Home Training Solving Problems Food Guarding

One question I receive quite often is about dogs growling over their raw food.  People ask if raw food makes dogs more aggressive.

The answer is NO.  The raw food doesn't make dogs more aggressive but it MAY make them want to guard their food from you – even if they have never shown that behavior before.

Think of it this way.  I give you $10 and then someone tries to take it from you by force.  How much of a struggle are you going to put up to keep that $10?  Now, what if I gave you $1,000?  You would be much more likely to fight to keep that amount of money.

It's the same for dogs.  Dry treats and kibble are worth $10 and raw meat is worth $1,000.  What you need to do is teach the dog that there is no REASON to try to guard the raw food from you.

I prefer a totally non-confrontational method of dealing with resource guarding because it does not increase the dogs behavior.  It teaches the dog that GREAT things happen when we approach their food bowl while they are eating.  My goal is to have the dog happily look up at me when I reach down towards their bowl.

If you are not feeding raw or don’t want to use raw meat for the training you can use cooked pieces of meat or cut up hot dogs

Please do NOT try to use plain dog treats or their own kibble.  The whole purpose of this training is that the dog learns the following:

“When I look away from the thing I have and do not react to my owner approaching me and touching that thing – I get something even BETTER!!”

The “even BETTER” part is the key.  It’s that difference between $10 and $1,000 and it needs to be in dog terms (plain kibble versus pieces of cooked chicken or hot dogs).

Here are the things you will need to get started:

  1. Half their normal raw meal or kibble in a bowl
  2. Other half of their normal meal (or equal amount of cooked meat or hot dogs), cut into small pieces, in a bowl
  3. Piece of colored tape (or something else to mark a spot on the floor)


Before we begin let me explain why I tell people NEVER EVER use force or or physically/verbally reprimand their dog for growling.  A dog have very limited ways to communicate with us humans - we are very poor at reading 'dogspeak' and understanding what they are trying to tell us.

Growling is one way for a dog to tell us that they do not like what is happening.  If the growl doesn't get the reaction the dog wants they will go to the next level in their communication - a snap or bite.

A growl is the precursor to a snap or bite.  It is a warning from the dog.  If you reprimand the dog for growling they may stop growling, but that means you have NO warning from the dog before they bite.  We need to understand why they feel the NEED to growl and deal with that issue - not the growling itself.

So, on to the training!

Step 1 – Find Their Threshold

To start you need to find the dogs’ threshold – how close can you get to the dog while they are eating before they react.

Let’s stop here and talk about that word – react.  When I talk about the dog reacting I don’t mean growling or baring teeth or snapping.  If the dog is doing that you have gone past their threshold and are WAAAY too close.  The reactions you need to watch for are subtle reactions that say the dog is uncomfortable with how close you are.

Look for the following signs:

  • Stiffening of the body – especially the tail and neck
  • Lowering of the head (getting closer to the object being guarded)
  • Slowing down or speeding up their rate of eating

So, give the dog their food bowl and walk away.  Grab your tape (or other floor marking device) and slowing approach the dog, watching for the signs.  Once you see any of those signs, stop moving forward, take one large step BACKWARDS and mark that spot on the floor.   This is where you will start your training.  (You take a step backwards so that you are not triggering the guarding behavior in the dog when you start your training.)

Step 2 – Prepare the Dog

Let the dog finish eating then take the bowl with the other half of their meal and walk up to the mark on the floor.  Wait until the dog looks at you then take a piece of food and toss it INTO the dogs empty bowl on the floor.  Wait for the dog to finish that piece and look at you before you toss another one.  Repeat this process until the food is gone.

You will repeat this process – give the dog half their food, wait for them to finish, wait for them to focus on you then toss food until all gone – for each meal for one week.  You should notice the dog starts to anticipate the additional food and looks to you before you start throwing.  That is just what you want – the dog associating you with more food.  If you don’t see this yet keep repeating this process until you DO see that anticipation (even if it takes several weeks).

Remember – dogs learn at their own pace.  One dog may pick this up in a few training sessions while another may take months.  The key is to go at the DOG’S pace and not push them past their threshold.  If you do you will have to go back and restart the training.

Step 3 – Working the Bowl

Now that the dog is anticipating you throwing the additional food after they have finished eating you will start throwing the food WHILE they are eating.

Set down their bowl with half their food and let them start eating.  Pick up the other bowl, take a piece of the food and approach your mark on the floor.

At this point if the dog looks up at you give LOTS of verbal praise and throw the food into their bowl.

If the dog doesn’t look up at you try calling their name (happily).  You want them to look away from their food for a second – just long enough for you to throw MORE food into their bowl.

Keep throwing food in WHILE they are eating but leave a couple pieces for after they have finished.

