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Dog training tips. Why Do Dogs Guard Their Goodies? Dos and Don’ts for Food Aggressive Behavior

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

Every few weeks or so my brother and I get together for Sunday brunch to catch up. I love my brother. And I love pancakes. So it just drives me nuts when the server asks to take my plate before I'm finished eating. I'll sometimes joke that "I have food aggression," which doesn't always get a laugh because they're not so sure I'm joking. The last time this happened I just politely replied "Um, I'm still working on it." Then I actually noticed my body stiffen and lean forward when the next potential toast poacher neared our table. What was going on? Was this just a pet peeve, or that I hate feeling rushed through a meal? Or was I, a well-fed American who's never gone hungry a day in my life, actually guarding my food?

What causes food aggression?

What many people refer to as "food aggression," is a type of resource guarding. Dogs with this issue will guard their food, toys, beds, or even their people. They may grumble or growl when someone approaches their bowl as they're eating, or in more severe cases, may snarl, snap or even bite. In an effort to prevent this, many new puppy parents will put their hands in the dog's food bowl, or pick it up several times while he's eating in an effort to train him not to be possessive. Unfortunately, doing this can actually create the very behavior they are trying to prevent. It causes them to fear that their food could be taken away at anytime so they must protect it. When animals, including us humans, fear a loss or scarcity of something we want, it can trigger our instinct to grab up and guard the precious resource.

There's also the simple fact that no one enjoys having something of value suddenly taken away. Try grabbing a favorite toy from a toddler or swipe a teenager's iphone without warning. Go ahead I dare you. Or say your kid blows off his homework all week. You might remove the xbox from his room until he gets back on track. This is a form of punishment- removing something good as a consequence for unwanted behavior. It's effective because it creates the needed incentive to change one's behavior in order to get the good thing back.

So if you take away your dog's food mid-meal, you are literally punishing her, for eating. It's always best to let your pooch eat in peace. It's not much to ask really.

“What if I need to take away something that might be dangerous or make my dog make sick?"

How To Train Your Dog to “Drop It”

"Give" or "drop it" (or whatever you'd like to call it) is one of the basic safety skills I recommend that all dogs learn. As you may have guessed, this is not done by simply taking something out of her mouth. Reaching for whatever she's got hold of is usually is a cue to your dog to start a fun game of keep away. They really don't worry about how annoying this may be for you. As you probably already know, most puppies think it's fabulous when their people chase them around the house to try and get their newfound toy! 

Try this instead- It’s exactly the same as the game, "I'll trade ya?" where we present something of equal or better value. If your furbaby loves chasing a ball, for example, have at least two identical balls on hand. Toss one for her, then wait. No need to say anything yet. Just wait and watch and the second she lets go of the first ball, throw the other one. The dropping of the first ball is immediately rewarded by your throwing the next one for her. The trick is making sure what you offer is just as good or better than what she's already got!  This teaches your dog that surrendering what she has is a great thing to do because it's a trade-up and works out well for her. It also gives that sense of plenty which can help prevent the need to guard any one item. If you're working with a food item, just do it a few times and then let her enjoy her treat. Stopping before she gets frustrated or bored will keep this training game fun and easy for you both!

* If your dog has a more serious problem with resource guarding, or is showing any aggressive behaviors that concern you, contact The Pet Behaviorist for help.

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