Food guarding, also sometimes called resource guarding or possession aggression, is a relatively normal (albeit undesirable) behavior in dogs. Animals developed this behavior because, in nature, if they weren’t born with a strong drive to protect their food, they likely wouldn’t survive. Of course, it’d be nice if years of selective breeding eliminated this trait, but some dogs have a predisposition to be protective of their food.

Why Dogs Protect Their Food

Pet owners may notice food guarding when their dog is a puppy, but the behavior can develop at any age. The behavior may start because puppies often have to compete with littermates for food.

If a puppy younger than 16 weeks begins exhibiting food guarding, this red flag shouldn’t be ignored — contact your veterinarian right away. Food guarding can be the first sign that a puppy is developing aggression problems, and these are easier to correct when addressed early. Never assume that a dog will grow out of food guarding or any other undesirable behavior. In fact, behavior problems left alone are almost guaranteed to worsen rather than improve.

Don’t Ignore the Problem

With aggressive food guarding, it’s better to prevent the behavior than try to change it. There are several things you can do to decrease the chance your dog will develop this behavior. One easy method is to teach your puppy that a person approaching its food bowl means something good is going to happen. So periodically, while your puppy is eating, approach it and drop something special — a small piece of cheese or another treat — into its bowl and walk away.

Avoid free-feeding your dog (leaving food available all day long), as this only allows him or her to perceive the food as a valuable resource that needs protecting all the time. Rather, feed your dog the diet your veterinarian recommends at consistent times each day, and promptly remove any uneaten food.

Another technique is to be prepared to offer a tasty treat every time you take something away from your puppy. And all dogs should be taught a “drop it” command for their own safety. One aspect of teaching the command involves rewarding your dog with something special every time it complies with your command to “drop it.” All these techniques teach your dog that responding to your requests means rewards will come, so it will be less likely to perceive a need to guard items like food.

Food guarding can be particularly problematic in households with children. Kids often dangle food from their hands while eating, inadvertently teasing dogs. To prevent problems, never leave toddlers or babies unattended with a dog. Feed dogs in an area where kids will not interact with them while they’re eating. Teach children that dogs should be left alone when they’re eating, resting, or chewing on a bone or other chew toy.

Finally, never respond to a dog’s growling over its food bowl (or any other item) by removing the food. This teaches the dog that its access to food is in constant jeopardy and that guarding it aggressively is necessary.

Follow these guidelines and you can help prevent food guarding behavior from developing. If it does develop, seek help. Your veterinarian can rule out medical problems and make a referral to a behavioral specialist if needed.