says Skillshare instructor Aman Gupta.
Step 4: Change How You Feed Them
Feeding your dog after you eat reinforces the idea that you are the leader of the pack. In the wilderness, alpha dogs eat first, and your home is no different. Don’t feed your dog before or while you are eating.
Additionally, make dogs “work” for their food to slow down their eating habits. Introducing a slow eater prevents pups from gulping down their food (which also helps mitigate life-threatening issues like dog bloat).
Step 5: Hire a Professional Trainer
If these at-home methods aren’t working, consider hiring a trained professional. Professional dog trainers, certified animal behaviorists, and board-certified veterinary behaviorists know how to stop a dog from guarding food.
Additionally, if your dog is showing aggressive behavior that’s potentially dangerous to you or others (like biting), contact a professional immediately. This is especially important if babies or toddlers are at home, as they wouldn’t know how to respect a dog’s boundaries or body language and may end up in danger.
It’s easy to get frustrated by your dog’s behavior, but you should never, ever punish your dog by yelling or hitting. It’s counterproductive and may even make the food guarding worse.
When left untreated, resource guarding can lead to trouble, so contact a professional or use behavior modification techniques to correct the problem. Food guarding doesn’t make your dog a bad dog—it just makes them a normal one.
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