How to stop your dog guarding food and toys

Just like us, dogs can become worried if they feel that something they value greatly might be taken from them. The fear of losing a precious resource can lead to some dogs using aggression as a way of keeping the item within their possession. Guarding behaviour, which might include standing over something they value or running away and hiding with it, lowering their body while holding their ears back, and even growling as anyone approaches when they’re with their treasured item, is aimed at keeping that thing safe!

Understand why dogs guard

A dog eating out of a bowl It is important to understand that the main reason for guarding is fear, so taking items away from your dog and/or telling them off for guarding things is likely to make their behaviour worse in the long term! With scolding potentially adding to their anxiety, they might feel the need to protect those valuable things even more! So, what to do instead? Prevention is always better than cure!

We can prevent our dogs from feeling so frightened, by teaching them that we pose no threat to the things they love!  Dogs should be confident and relaxed, whatever is going on around them! Teaching them, right from the start of their lives with us, that there is no need to worry about losing anything they find valuable is an incredibly important lesson. It means they can always relax and enjoy the things they love without having to panic! We can even teach them to swap and enjoy giving up their precious things, in order to get more, ‘just-as-exciting’ treasures!

How to prevent your dog guarding food and toys

  1. Preparation!

You can help your dog by preparing some extra tasty treats – something they really like so they’ll very much welcome you bringing to them.

  1. Calmly and quietly drop some treats near your dog while they are eating from their bowl.

You don’t need to say anything at all or go right up to them – because this might make them worry. Just approach gently and scatter a few treats onto the ground near your dog.

  1. Once you’ve dropped the treats, walk right away again!

Your dog needs to understand they will be able to enjoy finishing their meal and having these additional bonus treats without any pressure at all.

  1. Repeat this whenever your dog is being fed from their bowl

Through doing this over and over, your dog will be learning to look forward to you approaching them while they’re eating and that there is no risk that you’re coming to take anything away from them – because you’re actually coming to make things even better for them!

  1. Progress to dropping food into an empty bowl

For their next mealtime, as long as your dog appears comfortable and doesn’t show signs of being worried when you have approaching, place their bowl down completely empty. Take a handful of their normal food, walk over to the bowl and drop it in for your dog to eat. Walk right away again so there’s absolutely no reason for them to become worried and as soon as they’ve finished return and drop in another handful of food! They’ll anticipate you approaching their bowl with good things happening as a result!

  1. Help your dog learn to SWAP their toys for other toys, treats and fun!

When your dog is playing with a toy, get something they like even more than that – perhaps a different or favourite toy, or some extra tasty treats – and offer this to your dog a little distance away from what they already have. They should be enticed to drop what they have and come to you to get their reward! They’ll be learning that it is a good idea to let go of things they are enjoying, because it means they’ll be replaced with something even better!

What to do

  • Remember not to tell your dog off for guarding anything as you’ll only add to their anxiety. If they have a toy or chew that they are guarding simply leave them alone with it and don’t approach. 
  • The first step is to see your vet to make sure there isn’t a medical reason for this behaviour, and for your vet to arrange a referral to a qualified and experienced Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist, registered with the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour and the Animal Behaviour and Training Council.

A dog standing over a toy  

There are lots more incredibly valuable skills you can teach your dog!

Want to progress and learn more? Got the training bug and fancy teaching your dog all kinds of useful behaviours? Find out about your local Dog School.

Learn more about dog training