Food Guarding: How to Address This Behavior in Dogs

Sometimes, when a dog owner fills their dog’s food bowl up with food and water, an otherwise gentle or laid-back pooch will display signs of aggression. This behavior is called “food guarding,” and it’s an instinctual response that’s rooted in dogs’ evolutionary history. The main reason behind your dog’s behavior is their impulse to protect valuable resources and ensure that they won’t lose them. But although food guarding is crucial for surviving in the wild, it may not be a healthy or safe behavior in the household.

If left unchecked, excessive food guarding can lead to problems like aggression, stress, and potential risks of injury for both humans and other pets. As a responsible dog owner, it’s your duty to understand what induces food guarding in your dog and address any underlying problems that come with this behavior. Below are some steps for addressing food guarding and creating a safe and harmonious environment for your dog, yourself, and your other pets when it’s feeding time.

Signs of Food Guarding in Dogs

First, you’ll want to know exactly what constitutes food guarding behavior in dogs. That will make it easier to stop it from getting any worse. The most common signs of food guarding in dogs are the following:

  • Growling
  • Freezing or becoming unnaturally tense
  • Holding a rigid body stance, with head and tail raised
  • Snapping or lunging

Raised hackles

  • Making side glances or direct stares
  • Consuming food more quickly for fear of it being taken away

It’s natural for a dog to want to protect its resources, so take note that the desire to guard food isn’t bad in and of itself. You must take extra precautions, however, if you have kids or other animals in the household who are at risk of getting hurt when food guarding is taken to the extreme.

Concrete Steps to Address Food Guarding

If your fur baby is expressing any of the behaviors above when it’s mealtime, all to the point where you know it could be worrisome, here are some things you can do to ensure that food guarding won’t escalate:

Gradual Desensitization

Gradual desensitization is a valuable technique to modify food guarding behavior in dogs. Start by standing at a distance where your dog feels comfortable while they’re eating from their dog stainless steel bowls, and slowly and incrementally decrease the distance over multiple sessions.

Before closing the distance between you and your pet, ensure that your dog remains calm and relaxed so as not to startle them. While gradually approaching them, offer your fur baby high-value treats or rewards to create positive associations with your presence during mealtime. This process helps your dog understand that you pose no threat to them and that their precious food is safe from thieves.

Establishing a Feeding Routine

Next, establish a set feeding routine to give your dog structure and predictability around mealtimes. This will make it easier for them to cope with the uncertainties of everyday life, reducing their anxiety and their need to safeguard their food.

Create a designated feeding area for your canine companion and ensure that family members and other pets maintain a respectful distance during meals. Again, employ positive reinforcement techniques and praise them or offer them treats while they’re eating.


Counterconditioning involves changing your dog’s emotional response to people approaching their food. As shown above, it’s possible for them to interpret your presence near their food as rewarding instead of unpleasant or even dangerous. This will allow them to reshape their guarding behavior into a cooperative and trusting response.

Try using the food exchanging technique to help your dog understand that when someone approaches them while they’re eating, that person isn’t an immediate threat to them. To implement this strategy, start by offering them a high-value treat or a better food item in exchange for your dog voluntarily giving up their current food. As you approach, use a cue like “trade” or “drop it” and offer the treat or better food.

Seek Professional Guidance

If the food guarding behavior persists or is too severe for you to tackle on your own, you’ll want to seek guidance from a professional dog trainer or behaviorist experienced in working with aggression issues. This is especially important if your dog has a condition like anxiety or is a rescue or shelter adoptee, as their trauma or condition may be behind their food guarding behavior. An expert will help you create a tailored behavior modification plan for your dog’s needs to ensure that this behavior is safely and correctly dealt with.

What to Avoid When Addressing Your Dog’s Food Guarding Behavior

Dealing with your dog’s food guarding behavior can be challenging, especially if your fur baby won’t cooperate. All the same, it’s important for you to keep your cool and remain patient, even when things get tough. Above all, avoid making the following mistakes:

Punishing Your Dog

Punishment can escalate fear and anxiety in dogs, potentially leading to defensive aggression and worsening the guarding behavior. It also damages the trust between you and your pet, and can have long-lasting negative effects on your dog’s overall well-being and behavior.

Provoking or Testing Your Dog’s Patience

Purposefully challenging your dog while they’re guarding their food can be dangerous and counterproductive. It may lead to an escalation of their aggression, putting both you and your dog at risk of getting hurt. Remember to respect your dog’s space during meal times and avoid actions that can trigger defensive responses. Ensure that there’s a calm and safe environment whenever you’re attempting to modify the behavior so that your dog won’t feel stressed during the process.


Free-feeding is when you leave food out for your dog at all times. This can actually worsen food guarding behavior because it eliminates structure and predictability around meal times, making it more challenging to address the guarding tendencies in the long run.

Overreacting or Displaying Fear

Lastly, overreacting or displaying fear when your dog exhibits food guarding behavior can inadvertently reinforce their behavior and create additional stress for both of you. Dogs are highly attuned to human emotions and can interpret fear as a confirmation that their guarding behavior is justified. Stay calm, confident, and assertive when addressing the issue. Establish an atmosphere of trust and stability, which will make your dog feel safe and secure.

Being able to address food guarding behavior in a respectful and consistent manner can help your dog develop a healthier relationship with food and the people or animals they interact with during mealtimes. Foster trust, practice positive reinforcement, and get the guidance you need so that feeding time for your dog can always be something to look forward to.



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Mandy is a mom to four beautiful girls with another on the way.
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