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Whether you adopt your puppy from a shelter or bring him home from a reputable breeder, each and every puppy has a different personality. While this is mostly dependent on genetics from his mother and father, sometimes environment can also lend a hand in rapidly embedding certain behaviors and habits into your puppy’s personality. This can include things like anxiety or nervousness and other issues like aggression or rough play.
One problem, in particular, that might rear its head early on is what’s known as “resource guarding”. When a puppy is allowed to be raised with his littermates, there can sometimes be competition for resources like food, especially in a larger litter. This can evolve into growling, snapping, and biting in order to be the first to claim - and keep - the food that is available. Unfortunately, some owners can bring their puppy home with this problem without realizing it, wondering why he doesn’t seem to like when they interrupt his meal.
Resource guarding is a serious issue that plagues many dog owners from the newbies to the most experienced. It can present itself as a minor issue or a serious one, but the good thing about catching the behavior when your dog is still in its growing stages is that it's much easier to manage or fix. As soon as you notice resource guarding begin to happen with your pup, it’s important to start intervening in his training right away as getting rid of the habit can still take anywhere between three to six weeks of hard work.
Whether your puppy is receptive to training or stubborn in his ways, remember that resource guarding is a natural behavior. Verbally or physically punishing him for behaving naturally will almost always backfire. Desensitization and counterconditioning - training tools which help your pup realize that good things happen when people are near his food - are much more reliable and humane ways to help break your puppy of his resource guarding behavior.
The most important thing in your arsenal for resource guarding training is a container of high-value treats. Tasty, smelly foods like bits of real meat or other interesting snacks like dog-safe peanut butter, baby carrots, bananas, or sweet potato. Double check that any treat you offer is safe for your puppy to eat and keep it in a container in the refrigerator for quick access during meal times. These treats will come in handy when it comes to training your dog to realize that having people near his food is a good thing.
The Mild Method
Assess your puppy’s comfort level
Your puppy may be more comfortable with you farther away. Determine how close you can get before he reacts or begins to protect his food. This will be your starting point.
Remove the bowl from the equation
Start by removing the food bowl during the initial meal time training sessions. The bowl itself can sometimes be a trigger for resource guarding.
Offer food from your hand
Offer your puppy meals from your hand. Unless he is particularly timid or fearful, he will likely be more than happy to take food from your palm.
Provide positive reassurance
Offer plenty of affection, pets, and relaxed verbal praise during feeding times to build a positive association with you being around your puppy’s food.
Gradually shift to regular feeding
When your puppy is reliably feeding from your hand with no issues, start to gradually reintroduce the bowl for every few meals until he can eat from the bowl with you nearby.
Continue positive reinforcement
Repeat the process of offering positive reinforcement with affection and praise during regular meal times.
The Moderate Method
Never push your puppy past the point of no return. If she has set her comfort level, respect it as a starting point and keep your distance until she is ready to progress.
Use relaxing body language
Being tense or stressed out can be picked up easily by your dog. Try to keep these training sessions calm. If you’re not feeling up to it, walk away and come back at a better time.
Offer tasty encouragement
Gently toss tasty treats into your puppy’s bowl from afar. Keep this act random and ensure that the treats are particularly appealing.
The more often you do this and the more random it is, your puppy will anticipate good treats whenever you are near her food and be more willing to let you in closer to deposit these treats.
Close the distance over time
Every day, consider moving just a little closer, continuing to toss treats into your puppy’s bowl. If your puppy struggles or reverts back to guarding, go back to the distance at which she was last successful and try again.
Take your time to build trust between you and your puppy. Trying to rush training can sometimes cause her to relapse and misbehave once again.
The Extreme Method
Watch for body language
Puppies that are extremely aggressive over resources will generally give off obvious signs. Baring teeth, a tense stance over the bowl, growling, or staring at you will almost always mean that there is an extreme level of discomfort. Keep an eye on this at all times.
Obey the growl
Growling is your puppy’s way of telling you to back off. A dog whose growl is not obeyed is liable to begin to snap and bite. Take the hint when he begins to growl and put distance between you.
Separate during meal times
Place your puppy in a separate room or space during meal times to avoid incidents over food. This will especially be necessary if he guards his food from other animals or small children.
Set your puppy up for success
Never place your puppy’s food in the middle of a busy room or where there are frequent visitors. Avoid placing him in a position to cause injury to someone over his food.
Seek professional assistance
When all else fails, consider consulting a professional trainer or behaviorist with more experience in resource guarding, as the behavior can quickly escalate and cause larger problems.
By TJ Trevino
Published: 03/29/2018, edited: 01/08/2021