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Any time a dog growls when you approach her food, there is reason for concern. Although resource guarding is a natural behavior for dogs to exhibit, it can be dangerous in the home environment, especially if it is allowed to progress without intervention. Though your dog hasn’t bitten anyone yet, it is essential to get professional help now to prevent future escalation of the behavior.
Protecting resources is an essential component of survival for wild animals; sharing and allowing other animals near their valued items is not. Even though your dog is domesticated, she still has the guarding instinct. It is important to teach her, as early as possible, that she does not need to protect her food from the people in your house.
Resource guarding can occur with various items, including food, chews, toys and sleeping areas. The signs can be subtle: Your dog may freeze or stiffen up when someone approaches her, or stare directly into their eyes in warning. The hair on her back may stand up, and she may raise her tail stiffly. She may chew harder or faster, or use her body to block you from getting close to whatever she is guarding. Left unchecked, this behavior may progress into growling, snapping and biting.
An animal’s natural instinct to guard is often a fear-based reaction — your dog is afraid you are going to take her food — and punishing your dog only reinforces her fears. As a dog trainer, I often hear horror stories of pet owners who have been told to alpha roll their dogs when they growl or to literally pry the food out of the dog’s mouth in order to stop the guarding behavior. I would never recommend these techniques; this type of training confirms your dog’s fears that you are going to take her food, which only serves to increase her guarding behavior. These type of training strategies also put the pet owner at serious risk for a bite.
Resource guarding is such a serious topic that I cover it in all of my dog classes, starting in puppy class. It is important to work with a trainer to teach your puppy that people coming around her food means good things happen. You can do this by walking past your puppy’s food bowl during meal time, at a safe distance, and tossing treats as you pass. As soon as your puppy starts to exhibit happy, relaxed body language when you approach, you can begin to gradually move closer to her bowl, while continuing to toss tasty morsels her way. Another option is to start with only a few pieces of kibble in your puppy’s dish; as she eats, stand near the bowl and drop more treats in. Finally, rather than forcing your puppy to give up her food bowl, teach her to sit while you pick up the empty food bowl, add additional food and then return it to her.
When I work with dogs who guard their food, I teach essential behaviors that include “drop it” (surrendering a toy or chew on command) and “leave it” (not picking up off-limit items in the first place). It is also important to prevent a dog from getting so worked up that she defaults to guarding behavior. For some dogs, this may mean avoiding specific items, like pigs ears, during initial training, or only giving those items to the dog in a protected place, such as a kennel. In order to fully eradicate guarding behavior, training needs to be done with a wide variety of people in numerous situations, and with various items, to help a dog generalize her nonguarding behavior. Training should continue throughout your dog’s life to maintain her progress.
Although many dogs that resource guard will not progress to biting, it’s still an issue that should be taken seriously and immediately addressed by a professional. The gold standard in behavioral help is a veterinary behaviorist who is trained to address both the behavioral and medical aspects of a dog; another good option is a veterinarian working in conjunction with a positive-reinforcement trainer.
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