Keep an eye on your dog’s body for any of the threshold signs.  If you see any of these signs you need to move your mark on the floor back a couple feet.  Again – you don’t want to trigger the guarding behavior.

You will repeat this process – give dog bowl with half food, approach mark, wait for dog to look then throw some food WHILE they are eating – for at least one week.

You don’t want to move forward in the training until the dog is HAPPY to see you approach the mark and toss food to them.

Remember, you are throwing food INTO THE BOWL – not at the dog.  Try to avoid letting the dog catch the food before it gets in the bowl but don’t worry if they do.

Step 4 – Moving Closer

Once the dog is happy with you approaching the mark on the floor it’s time to move that mark closer to the dog.

You want to move that mark no more than 10% of the distance between where the mark originally was and the dogs bowl.  If you need to measure that distance, do it when the dog is NOT around (so they don’t worry about you near their bowl).  Let’s say the distance between where you started the mark and the dog’s bowl was 5 feet.  That’s 60 inches so you can move the mark forward 6 inches at a time.

There’s no downside to moving the mark forward too slowly but there IS a downside to moving it forward too quickly.  Remember – you want to avoid triggering the dogs guarding behaviors.

Make sure you move the mark when the dog is NOT around.

Step 5 – Repeat Step 3

Step 6 – Repeat Step 4

You will continue to repeat Steps 3 & 4 until you are standing next to the dogs bowl and throwing food while they are eating.

Remember – do NOT move your mark forward too quickly.  Only move it when the dog is comfortable with you being closer to them.

Note – this is where most people fail at the training.  They move forward too quickly.  If you go too fast and trigger the dogs guarding behavior you have to go back and start at the beginning – Step 1.  Take your time and go slowly.

Step 7 – Stop Throwing and Start Putting

Now that you are right next to the dog you want to start reaching towards the bowl when you ‘throw the food in it.  This acclimates the dog to having your hand approach their bowl while they are eating.

Again – GO SLOWLY!  There is a big difference (in the dog’s mind) between you standing near them while they are eating and you reaching for their bowl while they are eating.  Only lean down as much as the dog is comfortable with before throwing the food in the bowl.

Do this for each piece of food you have in the second bowl.  Yes, that’s a lot of bending but it gets the dog used to you bending over and standing up again while they are eating.

Keep repeating this process until the dog is comfortable with your hand right next to their bowl while they are eating.

Step 8 – Touch the Bowl

Now you will be using both hands and less food.  Give the dog about 75% of their normal amount of food and reserve the other 25% for this training.  Put the bowl with the additional food a few feet away from the dog (but up out of their reach).  A chair comes in handy for this.  Take a piece of food in one hand, walk up to the dog while they are eating, lean down and touch the bowl with the other hand WHILE placing the food in the bowl with the first hand.

The idea here is to show the dog that your hand touching the bowl means they get more food.

Stand up, walk back to the bowl, take another piece of food and repeat.  Try to repeat this 3-4 times before the dog finishes eating.  Always save one piece for AFTER the dog is finished eating.

Repeat this step at each meal for at least one week.

Step 9 – Take the Bowl

This step is similar to Step 8 with one difference.  You will take hold of the bowl and pull it SLIGHTLY towards you before putting the food in it and sliding it back to the dog.

Again, try to repeat this step 3-4 times before the dog finishes eating and once after they have finished.

If the dog shows ANY signs of stress when you start pulling their bowl away go back to Step 8 and stay there for another week.

Step 10 – Remove the Bowl

Just like Steps 8 & 9 but now you will pick UP the bowl, place the additional food in it and then put it back down for the dog.

Step 10 is the last step in this training program but not the last step in training YOUR dog.

At least once a week you should approach the dog while they are eating, pick up their bowl, put additional food in it and then give it back to them.

I personally like to give a name to this action.  I call it “Want More?”.  I usually start using those words around Step 7 – when I am putting the food in the bowl.

I say (in a very upbeat happy voice) – “Want MORE?” and then add food to their bowl.  This teaches the dog that when they hear those words they are going to get more food.  I want to reward the dog for looking away from their food to me – by giving them more food!


Going Forward

Please - never, ever, EVER stick your hand in your dogs bowl for no other purpose than to "test" your dog.  It's just plain annoying.  Your dog is trying to eat in peace and you are just bothering them.

Sticking your hand in their bowl in order to give them MORE food is always acceptable.

There may come a time when you HAVE to grab something from your dogs mouth - when they have something inappropriate and you need to remove it.  If the dog ALWAYS gets a treat when you reach for them while they are eating they have no reason to fight you the one time you have to take something from them.

And remember to ALWAYS give them something else when you remove the offending item!


One Last Thing

Along with this training I would HIGHLY suggest you also teach your dog the Leave It command.  This can come in very handy!!