Guarding is a common problem. One study showed 20% of dogs growled or snapped whilst in possession of food or valued objects. Dogs may guard because they are fearful of losing a possession or guarding may be associated with loss of well-being or security leading to anxiety, frustration and anger. There are a number of factors that may increase a tendency to guard. There may be a genetic predisposition with combined with environmental causes, such as people walking past a food bowl too closely, children interacting with a dog whilst he is eating or another family pet in close proximity.
Taking your dog’s dinner away from him to show him ‘who is boss’ is not a good solution. This assumes your dog understands why his dinner is being removed and may cause anxiety to build up over time. Imagine a scenario where you are enjoying a Sunday roast and someone removes the plate from under your nose. While you might tolerate it, you may not be best pleased and over time the urge to protect your dinner may become stronger. On the other hand if your dog growls when you approach his dinner or a prized possession and you, understandably, back away, your dog learns that guarding behaviour is effective. Successful behaviours tend to be repeated.
Your dog needs a safe place where he can eat undisturbed. If there are children in the household, feed your dog in a covered crate where he cannot be interrupted. Teach your dog that hands around food mean something positive is about to happen by hand-feeding him (using a flat ‘pony-feeding’ hand), holding a Kong for him to eat from or placing several morsels of much higher value in his food bowl when he is eating. The person that brings you more gravy, second helpings of Yorkshire pudding and chocolate dessert will be very welcome indeed around your dinner table. See how your perception of someone approaching your dinner has changed!
Gundogs in particular have a strong urge to hold objects. If your dog is carrying your favourite pair of slippers, swap these for a toy or treat. Exchanging valued possessions avoids conflict. A dog who has objects continually taken from him without a replacement being offered may become more possessive over time. Pick up objects from the floor that may be guarded and manage your dog’s environment carefully, especially in a multi-pet household.
The old adage that prevention is better than cure prevails. Even if your dog doesn’t appear to have guarding issues, it’s never too soon or too late to teach him good manners around his food and possessions.
If you are worried about your dog’s guarding behaviour, please talk to your vet or seek the advice of a suitably qualified behaviourist.
This article, along with a selection of others about behaviour and training, is available in our Dog Blog booklet. This can be purchased for £2 and is available as a paper copy or downloadable e-book. All proceeds to Irish Retriever Rescue.
If you would like to sell any copies of the Dog Blog for your rescue organisation, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.