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The essentials

  • Aggression and reactivity are not the same — If your dog reacts to something while they’re eating, that’s not the same as being food aggressive.
  • Food aggression and resource guarding aren’t breed-specific behaviors — Any dog, no matter how gentle their breed or how well they’ve been trained, can display aggression or guarding behaviors.
  • Correction can actually promote resource guarding in dogs — Telling your dog “no” or taking their food away can make the situation worse.

If you’ve ever noticed a dog standing guard over their bed, food bowl, or favorite toy, you’ve witnessed resource guarding first-hand. The instinct to defend valuable goods is important for survival in the wild — but at home, it can lead to trouble.

There’s nothing wrong with dogs who display food aggression, but it is a behavior you’ll want to train out of them as early as you can. Understanding the signs and causes of your dog’s resource guarding is the first step to helping them work through their possessive instincts.

What is resource guarding in dogs?

Shelter, family, affection, and food are all important resources in the animal kingdom, but food is especially important to dogs. When dogs feel like their access to food is threatened, they may resort to resource guarding in the form of aggressive behavior.

👉 Research suggests that as much as 20% of shelter dogs display some form of food aggression. This is a reasonable and natural reaction to the threat of food being taken away from an evolutionary standpoint. After all — your dog’s ancestors would’ve fought hard to protect resources, like food, to survive.

What causes resource guarding in dogs?

While food aggression is thought to be more common in rescue dogs, dogs with weight concerns, or dogs who were deliberately denied access to food, research has not been able to prove these correlations.

Factors commonly tied to resource guarding include:

Genetics. Food aggression and resource guarding aren’t necessarily passed down, though some breeds are more genetically predisposed to it than others. Neutered male dogs, mixed breed dogs, and breeds predisposed to high levels of impulsivity and anxiety are all more likely to exhibit aggressive resource guarding behaviors than other dogs.

Resource scarcity. Food aggression can be learned in puppyhood if a dog has to compete with its littermates for food or treats. It can also develop later in life because of trauma.

Pain and stress. Guarding behaviors can become more intense when dogs are put under mental or physical stress. This can be the result of an underlying health issue, stressful events like fireworks, or even the presence of an unfamiliar person or pet in the house.

Lack of stimulation. Insufficient mental or physical stimulation can lead to a host of behavior problems in dogs, including resource guarding.

Recognizing resource guarding behavior and taking steps to stop it is key for the health and happiness of your furry friend — and other members of the household.

What’s the difference between fear and aggression in dogs?

Food aggression is a form of resource guarding and is often rooted in fear. Your dog may be afraid that their food will be taken away, that their access to more food will be limited, or even that this is the last opportunity for them to eat.

So, don’t think of fear and aggression as two separate reactions. Instead, think of them as cause and effect. A dog that is displaying signs of aggression around food is afraid more than anything else. In other words, a dog displaying signs of food aggression is not necessarily an aggressive dog , they’re merely reacting based on fear.

Signs of resource guarding in dogs

The levels of food aggression can range from mild to dangerous. Mild cases are fairly common, even in dogs who’ve shown no signs of food aggression before.

It’s important to know how your dog typically acts when food isn’t around so you can easily spot any changes in their body language during feeding times. To test for any signs of food aggression and to determine what level of aggression your dog currently has, look out for certain behaviors like:

  • Staring. This might look like your dog is focused on your presence while they eat, even if you are standing a good distance away. Some dogs may also become hyper-aware of another dog’s presence in the area in fear of their food getting stolen.
  • Sudden body stiffness. Your dog may appear to freeze for short or long periods while fixating on another person or pet. Some dogs may subtly shift the weight of their body toward the item they’re trying to guard.
  • Abnormal eating habits. If you walk toward your dog while they are eating, they might begin to eat faster to “claim” more of the resources. Some dogs may also stop eating when they feel threatened, or exhibit abnormal gulping or swallowing.

