By Sally Bradbury
Although this is written about puppies, it applies equally to adult dogs.
Preventing food guarding at mealtimes is easy. Allow puppy to eat in peace. If you have more than one dog, then feed them separately and teach them that humans near their food bowl are always there for the sole purpose of adding a tasty treat to the bowl.
Don’t be persuaded that you need to take your dog’s food away or put your hand in the bowl while they eat to make them tolerant because you risk doing exactly the opposite and triggering resource guarding.
What is slightly more difficult when you have a puppy is preventing guarding of found or ‘stolen’ items. Puppies tend to investigate everything they find by picking it up in their mouth whether that be stones from the garden, the children’s toys, or anything that you left within reach. This is particularly relevant to gun dog breeds because they are hardwired to pick up and carry and always want to have something in their mouth.
By forcibly taking items from your pup’s mouth especially if accompanied by getting a little cross with them for picking it up you are running the risk of teaching the puppy to avoid you, and when caught, to guard the possession that is now theirs and you are trying to steal.
The solution is to teach your puppy to ‘give’ so that you never have to ‘take’.
To do this sit on the floor with a pile of toys and encourage puppy to bring them back after you have rolled them away. By sitting on the floor, you are not tempted to move towards him. When he comes close while he is holding something, then tell him what a good boy he is while giving him bum or shoulder scritches. Do not put your hand near his mouth. Do not want what he has in his mouth.
He will probably drop the toy at some point and then you can throw it again. If he’s a foodie then a food reward for dropping is a good plan. Don’t use food as a bribe though. Only fetch it from your pocket after he drops the toy. Once he’s happily bringing toys and dropping them in your lap or your hand add in other items, coasters, tea towels, anything that he might like to ‘steal’. Then start working on him fetching stationary items as opposed to something you threw. Then generalise it to anywhere in the house. Leave things for him to pick up so that you can praise and reward him for doing so.
You should, if you approach this the right way, end up with a dog that will bring you anything he finds regardless of whether he should have it or not, while satisfying his need to find, hold and carry. Some people may consider it a chore to have your dog bringing things to you all the time but it’s preferable to ‘stealing and guarding’ and it can be toned down later if required by only rewarding if you ask him to ‘fetch’.
If your puppy is already guarding ‘stolen’ items, then it is important that you don’t leave anything dangerous or valuable within his reach while you work on the above. If he does get hold of something then either let him have it if it’s safe, or if it isn’t create a diversion such as a knock on the door, scattering food on the floor or getting his lead out for a walk. This will only work once or twice though so keep that for an emergency.
If your puppy is already guarding food, resting places, toys or even you, then please seek professional advice from a reputable force free trainer or behaviourist.
A short video on how to prevent your dog from being worried around food:
Preventing food guarding