Some dogs, like people, learn to live by the code that what is theirs is theirs and what is yours is theirs as well. Resource guarding exists because the dog sees a vital resource and is attempting to keep it for himself. It also exists because it is, in great part, a learned behavior.
While a dog may have a genetic predisposition to have a stronger personality, most aggression is learned. A dog is reinforced for low level aggression (usually unintentionally) and therefore learns that it works. A young dog who squirms, screams and nips when someone tries to groom him, is often rewarded by the person stopping. As a result, the dog learns that behavior works to make the grooming stop. As the dog matures, this squirming and screaming may progress to growling, air-snapping or actually biting.
The dog has learned to behave aggressively. If a behavior is unpredictable, it can be very difficult to modify. However, as a learned behavior, many aggression cases have a predictable pattern and can therefore be modified. That is often the case with food bowl guarding.
Some believe that pups who come from very large litters may have a stronger tendency towards learning aggression in regards to feeding since they have more pups to practice on, the dam presumably has less time to school each pup, and the pups are often taken away from the dam sooner due to the strain on her. But, from my experience aggression cases are most predictable with dogs that are raised in homes where there is a failure to practice good manners and handling and gentling exercises every day on a regular basis.
When the first signs of aggression are presented they are usually not recognized as such, or are simply ignored as a stage. When the family eventually attempts to remedy the situation, the method of choice is often in the vein of fighting fire with fire. Reprimanding a dog with verbal or physical reprimands may temporarily blunt the behavior. But, in most cases this essentially creates a sort of ticking time bomb in regards to the dog’s propensity to eventually cause harm. The dog may not behave aggressively with some people (i.e. an adult in the home), but may perceive other adults or children as adversaries.
When dealing with any aggression issues it is wise to work with a professional who can guide you and your dog on a path towards having a mutually cooperative, trusting, and loving relationship without aggression on either end. A general ‘Learn to Earn’ program, where the dog is requested to offer a behavior such as sitting, lying down, or hand targeting, in order to earn each thing he wants is a great first step. But, most importantly, you must implement careful management to prevent harm and further practicing of this behavior. Keeping the dog on leash when you are there to supervise, and keeping the dog away from environments and situations where he is likely to practice aggression is an absolute must.
In regards to food bowl guarding, some of the steps we suggest (again, in a program that is supervised by a qualified trainer) are as follows:
1. Dogs that are free fed and/or fed on demand may be more likely to have food bowl aggression issues. So, plan 2-3 feeding times a day in areas of the home where aggression hasn’t occurred. Use a flat plate instead of a food bowl and during this period of behavior modification, keep the dog on leash when supervised, particularly at feeding times.
2. Begin by having the dog’s feeding plate on an elevated space (a high table or cupboard) and offer one piece at a time from your hand.
3. After about a week, have the plate with food elevated and put another plate on the ground where you can drop one piece at a time. This is a superb way for a dog to learn that a hand reaching for a feeding plate is there to deliver food.
4. In week two, put the empty plate on the ground and say ‘thank you’ as you reach to pick it up and offer your dog a piece of his food from your treat pouch. For some dogs, tossing the treat to the ground a bit away from the empty food plate is advisable.
5. When you and the trainer you are working with feel your dog is ready, you can progress to approaching the empty plate before picking it up. When he is done, say ‘thank you,’ reach to take it away and offer another bit of food from your treat pouch.
6. You can also work on exercises where the dog is called to you while you hold an empty plate off the ground. When he gets to you, place one piece of food on the plate and tell the dog he can take it. As you gradually progress, place the plate lower to the ground before putting a bit of food on it.
7. An additional exercise is to put three plates on the ground and put a few pieces of food on one plate. As he is eating, move to another plate a few feet away. Call your dog to you when he is done and put a few more pieces on that plate and then repeat with the third plate. In this way your dog is learning to earn the food (by coming when called) and that people being near feeding plates is a wonderful thing.
8. Teaching your dog to hand target (see the hand targeting article on this site) so you have an effective and fun way to call him to you, is also advisable. Be sure that you mark (by saying yes or using a clicker) the moment your dog’s nose touches your hand, and follow it up with a small, but very high value reward.
In addition to these exercises, teaching your dog new behaviors to do on request (such as rollover, give paw, spin, etc.) will help continue to improve your dog’s understanding in regards to the cooperative and trusting bond that is necessary to the canine/human relationship.