Instinct tells a dog to protect his food. However, it's important for you to have complete control over what goes into your dog's mouth. Part of this is for safety. If your dog starts to pick up something dangerous or deadly, such as rat poison, you need to be able to get it away from him without losing your fingers. However, access to food is also a dominance issue: When your dog responds by taking his food or dropping things out of his mouth on command, he is recognizing you as the dominant dog. Food guarding is a frequent trigger for dog bites, too. Therefore, the sooner you can establish that you and other family members are the ultimate authority when it comes to meals, the better off you'll be.
If your food guarder is still a puppy, you need to let him know everything he gets comes through you: food, toys, even petting. Tell your puppy to sit or lie down before you feed him, and make him wait until you give the release word, such as okay or take it, before he starts to chow down. If he comes up and nudges you for attention, use the same tactic to make it your initiation. He should also learn it's okay for you to touch him while he eats, so give him a pat when you put down his dish, and make it a habit to add a little food to his bowl while he's eating. This way, when you are near his food dish, it is always a happy occasion.
Location means everything when you feed your dog. If he's off in a corner, he may feel more possessive than if he were eating in a more spacious area with room to move around. Practice giving him food and taking it away. To do this, give your dog very small portions at a time. Each time he finishes a serving, take his dish away and refill it with another small amount until all his food is gone. As you take away and replace the dish, praise him for being a good dog. Once he's responding well to having his dish removed and replaced, move on to the next step: adding the food to his dish while it's still in front of him. Let him eat some of the food while you're off doing something else, then walk up and add something special to the dish, such as a piece of hot dog or a liver treat.
Let's get one thing clear, though: All this is so you have the ability to control what goes into your dog's mouth. Practice these techniques now and then so you can maintain your dominance relationship with your dog. The most important thing to remember is not to pester your dog while he's eating. Since most of Rover's meals should be in peace, teach all household members -- especially children -- that he is to be left alone at mealtime.
Guarding Other Possessions
Lisa is a working single mom with two young children, ages 4 and 7. She got their dog, Hugo, from the pound as a companion for her kids and protection for the house. Hugo is a sweet-natured dog, excellent with the kids. However, he often growls and bares his teeth at them when he has a toy. "I don't get it," Lisa told the behaviorist. "My kids can just walk into the room where he's sitting with his toys and he growls. He even brings a ball for them to throw, chases it, and then snarls at them when he brings it back!"
A dog who's possessive about possessions is making a statement -- you just need to make sure you're understanding it. In Lisa's case, part of the problem was a miscue on playing. Hugo loved to play fetch, but after several rounds of running down a tennis ball, he just wanted to lay down and chew. Unfortunately, the children thought his flopping on the ground a few feet away was part of the game and would take the ball away and throw it again. Hugo learned the only way he could end the game was to act threatening.
In other cases, it's more a matter of dominance. Using the same techniques as for food guarding can be effective, but owners often need to be assertive in other ways, too. Keeping the dog on a leash -- even in the house -- sends a clear message that you're in control and everything is fine. Obedience-train your dog, and when he starts guarding a toy, issue a command, changing the focus from the toy to the behavior required. Praise him when he responds to the command (even if you had to correct him or use the leash to get him to do it). As part of his obedience training, every dog should have a command to stop him from picking something up or drop something already in his mouth. (Variations of this command are "Drop it!," "Leave it!," "Don't touch!," and "Out!")
If a particular kind of toy causes the green-eyed monster to visit your dog, dump it. Bones are especially likely to turn even the nicest dogs into jealous, possessive brutes. If your dog can't handle them -- or certain other toys -- don't give them to your dog. Don't forget to lavish your dog with praise when he does something right. Any time your dog turns away from a toy to respond to a command or lets you take something away, don't hesitate to tell him what a great dog he is. The amount of praise you give should always outweigh the number of corrections you make.
When to Call a Behaviorist
If guarding behavior becomes a recurring problem for your dog, an animal behaviorist can recommend the proper course of treatment. Once a remedy has been established, make sure all household members learn how to approach this problem.
Even if you enjoy it when your dog jumps up to greet you after a long day, some of your house guests might not. In the next section, we will learn how to keep your dog on the floor.