Resource Guarding


Question

We recently adopted a young adult Yorkie; she has settled in well and we love her dearly. However, the problem with her is that she fiercely guards her food and becomes quite aggressive if any of our other animals or my husband and I go anywhere near while she’s eating. We’re not sure what the best way is to handle this behaviour and really need your advice. Please help.

Adele Potter – Cape Town

Dog Behaviourist Claire Atkinson answers…

Food guarding is quite common – and guarding may extend towards toys, bed space, and even people. From an early age, dogs learn to look after things they value, especially those that relate to survival. Thus, they may become fearful and insecure, resorting to guarding their food against other dogs and people. And it’s not just rescues that develop a resource guarding problem.

While growling is the most obvious sign that the dog is fearful and protective, they usually show other signs such as a tense body, stiff tail (even if it’s wagging) and hard, staring eyes. The good news is that resource guarding behavioural problems can be resolved – you just need patience, a calm atmosphere, and know-how.

Begin by managing the feeding routine. Allow the dog a safe space where she can eat alone, away from other animals and people. Consider feeding three times a day, adjusting the portions accordingly, giving more time each day to work on modifying the behaviour.

Once she is comfortable in her safe space, you are ready to start.

Holding high-value treats (i.e. something she really likes, such as biscuits or biltong), stand about two metres away and very quietly throw these one at a time into her bowl. Doesn’t matter if you miss; the idea is to let her know that your presence means good things happen. Watch her reaction – it should move from growling to relaxing and enjoying the treats. Then you can move closer, step by step, watching her reaction and retreating (but not completely leaving) if she shows signs of guarding. Don’t rush this process – make sure she is comfortable with each step. Still working slowly and throwing treats, start moving – one step at a time. Continue this process until she is relaxed (stopping if necessary). Then add in a short gentle touch to her flank. When she is comfortable, move the touching over her body, watching her reaction all the while. If she reacts by growling or moving away, stop and go back to her last comfort point.

The final stage, when you are able to touch her head, will be to put treats directly into her bowl, then your hand into her bowl, and eventually pick up the bowl.

By this stage, she should realise that any person near her bowl means good things are about to happen!

Further reading:

Dr Sophia Yin – Treatment of Food Aggression

Victoria Stilwell – Resource Guarding

Eileen and dogs – Resource Guarding video

Safety note: Do not allow children to approach an unknown dog or one with resource guarding issues while the dog is eating, or even to carry or give treats. No matter how friendly the dog is the rest of the time, it could snap or bite, and children often cannot read the warning signals. The above advice should only be attempted by an adult. Should the problem persist, call in the help of a reputable animal behaviourist.