Pay attention to these subtler signs to avoid angering your dog and escalating their aggressive behaviors. Severe signs of resource guarding include:

  • Pointed back ears. When a dog’s ears are pinned flat against the back of their head, they may be signaling to others that they’re on the alert for food “theft.”
  • Lip licking. Dogs may lick their lips if they’re nervous about something being taken away from them. In more severe cases of resource guarding, a dog may raise their lips and bare their teeth to intimidate the person or pet they’re focused on.
  • Raised hackles. If you continue to approach your dog, the hair — or hackles — on their back might stand up as a warning to stay away.
  • Growling. Getting closer to your dog with food aggression as they eat might cause them to warn you with a growl.
  • Biting or chasing. If you touch their food source or remove it entirely, your dog might try to bite you or chase you away.

How to manage resource guarding in dogs

The signs of food aggression and their severity can range from dog to dog. You can use the guide of possible signs above to determine whether you will take on the task of training your dog, or if you will need help from a professional.

It’s natural to think that correction would be the right approach to eliminating or lessening the occurrence of food aggression, but that’s where dog behavior experts would disagree. Yelling, telling your dog “no,” or taking the food or treats away can actually make the situation exponentially worse.

Instead, try counterconditioning, desensitization, and redirection to establish a better relationship between your dog and their food. If your dog is displaying mild signs of food aggression, these tactics can help eliminate the behavior altogether. However, in severe cases, they may only lessen it.

🚨 The following techniques are for dogs who are not displaying moderate or dangerous levels of aggression. If your dog is already growling, biting, or giving chase, consult a veterinary behaviorist before attempting these steps.

The steps below can help eliminate or lessen food aggression. It’s important to go through them in order, take your time, and practice them consistently so you can build trust with your dog.

1. Stand near your dog during meals

Start by standing a few feet away from your dog during meals — not too close, but far enough away that they don’t display any of the warning signs outlined above. The idea is to slowly move closer to your dog over several weeks to teach them that it’s okay if people approach them while they’re eating. If they’re willing to let you near them at feeding times, they’ll learn that they might just get a delicious treat out of it.

Before you do this step, you may want to set up a gate around your dog’s feeding area in the early stages to reassure them that no one will come too close when they’re chowing down. If your dog is used to being in a crate, you can also try feeding them in there at first to make them more comfortable.

Once they’re comfortable with you and this step, have each member of the family repeat the exercise until your dog no longer reacts to anyone standing nearby while they eat.

2. Add food to the bowl

Now that your dog is fine with people standing near their bowl, try adding a treat to it while they are eating. For a week, move from your spot to their bowl and drop in a tasty treat. Then return to your spot.

Try moving closer to the bowl every day until your dog doesn’t react to you or the treat. As with the first step, have everyone in the home repeat this exercise until your dog is comfortable.

3. Talk to your dog

This step combines the first two with the added element of your voice. Stand near your dog and talk to them while they’re eating. Use a gentle tone and ask playful questions like “What have you got there?” while dropping occasional treats into the bowl. Do this every few seconds until they’ve finished their meal.

If your dog leaves their bowl to ask for more treats, don’t give them any. Wait until they resume eating, then keep the treats coming. Practice this exercise consistently over a week. Then, when your dog isn’t bothered by your presence, repeat the step with any other people in the house.

Always keep walking after leaving them the treat, no matter how comfortable they seem with you near their bowl. Staring, reaching down, and lingering for too long can be interpreted as threatening behaviors and make your dog’s resource guarding worse.

Consistency is vital to this process. Let everyone in the house go through each of these steps so that the whole family can build trust with your dog. If your dog exhibits any severe signs of aggression at any point during training, stop what you’re doing and seek out professional help.

Tips for managing food aggression

Unlearning territorial instincts is a process that takes time. Be patient with your dog as with work with them to manage their resource guarding behaviors.

Here are some tips to make things easier for both of you.

