A Scientific Approach Can Help You Solve Many Types of Possession Aggression, Part 1: Food Bowl

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By Dr. Sophia Yin

I have a puppy who has had a lot of training and is almost perfect. The problem is, his tolerance for having his friends near his “stuff” is ZERO.  Rosco is a very happy go lucky dog with his friends until someone gets near his treats or his toys…then this killer instinct in him comes out, its scary!

For instance, I accidentally left my treat bag on the hill at a park with a friend and her dog went to sniff it. Rosco attacked him and made him bleed! Yesterday I was playing fetch by the water and another dog came by to investigate the toy I was throwing and Rosco attacked him (They had been playing together so nicely until I made the mistake of getting his throw toy out of the car). I also think he would be possessive aggressive if I have a treat bag and another dog approaches. What should I do?

Puzzled in Pittsburg

Possession aggression seems like such a puzzling problem; however, if you take a scientific approach then fixing the situation can be straightforward. It’s all about finding a way to help the dog feel like no one’s going to steal his stuff. So how do you do that? First figure out:

  1. What he’s afraid of having stolen and by whom (people or other dogs)
  2. Then think, how can I help him to feel good about these people and dogs approaching his stuff (Classical counterconditioning). How can I make him feel that their approach predicts a jackpot of prizes for him?
  3. How can I do this safely so no-one is at risk.
  4. How do I know when he’s learning what I hope he is?
  5. How many people (or dogs) and situations should I practice in before I can completely trust him?

In the next few blogs, I’ll provide a variety of examples. For a more thorough coverage of the use of science in your training and behavior modification programs, check out How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves.

Case 1: Food and Food Bowl Possession Towards People.

Say you have a dog who’s possessive over his food bowl and guards food from people (but not dogs). To change his state of mind, we want him to learn that the approach of people when he’s eating means good things to him. “No, we won’t stick our hands in your food bowl, or poke you or try to pet you or grab your food away. Instead, when we approach, we’ll give you something tastier!”
Now, how you do this is important. Rule number 1 is to stay safe. If your dog might lunge at you, then make sure he’s on leash attached to something stable while he’s eating and that you’re always out of his range while he’s eating out of the bowl.

Next, make sure you have a way of knowing when he’s ready to get the tastier treat from you. The way I generally do this is to teach the dog to automatically say please by sitting to get what they want—especially food. Train this behavior first with a high reinforcement rate (ideally 100 rewards for sitting in the span of a day or two) before you work specifically on the food bowl issue. Better yet, also teach leave-it (food at the end of the leash) so that your dog will sit patiently and wait for you to put the food bowl down. 

Once your dog’s default behavior when he sees food in your hands is to sit and he knows the automatic leave-it when blocked, start the food bowl training. Place ¼ of your dog’s boring kibble in a bowl and have way tastier treats in the treat bag that’s attached to your belt. With Fido on leash attached to something stable, have Fido sit on a loose leash, then place the food bowl on the floor. Then, if the bowl is in range, give him the release word so he can go to get it or push the bowl into his range. Now walk away. As Fido is finishing his food, approach and stand outside of the range where he would act possessive. When he’s finished with his boring kibble he should turn and sit to you for your really tasty treats. Then reward him with one treat for sitting and a sequence of follow-up treats for remaining seated. Many bite-sized treats are better than one big treat. Then repeat the process with additional portions of his meal

Repeat this process at every meal. If you always stay outside of the zone that makes Fido feel anxious, he’ll start to anticipate that he’s going to get something better from you when you approach once you’ve done this enough to create a positive association. You should start seeing a difference within days to a little more than a week.  You’ll know you’ve really made headway when you approach Fido while he’s eating and he automatically pulls his head out of his food bowl to sit in hopes that he’ll get something better. Then you know that he really thinks that your approach brings presents for him!
Note that if your dog is also possessive aggressive over food that drops on the ground, it will also be important to teach him that if he wants food that has dropped on the floor, he should automatically sit and look at you. (See leave-it food on the ground exercise).


Of course, it will be essential that all the family members work with Fido on this exercise, including the leave-it with food on the ground, so that Fido realizes that the rules are the same for everyone. But, again, the steps are straight-forwards. It’s a matter of practicing with enough people in enough situations and frequently enough so that Fido can generalize that people in general approaching his bowl is safe. And if you are not 100% sure he has learned this, then only put him in the situations where you know he’s made the association. Keep him out of all situations where you might be unsure or have not yet practiced.
So, that’s it for case 1: the dog who is possessive of his food bowl. Can you go back and see how we considered all of these questions in our plan?

  1. What he’s afraid of having stolen and by whom (people or other dogs)
  2. Then think, how can I help him to feel good about these people and dogs approaching his stuff (Classical counterconditioning). How can I make him feel that their approach predicts a jackpot of prizes for him?
  3. How can I do this safely so no-one is at risk?
  4. How do I know when he’s learning what I hope he is?
  5. How many people (or dogs) and situations should I practice in before I can trust him?

