Does your dog sometimes snarl and growl at you if you try to approach its food or come near the bowl? Does it make aggressive sounds or show its teeth in defense over the meal you’ve just served it? It occurs all the time with various dog owners, and it sometimes seems quite strange how for a moment, the dog values a plate of food over your friendship and starts to take drastic measures protecting it.
Why they feel the need to guard their food
Dogs do after all descent from wolves, and wolves are by nature wild animals. They have the natural instinct to hunt and work hard for their food, as well as guard it against other packs and predators. Protecting and fearing for the food is a natural behavior that dogs reflect. It may not be necessarily desired, to feel that your loving pet has the need to guard their food against you, but you have got to set your emotions aside and remember that it is only normal for them to behave this way. It is nature, survival of the fittest. Those who are able to preserve their food, become stronger and are more likely to survive in the wilderness.
The cases of resource guarding in dogs come in different levels; it can vary from being mild to extremely severe. A mild case would be the dog stiffening up if you happen to come near their food bowl. Some only exhibit that behavior while consuming the meal. In severe cases, the dog might lean towards more aggressive methods to keep you off his food such as biting and growling. This, however, is by no means an indicator that your dog is aggressive or has any anger problems. It also has nothing to do with disobedience, but merely a natural fear engraved in animals and does not change even after years of domestication.
A popular theory believed by many experts relies on the idea that dogs learn to act upon their instinct of guarding their food through competing with littermates while still at a very young age.
When puppies are newly born, the chances of them competing for food is high, as their main source of nurture is the mother and therefore, the supply is very limited. It is very simple, the puppies that have more to eat, grow quicker and stronger. Those gained aspects are perceived as a reward for the puppies; when they consume as much food as possible, they notice the strength they’ve won over others and learn that monopolizing food for thyself is rewarding.
The need to guard food can also derive from insecurities gained as a puppy. When young dogs compete for food, they know what it’s like to be deprived of resources and develop the need to secure their nutrition. It is no indicator that a dog has gone through abuse or deprivation as a puppy, but is a merely gained trait when growing up with littermates.
Another theory suggests that dogs adopted from animal shelters tend to have a higher rate of food guarding than others. That may be the result of shelters being a stressful living environment. At home, dogs know where the food is, even if they can’t directly reach it. They see you eating all the time, and know how to communicate with you to ask for food when hungry. After all, they live with you and have an established emotional connection and trust. In shelters, the living conditions are different, the workers change all the time and the dogs have no clue as to when they are receiving their next meal. This uncertainty arouses anxiety in them and may lead to them always protecting their food even after the environmental change.
Due to this discovery, many shelters have adopted fitting feeding programs to help decrease the need for food guarding developed by sheltered dogs. The shelters that follow that program have given their dogs access to filled food bowls at all times to ensure the dogs know that they are receiving nutrition consistently.
Another theory claims that genetics may be the main influencer of food guarding instinct in dogs. We know that genes play a big role in behavior and certain characteristic traits, but whether it also influences food guarding is yet an undiscovered subject that remains unresearched. Genes cause some dogs to develop a natural herding instinct, and the need to guard their place against possible threats or predators.
The field of dogs being overprotective of their food still lacks professional research and theories can only be supported by a chain of logical facts. The behavior is found in all breeds, with no exception to a particular breed or size is more prone to food aggression than the other. The theory remains that genes may play a role in increased food guarding, but not the exact cause of its existence.
Whether your dog shows signs of mild food aggression or extreme ones, the most important step to dealing with the situation is to be understanding and just try to perhaps eat besides your dog and get inside their bubble of protectiveness. At that moment all they see is their bowl of food and an intruder. Try to show it that you have no interest in taking it away, perhaps by getting closer step by step and adding more into a bowl, your dog will see you again as the helping hand. In severe cases, consult a professional trainer. So long as you are patient and understanding with your pup, the behavior can be modified by time and training.