What is Food Guarding?
In nature, animals often use aggressive threats to prevent others from stealing their possessions. Many animals have a natural tendency to guard access to valuable resources, such as food, mates, and territory. Dogs are no exception, and when companion canines begin growling over the food bowl, this resource guarding can present quite a challenge for owners.
Three Degrees of Dog Food Guarding and Aggression
Food guarding in dogs can be characterized along a continuum of aggression intensity.
1. At the mild end, a dog may freeze or give a hard, sidelong glance to the owner who approaches while the dog is eating. She may eat faster as the owner approaches, or may lower her head deeper into the food bowl, holding her nose still and close to the food.
2. Beyond this more mild forms of food guarding, a dog may growl, quiver a lip, show teeth, or snap.
3. At the most intense end of the continuum, she may bite anyone who approaches her food bowl area. I have even had clients whose dogs will charge away from the food bowl and toward the owner, aggressively attempting to bite, even when the owner is in another room altogether.
Recognizing Food Guarding and Aggression in Dogs
When I ask clients whether their dog is aggressive over food, I am surprised by how many report that they don't know because they wouldn't dare approach their dog while she is eating in the first place. This is generally an unsafe approach to the problem, as there may be unforeseen circumstances that arise in which a dog is approached while eating. If aggression is the dog's first response in this situation, a bite could be just around the corner.
The ideal interaction between owner and dog over the food bowl goes something like this: the owner approaches Bella while she is eating. Bella looks up happily, tail wagging, steps away from the food bowl and/or sits. The owner praises her, picks up the food bowl, then returns it and releases Bella with an "OK!", at which point Bella moves back into her food bowl and continues eating.