Don’t punish resource guarding — Avoid punishments, intimidation, or strong corrective actions during training and mealtimes. If your dog has a slip-up, try redirecting their behavior with the help of treats.

Don’t mess with their food — Many people falsely believe that taking away an aggressive dog’s food bowl will show them who’s boss — but this tactic will only serve to amplify their resource guarding behaviors. If you have to take something away from your dog, offer them a trade by giving them another high-value item in exchange for the item you’re confiscating.

Invest in quality treats — The training method outlined above only works because it teaches your dog that they’ll receive food that’s even better than the kibble if they comply. If the treats you’re using are low-quality, your dog likely won’t be so enticed to let their guard down.

Encourage slower eating — Some dogs eat way too fast for their owners to even try these treatment exercises. If that’s the case with your dog, it can help if you buy them a bowl that’s specially designed to slow down their eating.

Teach your dog basic commandsBasic training skills like the “drop it” and “leave it” cues are important for all dogs to know, but they’re especially important for dogs who exhibit resource guarding behaviors.

Put away potential triggers — If you know your dog likes to guard your socks, underwear, or favorite pair of slippers, you can eliminate unwanted behaviors just by keeping them put away and out of reach.

Keep children away (at first) — Though your dog needs to learn to stop aggressive resource guarding with every member of the family, we recommend holding off on letting the kids near them at feeding times until you’ve made significant progress with your counterconditioning.

Need professional help for resource guarding?

If you’ve tried all of these tactics and your dog’s behavior remains the same, you may need to enlist the help of a professional trainer. We also recommend going with a professional if your dog exhibits severe resource guarding behaviors that put you and your family in a dangerous situation, including snarling, growling, lunging, and biting.

👉 In some cases, dogs may stop resource guarding the item you used for their counterconditioning only to take up the same behaviors with a new item. This is another good indicator that it’s time to consult a certified applied animal behaviorist or professional dog trainer.

If you don’t know any professional dog trainers, see if your vet can recommend one to you. Whoever you go with, just make sure it’s someone who only uses positive reinforcement techniques.

Without the proper context, resource guarding in dogs can be a confusing, intimidating behavior. Remember that it’s normal canine behavior and manageable as long as the right measures are taken. Be patient with your dog and have plenty of treats on hand, and their possessive aggression will be a thing of the past in no time.

Frequently asked questions

Why would a dog suddenly start resource guarding?

Even the most well-behaved dogs can experience a bout of food aggression out of the blue. Consider any recent changes to your or your dog’s life. Have you gotten another pet? Has there been any lifestyle changes? Could your dog have a medical issue? The smallest changes can upset the balance (and larger changes can create even more stress). The good news is that the sudden onset of food aggression is likely temporary, in these cases.

Are there any breeds that are more prone to food aggression?

While food aggression isn’t necessarily a genetic trait that can be passed down, some breeds with a closer tie to their wild ancestors may display the behavior more frequently than other breeds. In general, though, food aggression is either learned or induced.

Can dogs grow out of resource guarding?

Unfortunately, no. Dogs are more likely to grow into resource guarding behaviors than they are to grow out of them. However, you can get your dog to stop resource guarding by using a combination of patience, positive reinforcement, and other simple training techniques.

Is my dog too old to learn not to be aggressive around food?

Dogs are never too old to be trained. However, it may take longer than it would to train a puppy. If food aggression has become a new issue or you’ve just adopted an older dog that already had food aggression, go through the six steps outlined above. With patience and consistency, you should be able to lessen the behavior or train it out altogether.

What causes resource guarding in dogs?

There’s little conclusive evidence on what causes dogs to resource guard, though it is commonly tied to natural instincts present in wild dogs.

Resource guarding is more commonly seen in dogs with a history of resource scarcity, dogs under physical or emotional stress, and dogs who don’t receive enough mental or physical stimulation. Guarding behaviors can also arise when the behaviors of a dog’s owner teach the dog to attach extra value to a particular object.