What to do if your dog guards their food – tips from the experts

Cute Goldendoodle Resting In Dog Bed While Enjoying Sunlight By The Window
Don’t be shy about reaching out to professionals for help (Picture: Getty Images)

Resource-guarding in dogs can be common, ranging from something as seemingly harmless as running away with a treat to more harmful acts, like growling or biting.

While behaviours can vary, many guard food, and you’ll want to be wary of guarding becoming a problem, especially if your dog will be spending time around children.

Dr Samantha Butler-Davies, Veterinary Clinical Services Manager at Vets4Pets, says dogs guarding their food is a perfectly normal instinct for them, as they’d need to protect their resources if they were in the wild.

Not only can they guard food, but some dogs will also guard their bed or favourite toys .

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‘Food guarding often stems from a puppy’s first few weeks in a litter,’ she explains. ‘Often the larger puppies will eat their own food quickly and then start eating the food of the smaller, slower puppies too.

‘This early experience creates competition and a need to protect food from others, which can lead to aggression if not managed.’

Ryan Neile, head of behaviour services at national pet charity Blue Cross, says: ‘This type of behaviour can occur for lots of different reasons and can range from mild to severe. An accredited animal behaviourist will help you to understand why your individual dog is behaving in the way that they are.’ When asked what the first guarding red flags can be in pups, Dr Samantha says you should watch out to see if they eat faster when you get close to their food bowl.

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‘Guarding behaviour can often lead to aggression including growling, barking or snapping when they feel their resource is threatened,’ she adds.

‘It’s important to seek help with this as soon as you can and get advice from your vet on how to manage your specific circumstances.’

Cute chocolate labrador dog taking a biscuit from its owner
Your dog should be able to trust you around their food (Picture: Getty Images)

If you want to ward against guarding behaviours before they begin, Dr Samantha says there are easy ways to show your puppy that they’re safe to trust you with their stuff.

She says: ‘Try putting a treat in their bowl while they are eating to help them learn that your presence is a good thing.

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‘You can also teach them to share by getting them to swap the toy in their mouth for a more exciting toy that you’re holding.’

However, as Ryan reminds us, not all dogs are the same and can therefore respond differently to training.

He adds: ‘An accredited animal behaviourist will help create a reward-based training plan that is tailored to the individual dog, and suitable for their owners to carry out.

‘They will help to support and guide you through the training process and advise accordingly on what can realistically be achieved.’

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If you do notice guarding behaviour, Dr Samantha says it’s important not to punish your dog for it, because ‘this will only make the problem worse’.

‘If it’s persistent,’ she says, ‘seek help from a qualified behaviourist to come up with a structured plan for tackling it.’

Ryan agrees, saying: ‘What is vital is that owners avoid using the internet, YouTube or TikTok, to self-diagnose behaviour issues and TV programmes that sensationalise the use of outdated punishment-based training methods.

‘Never confront or punish dogs that growl over food, and for their welfare and for the safety of the owners, immediately contact a vet and trained behaviourist for help and guidance.’

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He adds: ‘From the earliest possible moment problems occur you should speak to your vet, and from that point ask them to put you in contact with an ABTC accredited behaviourist.

‘Problems like this are always quicker and easier to resolve when working with an appropriate professional. The very best way of dealing with this is to take early steps to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

‘Vets, accredited behaviourists and animal rehoming charities all provide great help and advice on how to raise a happy and healthy dog.’

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