Food guarding and how to deal with it


I watched a video this morning that got my blood boiling of a man supposedly assessing a foster dog’s reaction to people around its food. Not sure why he videod it except that he thought it would make a spectacle…

Whilst I commend the process of assessing a foster dog’s food behaviour so that you can better deal with any issues, the manner in which he went about it made me mad. It also makes me cross that the food guarding test is often the one test used in some shelters to assess whether a dog presents a risk or not and a perfectly great dog can have some persistent food issues.

About the video… First, from what I can tell, it’s a new foster dog. It’s afraid, it’s nervous. It comes with the baggage of abandonment and maybe behaviours that led to the abandonment. It’s living in a concrete run with no stimulation – the guy admits he even removes the dog’s bed! Food is perhaps the only variation in the day. Dogs in kennels can quickly become obsessed with food, like my beloved Hagrid at the refuge. The situation in itself isn’t comfortable for a dog when they’re in a new place eating and it sure isn’t easy to eat when things change. I often notice new dogs don’t eat for 24 hours or so and then are really hungry the next time food comes up. The guy in the video also brought in a huge bite sleeve. That in itself is another stressor. To a dog, a bite sleeve is just a big piece of crazy doodah if they’ve not seen one before. And why would you bring crazy doodah in when I’m eating my tea? Let me tell you something, my lovely readers… come and put some food for me and stand hovering around with crazy doodahs and then try and take my food off me and I’ll blacken your eye. And if you’ve seen a bite sleeve before and you know what it’s for, why, you may well have a thing about that too.

Plus, what also made me mad about this video is that the guy then “dominated” the dog (apparently a rescue in a facility he runs somewhere) until it gave up its food. The dog stood around looking uncertain and then went in the corner. Sure, it went for the guy (well, the bite sleeve) when he tried to remove the bowl, but after this, the dog just looked confused. Lots of nervous lip-licking and appeasement gestures. No aggression. The guy then called the dog a psychopath whilst the dog is kind of hanging about looking nervous and unsure. A psychopath!

Let me tell you about my psychopath. I got vet notes for her from the US that said she had seen a behaviourist for food guarding. Whether or not that was cured in the four years she had in her first home, I have no idea. She certainly guards food here. Try to remove a mouldy bread roll from the Tilly Trotter and you’ll get a ferocious and very nasty bite. Let’s try level 3 on Dunbar’s bite scale. That’s worse than Cesar Millan’s worst publicised dog aggressive food-based attack. Just so you know what you’re dealing with. She will fight with other dogs and has once (though not at mealtimes) fought with Amigo over food. She goes from lip curl to teeth showing to whale eye in microseconds.

Psycho number 2 is Amigo my sweetness. He had been on the lam for a while when he came to the refuge and refuge dogs can develop food issues as a result of their past. Whether they’ve been starved, whether they’ve been on the run, whether they find the stress a factor… it’s a reason he eats his food fast. Safer inside. But although he has good manners with me and mostly with other dogs, he will fight over food. He and Tilly have come to blows over accidental food finds.

So how did it ever get so that six of them can squash into a 3m x 3m kitchen to eat?!

Here’s some guidance that helps you overcome food issues with a newly introduced dog. Be mindful that the introduction of a new dog may also bring out the worst in your existing dogs.

  1. Pick up all food bowls and all food items and keep them out of reach. Food should always be supervised, if only from afar, if you are in any doubt over food-related issues. Be as safe with human food as you are with dog food. A dropped crust can easily cause a battle – more so than dog biscuits which just aren’t quite as thrilling. Accidents cause fights. A morsel of ham falling to the floor outside may not be something you’d think dogs would fight over, but it can be. Keep all human food and dog food secure when the dogs are not supervised or if they are home alone. Practise good food safety.
  2. Feed new dogs separately even if they are not food guarders. You should be able to tell from their posture as you approach if they are feeling hostile with your presence. A dog stopping eating and freezing in your presence is a dog who needs you to back off. Look for whites of eyes, stiffening of posture, stopping eating, tails tucked under, eyeballing you, scrunching the nose and any groans, using their body to cover the food bowl, growls or teeth baring. Severe food guarders will exhibit these signs from some distance if they are cautious about your approach. If you don’t have to approach your dog until they have finished eating and the bowl is empty, you may never, ever see food guarding. The more comfortable a dog feels when eating, the less likely they are to need to guard what they’ve got. Notice speed of eating as well. Dogs who gobble food can be possessive over food. A slow, relaxed pace and no signs of distress, stopping or stiffening should mean you can approach the dog gradually. For this, I’ll generally place the dog’s food in the same spot each day and each day, I’ll get a little closer when they are eating. I don’t care if it takes me a week or two to test if I can stand beside them whilst they are eating. I’d rather go slow and help a dog feel comfortable with me around their bowl than move in as soon as a dog is just starting to eat and try and remove food in order to provoke a reaction.
  3. To ensure dogs feel comfortable with humans around their food bowl, it’s best to do this where your new dog feels safest – and that might be just for that one dog if they are showing issues with you and their food bowl. All you do is drop more high-value food in or near their bowl! It’s that simple. If they know that your hand coming towards their bowl is a positive thing, they won’t be stressed about your approach. You can see it here in this video with a dog who has very mild food issues.

    You can phase it out over time. I don’t do it for 95% of the time, but I do take a day every three weeks or so to do it so that I can gauge reactions and make sure there are no emerging issues. Every person who lives in the house should do this too so that the dog is used to all humans approaching, along with their different gaits.

