Food Guarding in Dogs
If you think your dog is likely to bite you, please do not attempt to resolve his resource guarding on your own. Doing so could place you in serious harm, especially if your dog has a history of biting or has attempted to bite in the past. Consult with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating aggression, since this expertise is not required for CPDT certification. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these experts in your area.
With some dogs, treatment for food guarding can be tricky. If you attempt the exercises below and your dog appears stressed and refuses to eat—but he still guards his bowl—discontinue the exercises immediately and seek help from a behaviorist or qualified trainer. You’ll also want to seek help from one of these professionals if you’re able to do the exercises below for a while but hit a point at which your dog does not progress further.
Treatment Exercises for Food Guarding
The treatments used for food guarding are desensitization combined with counterconditioning. They’re highly effective but fairly complex and detailed.
The exercises described below are done in stages. After doing the exercises in one stage, you can progress to the next stage if your dog is relaxed and shows no signs of aggression. Dog body language can be complex, so it’s sometimes difficult to tell how a dog feels at any given moment. To determine what your dog looks like when he’s relaxed, take note of what his body, ears, eyes and tail do when you know he’s in a situation he finds pleasant. For example, notice what your dog looks like when you and he are relaxing together on the couch or taking a leisurely walk. Signs that a dog feels calm and content include a relaxed posture (muscles relaxed, not tensed), normal breathing or slight panting, eating at a normal pace, wagging and wiggling. Signs of aggression to watch for while you’re doing exercises include standing stiffly over the bowl, gulping the food, tensing or freezing, growling, staring, snapping, snarling, biting or chasing people away. If you see any of these signs, stop immediately and contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, or a qualified Certified Professional Dog Trainer.
If you’re unsure about your dog’s reaction to the exercises, tether him to something sturdy. That way, if your dog moves toward you, he will be restrained by the leash.
Before you start any of the exercises below, cut a number of special treats into bite-sized pieces for your dog. You’ll need to use something your dog absolutely loves and doesn’t get to eat at other times, like small bits of chicken, beef, hot dogs or cheese. The idea is to convince your dog that it’s wonderful when you approach him while he’s eating because you might bring him something much better than what he’s got in his bowl.