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Behavioural Series – Food Guarding

Behavioural Series – Food Guarding

Food guarding behaviour is a common problem reported by Dog owners and often causes significant concern. Dog owners fear that this behaviour will lead to physical aggression from their Dog and for those people who have children in the house this can be very worrying As with any aspect of Dog behaviour there is a significant amount of misleading information and dangerous advice available to owners and sadly such advice only serves to exacerbates the issue In this week’s blog we look at the reason for food guarding behaviour in Dogs and how this behaviour can be resolved.

In order to resolve this problem we first need to understand why it might be happening..

Why do Dogs guard food?

Food is an incredibly valuable resource to Dogs, as it is to any species, and it is natural that they should wish to ensure it is not taken away from them.
Food guarding takes place when a Dog feels that this resource is under threat from a third party. This can be person or another animal. Upon perceiving this threat a Dog will take steps to protect the resource from this third party.

How can food guarding behaviour be recognised?

Most frequently a Dog who is guarding food will adopt a defensive body posture and may even use vocalisation, growling, to warn the third party to stay away from the food. However, it is important to realise that each Dog is different and depending on their breed, age, previous experience of such situations, temperament and environment they may each choose a different way of addressing the threat they perceive to this resource.

It is also essential to understand that the warning signs that a Dog feels that their food is being threatened can often be very subtle and easily missed. For example, a Dog may choose not to growl, but instead freeze for a short time or even turn their head away from the third party while keeping their eyes turned in their direction. In any case if a Dog feels that their warnings are going unheeded they may then choose to escalate the behaviour. This is where eventually a Dog may resort to physical action such as snapping or in worst cases biting the third party.
As stated the strategies a Dog uses to protect their food are in part dependent upon whether these strategies have been successful in the past. For example, if a Dog has been in this situation before and they used growling as a warning and this stopped the threat, they are far more likely to resort to this tactic again. Furthermore, it should also be noted that not all Dogs will escalate the behaviour in the same way. For example, it does not always follow that a Dog will first adopt defensive body language, then growl and then lunge/snap and then bite. The order of behaviour will be individual to the Dog and some Dogs never escalate the behaviour to the point of biting.
As an owner it is essential to be aware of such behaviour however subtle

What not to do

As mentioned there is a lot of misleading information and inaccurate advice out there. One of the most common falsehoods is that if a Dog displays food guarding behaviour it is behaving in a dominant fashion and the owner must assert their status as pack leader or alpha to show the Dog who is boss.
The most common way of owners asserting their authority is to wait until the Dog is eating and then to take the food away from the Dog until the Dog submits Not only is this absurd it is actually incredibly dangerous

Firstly, Dogs do not see humans as members of a pack and they do not assign ranks to other people or Dogs. This misconception is a result of a study conducted many years ago which claimed that Dogs, having descended from Wolves behave in the same manner. The people responsible for this study later published evidence to the contrary and made efforts to correct their previous mistakes, but sadly it was too late and this misconception was already “common knowledge”
Dog owners, trainers and so called experts have been using this misguided understanding to handle Dogs for years and unsurprisingly it has resulted in the loss of lives of many Dogs and injuries to many people and children

We now know that Dogs see us as family members, as loved ones. They are well aware that we are not bigger Dogs and that we are a different species. Dogs are not in a constant battle with us for pack status or trying to dominate us.

When Dogs guard food it is because they do not wish for it to be taken away. As such, by taking the food away from a Dog who has displayed food guarding behaviour an owner is carrying out the very action that the Dog was most afraid of. The owner makes the perceived threat a reality for the Dog. The natural response of the Dog is to escalate or intensify the guarding behaviour next time.

What should you do?

Well, let us be the first to say that food guarding is a problem and there is no substitute for expert advice from a qualified Dog behaviourist. As such, you may certainly consider seeking advice from a professional who can guide you through how to resolve the problem for your Dog, but we can also offer are a few useful tips that might help.

Remove the threat

This does not mean that you simply accept or tolerate the behaviour, but just that you seek to change the Dog’s incorrect perception that you or a third party are threatening their food.

How do you do that?

A safe, quiet environment…Provide the Dog with a quiet and safe environment in which to eat their food alone, somewhere they feel secure that their food is not under threat from a third party and therefore do not need to resort to guarding

A calm approach to feeding

Some owners will make a huge fuss over feeding their Dog and naturally the Dog becomes excited at feeding times, their adrenaline levels increase and with this heightened level of energy they may become reactive to third parties. Keep feeding times calm, do not make a fuss. Keep children and other animals away
For their own safety it is important to keep children and other animals away from a Dog who has food guarding issues while the Dog is eating. It is also important to note that even if a Dog does not currently display food guarding issues, this advice should be followed in order to proactively stop the Dog from developing this kind of behaviour

Create a new understanding

It is important to show the Dog that you are not a threat to their food. Dogs need to be shown that your presence when they are eating is a positive experience. As such, when you do pass the bowl of the Dog who is eating you might wish to try throwing in another small treat from a distance. This shows the Dog that your presence is not a threat to their food, but actually the complete opposite. Over time and with repetition the Dog learns that when you approach their bowl good things happen.

We hope that you have found our latest blog informative. As ever the Wags Dog Day Care team are on hand to offer any further support you may need

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