Food possessiveness is one of the most common habitual behavioral problems we see in our pet dogs. Regardless of breed, age, or temperament, all dogs are susceptible to developing impulse-control problems around the things they consider important. Today I'll talk about how to identify resource guarding behaviors around food in our canine friends, and what to do to modify these tendencies when present.
Resource guarding and the behaviors associated with it are usually very clear. "Whale eye" (the whites of the dog's eyes, which are large and around, are visible), curled lips, the baring of teeth, growling, barking, and even lunging are all part of the food possessive dog's repertoire.
So what do we do when we know our dog is food possessive? To begin, it helps to understand that this behavior is habitual, meaning that it will become more frequent, and more severe, if left unchecked over any length of time. It is also extremely important to note that food possessiveness is not an issue of dominance. Pinning a dog down, forcing a dog to 'submit' to the relinquishment of his or her favorite food or treat, or simply yanking it away, are responses that will unilaterally make the issue worse.
The following are two methods, or protocols, designed to combat the resource guarding of food. There is no right or wrong method here - use whatever works best for you and your dog. Don't be afraid to experiment with both methods.
Possessiveness Protocol #1: For Mild to Moderate Food Possessiveness
This protocol is designed for dogs at the early stages of the food guarding habit.
We begin the training work at meal time. While your dog is eating, from a distance of a few feet (you want to make sure you are standing far enough away that your dog is not yet exhibiting resource guarding behavior) toss her a steady stream (10-30) of small, one-bite treats near to the food bowl. This will encourage your dog to momentarily leave his food bowl, the first step in ending resource guarding behaviors.
Once the dog has finished eating and there is no food left to guard, move closer to your dog and toss a few more treats. It is important to cut back a little bit on the amount of food you are giving your dog at meal time when counter-conditioning resource guarding behaviors, to avoid weight gain. Every day, move a little bit closer to your dog and repeat this exercise, always certain that you are outside of your dog's defensive perimeter - in other words, that you are far enough away that your dog is not growling, or tensing up.
The key here is to keep your dog calm and relaxed around her food bowl, and teaching her to expect even tastier treats from you. If, after a full week of implementing this method you are not seeing any measurable results (you are unable to get any closer to your dog than when you started), move on to Protocol #2.
Protocol #2 - For Severe Food Possessiveness
For more deeply ingrained guarding behaviors, we need to go back to basic obedience training and making sure our dog learns a few truly fundamental obedience cues reliably and quickly.
We start with my favorite, Say "Please" By Sitting. I came across this basic, life-altering obedience behavior while studying the work of veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin. Today, I teach it all of the dogs in my care, allowing me to foster attitudes of self-control and polite behavior in any environment. And frankly, it's deceptively easy to teach. Here's how:
How to Teach Say "Please" By Sitting
First, start with a hungry dog right around meal time. Before giving your dog her meal for the day, hold a delicious treat you know your dog loves in your closed hand and allow the dog to sniff it. Once your dog knows you have it, stand perfectly still and look away. Do not make eye contact with your dog, do not say her name, and do absolutely nothing. Eventually, not knowing what to do to get that treat from you, your dog will offer you a polite sit. Note! If your dog has the tendency to walk away from you even in the presence of a food reward, put your dog on her leash and secure it around your waist with a couple of feet of lead space.
The very instant your dog sits, give them the treat. Do this 5-10 times in a row, and continue teaching your dog Say "Please" By Sitting whenever you have the opportunity. In a couple of days, your dog will begin to 'ask' you for everything she wants by sitting nearby. Pretty cool stuff!
Next, we want to teach our dogs how to "Leave It". "Leave It" is another critical behavior our household dogs need to learn to avoid putting bad or unwanted things in their mouth. A solid "Leave It" command can save you thousands in unnecessary veterinary bills over the life of your dog. Here's how to do it:
How to Teach "Leave It"
Begin by holding a treat in your hand. Allow your dog to sniff, lick, and try to get the treat from you. Keep your hand very still. The moment your dog moves her head back for even a moment, open your hand, move it close to your dog's mouth, and let her take it. After doing this 5-10 times, she should have the idea that if she moves away from the treat you are holding, she will get it shortly thereafter. If your dog does not get it by this point, chances are your timing is off and you may want to get some help from an experienced dog trainer.
To bring the lesson home, hold a second treat in your other hand and place it near your forehead, while holding the first treat in your closed fist. The moment your dog moves her nose away from the treat held in your closed hand, give her the treat held in the hand near to your forehead followed closely after by the one in your closed fist. After 30-40 repetitions like this over a few days, your dog should be sitting back and looking to you for direction. You can then omit the hand near the forehead part of this particular obedience cue.
Finally, you want to ad the cue words "Leave It", but only when you are certain your dog will move his nose away from your closed fist. To really proof the behavior, add "Take It" as a release word when you give your dog her treat. You can also progress to using an open hand instead of a closed one.
Seems easy enough, right? Well, we actually need to take this "Leave It" training one step further and teach your dog how to "Leave It" with items on the ground. Here's how to do it:
Put your dog on leash. Toss the treat outside of leash range and stand very still. When your dog predictably goes for the treat and gets to the end of the leash, stand very still. She will realize that you are not moving, and come back to sit in front of you, since you've already shown her how to say "please" by sitting. The moment your dog says "please" by sitting and looks at you, give her a string of treats (4-5) from your hand to keep your dog's gaze on you and not on the treat on the floor. Take a break from giving treats for a second or two at this point. Then, walk fast towards the treat and allow your dog to have it. Once you've practiced this a few times with your dog, add the cue word "Take It". Be sure to practice!
Once your dog is proficient at specific automatic sits and the leave it exercises, you can begin to expect her to sit to receive her meals as well. Here's how:
Start with your dog on leash. Hold your dog's food bowl out of range and wait for her to say "please" by sitting. Put the bowl down outside of leash range and say "leave it". Here's the tricky part:
If your dog gets up, that's okay. Wait for her to sit again. Once sitting, give your dog treats, unhook the leash, give the release word (for example, "Take It") and allow your dog to have her meal. Once your dog is finished eating, slowly approach her with her favorite treat in hand and stand just outside of her defensive zone. Once she says "please" by sitting, give her the treat. If you make this her daily feeding routine, you will see a dramatic reduction in your dog's tendency to resource guard her food.
Good obedience training is the start of ensuring every dog's likelihood of success as a polite, well-rounded member of the household. Dogs are not born with the skills they need to fit in with our lifestyles, and teaching them these behaviors is our primary responsibility as pet owners and dog lovers. From these fundamentals stem our ability to successfully modify our dog's behaviors throughout their time with us, and it is only through their cultivation that we can thoroughly enjoy the companionship of our canine friends.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.