By Tracie Korol
Perhaps this scene has happened at your house: TinyDog, 7 pounds of orange fluff, grabs the meaty bone and drags it under the coffee table. BigDog, 75 pounds of mixed-breed approaches, eyeing the bone with intent. TinyDog lets out a dangerous growl much more ferocious than thought possible from something the size of a bedroom slipper. BigDog backs off and you chuckle at the little drama. We in the animal communication world refer to this behavior as “resource guarding”.
A dog that defends his food or a treat from other dogs is exhibiting completely normal and appropriate canine behavior. In the wild, where food equals life, the dog who gives up his food is a goner. Dogs usual subscribe to the “possession is nine-tenths of the law” philosophy, so it’s generally not worth the risk of injury to argue over a scrap of food or a bone. It all works out in the end, pack-wise.
While resource guarding is acceptable and understood behavior, dog-to-dog, it is far less acceptable when it’s directed at us. For our own safety we want dogs to understand that everything they have is really ours. I call it the “I have thumbs (and you don’t)” principle. But dogs are confused by our ignorance of the “nine-tenths” rule. Nice guys that they are, they’ll accede possession to their owners without fuss, most of the time. But, every now and again, our Best Friend may aggressively assert ownership rights to a precious toy, a tasty treat or a bowl of food. Then we have a problem.
Generalized food guarding is the most common manifestation and often the most dangerous as it’s almost impossible to control the presence of food in a dog’s environment. No matter how diligent you are, your dog will find the half-cookie between the couch cushions, the desiccated chicken bone on the street or the kitty deposit under the shrubbery. We’ve all yelled, “drop it! dropitdropitdropit!” while the dog clamps down even tighter, plants his feet and shoots you The Look. When this happens it’s obvious he is not comfortable with you in his “space”.
Here are some levels of guarding behavior to watch for:
Level One: Ideally when you approach your dog’s bowl, he’ll stop eating, wag a bit and lean in to greet you. He’s letting you know he does not perceive you as a threat to his dinner, or if he does, he doesn’t care. He’d be happy to share.
Level Two: A slightly less perfect reaction to the same scenario is that Dog looks at you, wags, and continues to eat.
Level Three: If Dog is a little uncomfortable about your distance from his food, he’ll tense his body. He may still wag. Watch the speed of the wag, though. If the speed of the wag increases as you get closer, paired with the tension in his body, he is communicating your presence is making him uncomfortable.
Level Four: As his discomfort escalates, so does his body language and behavior. At this level you’ll see a glare (The Look) or the whale eye, perhaps a bit of a snarl, or a low growl. He’ll start eating faster to prevent you from getting any of his food.
Level Five: If the food is portable, he’ll carry it away from you — under a table, into his crate — and growl at you from there. If he can’t pick it up, he may nudge it away from you if you continue to approach.
Level Six: A serious food-guarder is liable to put some teeth into play at this point. A snap is the next step. No contact with flesh, but a blatant message of “don’t touch my stuff!”.
Level Seven: Here’s where the threat to your safety, or the safety of a passing child, becomes deadly serious. This may be the actual break-the-skin bite. Contact is hard and fast and pretty scary. It may also consist of a series of bites up the transgressor’s arm. In kennel, I learned this lesson the absolute hardest way when I attempted to remove a wastebasket full of old dog food from the attentions of a determined, (intact, I might add), Tervuren. There is absolutely no warning and, man, does it hurt.
Level Eight: Severe food guarding can be triggered at a distance. At this level, even a person’s presence on the other side of the room can escalate very quickly.
Rehabilitating a guarder can take a huge commitment of time, resources and emotion. I applaud responsible dog owners who are willing to make the commitment required and I cheer when I receive reports from those who have been successful in getting their dogs to share.