  4. If you notice a lot of issues around food and you are worried about the approach, then build in some food manners. In this video, you’ll see Emily from Kikopup training a young dog to stop mugging people. I did the same with Hagrid, a food-obsessed Malinois with low bite inhibition, so don’t think it’s impossible just because you have a big, bitey dog. He’s learning ‘wait’ and to take food without grabbing. It’s not good video because he’s been learning it for six weeks. But I don’t get bruised hands these days, not nearly as frequently.
  5. Start apart and gradually bring dog food bowls closer if you intend to feed your dogs together. For all of my fosters or new arrivals, no matter how gentle, I feed them separately first. My dogs are happy to wait until the others have been fed in a separate room as I have done lots of things to make them okay with food and meal-times. You want to give your new dog time to feel safe around your own dogs. Introducing them on the first day may lead to drama, and even the first week is too soon. Mealtimes are among the most stressful times for dogs in multi-dog households. I generally take about a month to introduce dogs to the same room, longer if necessary and quicker (but not much) if they accept it.
  6. If you have children, they should be taught that they never, ever approach a dog’s bowl or a dog when they are eating, a dog with a chew, a dog with a toy. A child has a rational thinking brain, science would have you believe. A dog does not. Train your children, not your dog and you’ll notice that issues clear up. Children should not be encouraged to walk around with food or to leave food in reach of dogs. Dogs should be away from children when the children are eating – it is NOT cute for a dog to sit beneath a high chair waiting for accidents – and children should be away from dogs when the dogs are eating. If you want to get your dog used to taking treats from children, by all means seek the advice of a professional dog trainer, so that the dog understands that children may feed it in reward for behaviours. Dogs should be taught a reliable “leave it” and how to exercise restraint around youngsters who have food in their hand, but never expect that to be reliable. Food, dogs and wandering children are a poor combination.
  7. Be mindful of who has to wait to eat and who gets served immediately. Although it is good for dogs to have variety, they also need routine. Having the same spot for eating, asking your dogs for a sit/stay before food (which I do with two of my boys) and feeding in the same rotation is helpful. Feed the most difficult dogs first until you can do a bit of work with them, and make sure they have plenty to stop them going raiding others’ bowls. My dogs have different medications and different foods, which makes it doubly important they only eat their own.
  8. Teach your dogs to leave the kitchen space as soon as they have finished. Mine usually do but the additional dogs make it a little too congested to leave easily. Pick up bowls as soon as they are finished. Don’t leave food down if the dogs haven’t finished it all. Dogs in multi-dog households will very rarely only eat their fill if food is left down for them and if dogs are sterilised or castrated, it’s also important to watch their weight. You can’t do this if they’re eating freely all day.
  9. No matter what rubbish you’ve heard on television or you’ve seen on the internet, you don’t need to eat before your dogs. If your dogs are never fed human food from the table, any begging behaviour will soon become extinct. One dog did have mild guarding issues on arrival here, having been fed from the table, but rewarding her for calm behaviour moments worked very quickly, as well as ignoring any guarding worked well. I also isolated her at my meal times and gave her a stuffed Kong in the kitchen. Of course, it’s much easier if they never learn to eat human food at your mealtimes! You eating before your dogs is meaningless to your dogs. If you want to eat before them, then fine. You might want to feed them first and then eat, simply because they’re likely to settle down and digest whilst you’re eating and it’s less likely to result in begging behaviour if they are full.
  10. If you find, like my little minx, that your dog is full but doesn’t want to leave some scraps in the bowl unprotected, distract and refocus. You can see that in the Paws video – the dog leaves the food to trot after the owner who is certain to have much better food! Get a sit and reward, sprinkle some tiny treats on the floor, then safely retrieve the remnants. Distract and refocus is a great technique for any dog who hovers over a bowl and guards the remains. I have a habit of putting her food bowl out of the way but in a place she can see it. I regularly feed her any leftovers during the day so that she isn’t hungry or fixated on what was left.

If you have a dog with severe food issues around you or around other dogs, seek the help of a qualified canine behaviouralist. It is not common but there are dogs who would kill another over a spilt biscuit and who will need to be fed separately for a very long period of time. Separate is safe. Most dogs however do not have this level of aggression around food, and although they not feel safe eating around others or around you, they will feel much more comfortable given time.

Attached is a short video of my four dogs eating their dinner alongside two guests who have been here for three weeks. They all have different food because there’s some old pensioners in here, so it’s really important they eat and take their medication without swapping bowls or feeling too stressed to eat. I feed them twice a day. Tobby and Mimire are fed first. I feed Mimire first because he is blind and he inadvertently bumps other dogs who are excited. Also because he takes so long. I feed Tilly next since she is most likely to stick her head in another dog’s bowl. Then Heston and Amigo, who are used to sit-stay and have patience that I’ve trained them to have. Finally Fefelle because he is not so interested in food and he has good manners. He hasn’t got a sit, but he’s happy not to stick his snout in another dog’s bowl.

As a final word, don’t believe that you have to bully your dog into submission before you can let them eat. We can’t digest food if we are stressed, and dogs are the same. Either they will go without because they are afraid, or the food may sit in their stomach, risking gastric bloat. Mealtimes should be peaceful and non-arousing. Dogs who are over-aroused around food need help, not bullying. If you’ve ever felt the beady eye of a waiter on you in a restaurant waiting to close, you’ll know full well how uncomfortable someone hovering can be. Don’t be a source of stress to your dogs. Eating is a basic physical need and a dog deserves to feel secure. That security doesn’t come when an idiot in a bite sleeve is hanging around to make a video for his Facebook feed to show what a big man he is. Even dogs who have horrendous issues around food or become fixated on food can learn good food manners, I promise!