When a dog becomes defensive while eating food, chewing on a bone, treat or a toy we call it food guarding, food aggression or resource guarding. The dog is anxious and perceives there is a threat that the resource (food, toy etc) may be taken away.
Signs of food guarding include
-They become tense, stiffen their body (especially the neck and shoulder)
-They hold their head down and hunch over the item
-Their ears are often held back
-The eyes may widen so the whites can be seen, the pupils dilate their eyes might dart or stare
-The tail maybe held stiffly down or tucked under them
-They may lift a lip, growl, snarl, snap or try to bite.
The best way to deal with guarding is to prevent it in the first place
With young puppies:
– Always feed pets in a quiet calm location preferably away from the kids and high traffic areas of the house (e.g. the kitchen)
– Hand feed them initially making the first few meals a calm and positive interaction. If they have a very nervous temperament or high food drive hand-feeding (e.g. really gulp at the food) then hand-feeding may be stressful to them and can potentially make them worse, so give them space and leave them alone!
– Whilst they are eating, walk up watching their body language for a reaction and quietly drop a tasty treat (e.g. cheese) in or near the bowl and keep walking so they get used to people getting close when eating. Do this once or twice with every meal. If you get any signs of a reaction (food gulping, stiffening of the body, raised hackles, snapping etc) as you approach then again this is not recommended, instead use one of the techniques below.
In the “old days” people used to recommend taking the bowl away whilst puppies are eating and “mess around” with them whilst they eat. This is no longer recommended, it can exacerbate the problem as well as be dangerous – Nobody likes to be messed around with when they eat, including dogs!
For nervous dogs that show signs of guarding no matter what age:
-You can try counter conditioning -get to a distance away from the bowl they don’t get anxious and toss a treat and then retreat. With time (weeks to months) slowly try to get closer and closer. Always stay at a distance they don’t show any signs of anxiety. If you get too close and they start to show any signs of stiffening etc then retreat and next time stay further away. The aim is to reward non-anxious behaviour and let them tell you with their body language what distance they are comfortable with.
-The most effective, simple solution for very nervous dogs is to feed them behind a closed secure door. I.e. give them their own space! Once they have finished eating, let them out the room and then go in and clean up. Avoid giving them any long-lasting food treats (bones, chew treats) unless they can stay alone in the room until they are finished. If certain toys cause guarding, then just remove them when the dog is out on a walk or otherwise occupied and throw them away.
If there are children in the house hold it is even more critical to promptly avoid food/toy guarding. It is a serious problem
-Feed them locked away and remove all chew toys until you get the problem under control
-Contact a veterinary behavioural specialist in your area
-Teach your kids to leave dogs alone when eating and chewing on toys.