Mine! Guarding in dogs

Dogs, Dog training, Dog behaviour

Why does my dog guard? 

Dogs guard what is precious to them, what is known as ‘high value’, but it will depend on the dog. For some it may be everyday biscuits, a chew, a toy or the sofa space. They may have learnt over time to be possessive of their items because previous owners have taken it away from them. Other dogs are simply very insecure and will guard items as a result of this anxiety. 

What does guarding look like?

  • Standing or leaning over the item – their body may go very still and frozen
  • A paw over the item
  • Whale eye – they are watching you and you can see the whites of their eyes (see the photo below)
  • Growling – a healthy warning signal
  • Taking the item away to create distance between you and the item e.g. your dog may go behind a sofa
  • Barking, showing teeth or snapping.

Food guarding

Food is understandably a high value resource to a dog as it is essential for their survival. Some rescue dogs have had periods of their life where they have gone without food.

Never make a dog’s meal time an area of conflict – food and treat times should be one of the highlights of their day! It is as simple as giving a dog space when they are eating and understanding the moment that we give the dog their food, it is theirs and needs to be treated as such. By giving dogs space we remove any issues arising, as aggression is only used by dogs to create distance. 

Old training ideas used to say that you should be able to take food away or touch your dog whilst they are eating to show 'who is boss'. These theories have been discounted. By removing your dog's food bowl all you are doing is causing your dog to anticipate that a human approaching their food is a negative and threatening thing.

What you should do

  • Give your dog space whilst they are eating
  • Never take food or treats away from your dog
  • Keep children away – use a separate room or gates
  • In multi-dog homes, let them have a bowl each and place them at a distance from each other

Positive association with the food bowl 

For dogs that have mild food guarding behaviours or show signs of feeling insecure when you are nearby when they are eating, the following tips will help alter this association and make them feel more comfortable. 

For the first few weeks in a new home, simply leave your dog completely when it is eating, it might be the dog is more comfortable being in another room altogether. This may be enough without further training, as over time your dog learns it can eat in peace. 

If you want to do more, hand feed your dog part of their daily meal to help gain trust, and teach them that you are a provider of food as opposed to someone who takes food away. Make sure you do this away from the food bowl to avoid conflict. 

Further training for those dogs who need it 

Find treats your dog loves, something of even higher value than their regular food like fresh meat or cheese. Sit on a chair at a distance your dog is completely comfortable with (which could be a long way away at first!), and every 5 seconds or so throw the treat towards your dogs food bowl. The idea is to be relaxed and not stare at your dog or pay any attention except for the second you are throwing the food. If you repeat this training every few days, you will find over time your dog will look excited to see you sitting there as they will have learnt very tasty food appears when you are in the room when they are eating.

The idea is to have your dog relaxed whilst you are in the same room as them eating - do not attempt to move really close or touch them – keep that trust that you have earnt! 

Guarding chew sticks and bones. 

In a similar way to the food bowl training, the best way to help a dog feel less anxious about having its possessions taken away is to give the dog space and privacy when eating treats. Depriving them completely will only make them higher value to your dog if they were to get hold of one.

Crate training can be a very useful tool to allow your dog to safely enjoy their favourite treats. Alternatively provide a safe place such as a utility room with a baby gate across the doorway, where your dog can curl up on their bed and relax with a chew stick. 

In a similar way to the food bowl training, if your dog is enjoying their long lasting treat in their safe place, then pass by and throw in an even higher value treat to create a positive association with a person appearing. Make sure you keep a lot of space so their room or crate remains a safe place for them to relax in.

Guarding toys 

It is important never to take anything from a guarding dog – always 'do a swap' so that you give them something back in return. 

To teach a swap, start when they have something they don't really care about and offer them something really good (tasty food, or a toy you know they adore) and say 'do a swap'. They should happily drop what they have to take what you are offering; then let them have the original thing back too. 

Keep practising this until they are happy to swap something they really care about. Make sure that you mix up the times that they gets the original thing back, and also vary the value of the thing you give (sometimes very high value, sometimes equivalent value to what they already have). Eventually you should be able to just say 'do a swap' without showing them the item/food you have first. 

Guarding spaces 

Never challenge a dog guarding a space – just leave them alone. If your dog is never challenged in this situation then they will become more confident and less likely to show these behaviours. 

You need to work with your dog to decrease the likelihood of guarding. You must build a good relationship with them, so that they know they can trust you. This means consistent interactions, and lots of reward-based obedience training as this will give you both a communication language that you can use. In locations where they potentially will guard, build up a positive assocation with you being around these areas by using high value treats (such as cheese, chicken or sausages). Do not do anything that they could perceive as threatening – do not approach them but throw food and then walk away.

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