Can I stop my dog from guarding her food and toys?
Yes. But first, for your safety, a quick snapshot of what guarding looks like: Dogs with food or toy aggression often display stiffened body postures when a person or animal approaches their food or valued possession. Many dogs will also growl or snarl. Some will even snap or bite. It’s important to gauge body language before approaching any dog who is eating or chewing.
A behavior specialist can help determine whether your dog’s guarding is a major or minor problem by asking about her behavior in other situations. Does she also show signs of aggression when moved off of her favorite resting spot? Or when petted? A specialist will ask about the frequency and severity of the behavior as well, and thus assess risks to your family.
Treatment begins with developing a safety plan to reduce the chances that your dog will behave aggressively. Please note that there is no way to completely eliminate that risk. With effort, it can be drastically reduced, but most behavior problems are considered “successfully managed” over the long term, not “cured.” The safety plan may include steps that are as simple as putting your dog outside (or behind a closed door) when she eats her dinner or chews on her favorite toy.
With some dogs, this problem is resolved by reducing the value of the item. For example, if your dog guards Nylabone chew toys and attacks anyone who goes near hers, you may be able to solve the problem by providing your dog with an abundant supply. Place ten Nylabone toys around the house, as this makes the toy less valuable. If there is a greater supply, there will potentially be less demand. (Know that this is not a surefire solution–some dogs will collect and protect all ten toys.)
For the dog that does not respond to the law of supply and demand, or for more serious cases, the problem is treated by teaching the dog that she does not gain anything by her unacceptable behavior. Several techniques can be used to reduce the stress and anxiety related to the item and teach the dog to share valuable items rather than behave aggressively around them. This type of treatment is most likely to be successful if done under the guidance of a professional behaviorist.