Ever see a dog growling around his food bowl? Ever see those "Funniest Home Videos" shows where a dog is showing teeth while standing over a bone? You have witnessed something called Resource Guarding, a form of dog aggression. This form of aggression is fairly common, but easily preventable. As with all undesired behaviors, I always recommend investing the time in the beginning to prevent a situation from arising, rather than having to work on changing behavior later on. Especially with aggression, once a dog bites someone there is always a chance that he might bite again.
You might have heard people tell you "Never go near a dog when he is eating!" You know what? That is terrible advice. However, I will make one adjustment to that comment: "Never go near a dog that guards his food bowl while he is eating unless you know how to train him not to be aggressive."
Assuming your dog does not already guard his food, the reason that is terrible advice is that if you never acclimate a dog to people being around his bowl then there is a much higher chance that he will start to exhibit resource guarding behaviors later in life. So, as soon as you bring home a puppy you should practice daily exercises to help your dog feel comfortable when people are near his food, objects or locations.
Adaptive Significance of Resource Guarding
Resource guarding is a natural behavior occurring in animals. Once animals take prey, food, or find shelter it is imperative for their survival that they protect their resources from others.
Types of Resource Guarding
Dogs can guard food bowls, bones, toys, people, locations or objects. The fascinating and potentially confusing aspect of resource guarding is that dogs don’t necessarily “need” what they guard. A dog might guard a bone even if he has 100 bones in front of him. He might guard a pen that drops from a desk as if it is the most important thing in the world to him. He might guard a couch that he is lying one or a person that he is standing next to. With animal behavior the “whys” are sometimes murky, but there are specific signals that dogs that dogs exhibit that identify resource guarding behavior.
Signs of Resource Guarding
Besides the obvious signs of aggression including barking, growling, or showing teeth, dogs can show other signs of aggression. When a dog is eating, they can “punch” their food bowl and increase the rate of eating. They can also show stiffness and even a momentary pause in eating is a red flag that they are anxious. Watching people walk by with a hard stare is also a sign of anxiety and potential aggression.
Resource Guarding Prevention
Unfortunately there are no guarantees that you can prevent resource guarding, but there is a much higher chance if you start early with your puppy, practice regularly and continue at least until your dog is 12 months old. After one year, I recommend weekly maintenance for another 6 months and then monthly maintenance for the rest of your dog’s life. The absolute critical point to remember is that it is highly unusual for young puppies to exhibit resource guarding. Most of the cases I see crop up at approximately twelve to eighteen months of age.
Do not get lulled into a sense of security when you start the exercises and your puppy doesn’t do anything. That is the point. You want your puppy to be COMPLETELY comfortable with all of the various actions that might happen around their resources. I hear people say, “Oh, I don’t need to do the exercises, my puppy doesn’t show aggression.” But, that is flawed thinking. Regular practice is the best way to prevent it from ever showing up.
Dogs Do Not Feel Comfortable With Everyone
Dogs can learn to be completely comfortable with one or more members of the household, but bite a neighbor that comes over during mealtime. It is important to do exercises with a wide variety of people including people of different sizes, races, sexes, and ages so your dog becomes comfortable with everyone that he might come in contact with. Children are especially at risk around dogs that resource guard because they often ignore subtle signals that dogs exhibit until it is too late.
Resource Guarding Exercises
These exercises are for dogs that are not showing signs of aggression. If you have a dog that is already showing signs of resource guarding, you should work with a skilled positive reinforcement trainer to help rehabilitate him. I recommend that you practice during at least one meal per day for at least 3-5 minutes per day.
- Play with your dog’s food while eating and give handfuls of food with occasional extra treats
- Walk by and drop treats in food bowl
- Pick up food bowl, put a yummy treat in and give it back
- Pet your dog and drop something yummy in food bowl
Bones or Chew Toys
- Hold your dog's bone and allow your dog to chew on it (this gets him used to seeing hands while chewing bones)
- Take bone away, give treat and give the bone back to your dog
- Walk by your dog when he is chewing on the bone, drop treats on ground and walk away
- Pet your dog and give treats
- Approach dog and give treats
- Pet dog and give treats