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My dog growls at me over food! How to overcome resource guarding of food.

Dog lunging for their food, being aggressive and resource guarding their food.

Does your dog not like it when you go near them when they are eating? Maybe it’s a bone you give your dog, a chew, or even their food bowl. Do they growl, eat faster or take the treat and run? Rest assured that this is actually a very normal behaviour for dogs and we often refer to it as ‘resource guarding’. Resource guarding is about fear of loss, rather than a dog trying to be ‘dominant’ or ‘alpha’.

What does Resource Guarding of food look like?

Some signs of resource guarding can be so subtle you may not even recognise them as a problem. Other signs are obvious and can be rather confronting and even dangerous. Signs of resource guarding include;

Subtle Signs

  • Moving in between you and the resource
  • Turning away from a person or another pet when they have the resource
  • Eating faster when you or another pet approaches 
  • Eye sliding
  • Lip licking
  • Freezing the body (usually over the resource itself)

Obvious Signs

  • Growling
  • Snarling
  • Snapping
  • Biting 

How to overcome Resource Guarding of food

The aim is to make the resource guarder feel safe. Be proactive in preventing, managing and reducing the behaviour, rather than punishing the behaviour.

The worst thing you can do is to actually take food off your dog to teach them not to guard. Think how you would feel if your food is taken away from you before you have finished. You would probably be surprised at first, and then if it was done again and again, you would learn to protect your food so it couldn’t be taken away. You may even shout at the person as they came close to you. This is exactly what dogs are doing when they growl at you if you come too close to their food. It’s normal!

So how can you help your dog to feel more relaxed? You don’t need to make a point to your dog that you need to take things off them; however there are situations where you will need to. You want to condition your dog to expect good things when you approach. Here are some games we recommend:

The Exchange Game

The aim of this game is to create a trusting, give and take relationship. You are aiming to teach your dog to exchange any item in their mouth for a higher value one (remember the value of the item is in your dog’s eyes, not yours!).

Making a list of your dog’s top 10 favourite items (food or toys) is a good start.

Start by giving your dog a low value food item (e.g. something your dog doesn’t guard like a dry dog biscuit) and then offer something higher value (e.g. chicken) in exchange. Repeat, repeat and add cues such as “give” or “can I share?” after the dog is dropping the first item consistently. Gradually build up to higher value items. Your dog should start to anticipate that you will offer them something better in exchange for what they have.  

The Food Bowl Game

Teach your dog that good things happen when you approach their food bowl. When your dog is eating from their bowl, simply walk calmly past them and toss a few tasty treats into their bowl, then keep walking. Repeat a few times each time they are eating. Soon they will be really happy to see you approaching their bowl! 

If you practice these games regularly, you will see improvement. You can still give your dog their bone or chew, but just leave them to eat it in peace so they learn to relax.

Some dogs that guard food may also guard other high value items like toys. Visit our article Does your dog love their toy too much? Stop growling and nipping over toys for some tips on how to overcome resource guarding of toys.

If you need further guidance, please seek the assistance of a qualified professional.

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