How to cope when your dog guards food or toys
You know I’m old, so I grew up being told that under no circumstances should you interfere with your dog when it is eating. You knew that if you tried to stroke it or even go near it, you might lose your hand! Nice. I have to say that if you leant over me and tried to take food off my plate you might lose your hand too. So is that OK? Well, yes and no.
I think it is important to respect your dog and their space. Dogs must absolutely be able to get away from a situation that makes them uncomfortable. That might be to a quiet corner, or a bed, or a crate. Border Collies definitely love a dark corner.
When guarding becomes a problem
My dogs definitely do have favourite toys or bones. They might lie down with one tucked between their front feet, or under their head. Of course if someone has something they think is great, another dog will inevitably come along and try to take it off them. Usually that’s fine. Aura will absolutely complain if Quin wants to take something she has, but she won’t do anything, it’s just noise. I will tell him off – ‘Quin! Leave Aura alone!’ but I won’t do anything, it’s fine.
If Aura went for him though, I might intervene. I would call Quin away from her and shout at them both ‘Enough!’ If there was a real argument over toys and it happened on more than one occasion, I would make sure I didn’t leave them alone together.
Of course the biggest problem is when your dog won’t give something up to you. If they take something they shouldn’t, whether that is clothes or food, and then growl or snap if you try to take it. That is definitely something you need to work through.
Dogs are powerful predators and can be vicious if provoked. So mind how you go if your dog is challenging you for something. Don’t rush in and try and grab the object off them; you will probably lose!
First of all, play with your dog? Not when they are guarding something, but before that happens. If you regularly have engagement and interaction with your dog, they are much more likely to trust you and feel happier about you handling them.
When your dog plays with toys, you should be able to get the toy off them to throw it, or play some more. If you find this difficult, you need to try swapping the toy for a treat. Once this pattern is established, you are more likely to be able to do this with other articles.
No punishments, please
When your dog is doing something it is not supposed to, the temptation is to:
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for the dog. They are not able to understand the complex relationship between their actions and the consequences you have decided are appropriate. They won’t remember what happened last time and decide not to do something in case that happens again. Or if the punishment is severe, they might remember and make sure it doesn’t happen again by preparing to bite if approached. When should you punish your dog? Never. It’s your fault if they have something they shouldn’t.
Reward, reward, reward
My advice? Start by calling your dog away from the unwanted behaviour, to come to you and receive a treat or other reward. You might need to do this extra positively! Wow, how amazing, you came to me! Reward!
If that doesn’t work (it probably won’t) you need something more tempting. Yummy sausage? Squeaky toy? You running away shrieking excitedly? Try everything.
Personally, I give my dogs their food and they eat it. That’s it. I put it down in the same order, in the same place, at the same time. No tricks required. No funny business. I have to give Luna her insulin, so I don’t have time to mess around.
If you want to be able to pick up their bowl, in case you gave them the wrong food, for example, start by adding extra food to the bowl. Or throw some food near the bowl, wait for the dog to go for that, then pick up the bowl.
Be patient. Manage your own behaviour and expectations. I think you need to be calm, quiet and confident if you want to go near your dog’s food. If you are worried about doing it, don’t bother?
NB: DO NOT ALLOW CHILDREN TO INTERFERE WITH YOUR DOG WHILST IT IS EATING!
Yes, many dogs will tolerate their family members taking their food and toys, just as Aura lets Quin do it to her, but honestly, don’t push your luck?
Practice makes perfect
In conclusion, here are my tips for preventing food and toy guarding:
- Play with your dog regularly
- Handle them daily
- Practice ‘leave it’
- Swap the item for a treat
- Throw food nearby and wait
- Call the dog away
- Stay calm and quiet
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NB: I am not a dog trainer, or a dog behaviourist, just a dog breeder and owner. I can only offer my opinion, based on my experience.