Food guarding is a natural response in dogs and may also generalise to toys, objects, people or a particular space. It’s instinctive and may be present in puppies but usually only obvious later in life. If preventative measures aren’t taken, suddenly out of the blue your dog is growling at you while eating its dinner. It is however possible to fix this undesirable behaviour by changing the way your dog reacts through changing his thought process.
Imagine you were a dog for a second and a person approached you to take your food away that you were enjoying. You would begin to growl as this is your only form of communication that you are not happy. If that person reacted to your growls and left you alone, it would appear that your communications had been heard thus teaching you to growl every time you wanted people to leave.
NB: It is important that he never gets in trouble for growling as this can teach your dog to hide his feelings (i.e. the warning signs that he is uncomfortable) prompting him to go straight to biting.
I will preface the advice below by saying there are many ways to solve resource guarding, and providing advice online about aggression is difficult, so the method I am advising below is SAFE and the most recommended method in well qualified experienced dog trainers backed up by science.
Let’s take a situation where your dog growls and he becomes aggressive when you try to interfere with him and something he believes to be his – food for example.
In this situation, two natural responses of yours will escalate problematic resource guarding. Firstly, if you have left him alone as his barking scared you, leaving him to continue eating. Secondly and most importantly, if you attempt to take the food away without offering him anything better.
Let’s change his way of thinking. From now on we want him to think every time someone approaches him while he is eating, more delicious food is going to appear (whatever his favourite food is; roast chicken, mince, slab of steak. Make him think Christmas has arrived). Continue to feed him each night as usual but as he is eating his dinner, approach the bowl and throw the higher value treats to him. NO MATTER HOW HE REACTS STILL THROW THE FOOD, even if he growls, stiffens up or changes his behaviour at all. This is known as classical conditioning and over time this will teach him that if he is eating, and a human approaches him, something much better is about to happen. Set up a few training sessions throughout the day as well. Give him other boring pieces of food (like dry dog food) that you ‘accidently dropped’ and as he goes towards it to eat it, throw in something better.
His reactions will ideally change over a few weeks from aggressive behaviour to inviting you closer to join him so you can bring him the good food!
NB: Do not let your kids take part in this training process or while he is eating and take care while training this behaviour. If possible I would seek a professional trainer to come to your home and help you, especially if this problem persists.