To see how this method worked for one dog, watch Food Aggression: Ben Guards the Food Bowl.

Stay tuned for blog 2 on this topic where we look at the dog who guards the food bowl from other dogs in the house! In the meantime, for more information about the science behind counterconditioning and how dogs think and learn, see Pet Dogs, Problem Dogs, High Performance Dogs as well as the “Rapid Reversal of Fear and Aggression in Dogs and Cats” lecture on the Creating the Pet-Friendly Hospital, Animal Shelter, or Petcare Business DVD.

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11 responses to “A Scientific Approach Can Help You Solve Many Types of Possession Aggression, Part 1: Food Bowl

  1. I volunteered at a local “shelter” how they tested their dogs was stick a fake arm into the food bowl, at that time I knew nothing about resource guarding but I didnt like what I saw, I knew from watching that was a stupid approach. Any sign of aggression was sure death for a poor starving dog that was trying to protect his only source of food. I soon left that facility I did not want to volunteer for ignorant people on power trips. I love that more and more people are searching for positive approaches. Thank you for your influence on dog training techniques.

  2. We have recently acquired a border collie after her elderly owner passed away. She has multiple issues (fear aggression, dog aggression and food aggression) The most troubling is her food aggression. She is the worst case we have ever seen. We can be out in the yard with her playing fetch and if she hears someone filling a food bowl she will immediately become aggressive and attack anyone with range. She will allow hand feeding of treats but if she drops one, she immediately goes into aggression mode, the same behavior is shown if you try to stay out of range and toss a treat. Any suggestions for safely trying to modify behavior this severe?

  3. I noticed a confusing typo at the beginning of this blog (after the introductory story).

    “It’s all about finding a way to help the dog feel like everyone’s going to steal his stuff.”

    I believe you meant to say that it’s all about finding a way to help the dog feel like NOBODY is going to steal his stuff. Or perhaps that we’re trying to help the dog feel like everybody is going to LEAVE his stuff alone.

    As it’s currently written, I would think that this would actually increase his agitation if he believes that everyone is going to steal his stuff… wink

    Otherwise, great post and useful suggestions for how to help him learn that the human isn’t going to take his food away.

  4. to Lisa, this is called a safe hand and is used for temperament testing. temperament testing tests behavior that dogs may display and the testers must keep themselves safe. temperament testing is not training; this article is how to work with the dog on helping the dog become more comfortable with sharing their stuff. anyone that does not use a safe hand during the food test and gets bit (these dogs are not their pets, but unknown dogs to them) can lose the use of their hand permanently.

  5. more to Lisa, and others re safe hand–I should have added that I do not agree that shelters should use food guarding as a reason 1/not to accept, 2/not to adopt out, 3/to kill. my shelter did temperament testing, but it was a guideline so we could help the dog with their issues as well as place them in an appropriate home.

  6. It’s instinctual yes, but it is also as one commenter stated, the temperament of the dog. Pets as with people are a product of their environment such as loud children typically come from parents who are loud and unruly. My dog that can be seen at Whirly Dog Supplies, is so mild mannered he is only protective of me and will guard me if someone comes towards me in a threatening manner. He seems fine with his toys and treats with other people and animals.
    Lastly, this is animal behavior… I wouldn’t worry about it or punish the dog. Don’t leave your dog’s food/treats laying on the ground in the park. And understand if you play with your dog in public areas around other dogs that your dog doesn’t know could result in protective behavior, and/or even the play between the dogs could get a little rough. Be a responsible pet owner.

  7. Lisa:

    This is an unusual degree of aggression and for you I would recommend you find a veterinary behaviorist who can help you and tailor the techniques based on trial and error performed in a safe way:-). Plus you may need psychopharmacology on top of the medications for this case! Good luck!

  8. Ah, good to know. I love bread.
    I do wish that most people understood that grain breaks down into sugar,
    which is immediately processed. It’s a very healthy thing to eat (though this is healthier then white bread),
    but in moderation it is delicious!

  9. We are the second home for a male sheltie who is afraid. He has gotten much better. However, now the elderly Irish Setter is dying. I am disabled with a genetic medical condition. Prince does not want me or Jim to leave. As and after we leave he flings himself at at the doors and walls such force that i am concerned he will break his shoulder. He is terrified of crates and barks and barks and barks. Help.

    1. We recommend searching through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, https://iaabc.org/consultants or the AVSAB, American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior http://avsabonline.org/resources/find-consult. You may want to also check with Karen Price certified trainers https://www.karenpryoracademy.com/find-a-trainer?source=kpctnavbar as well as Victoria Stilwell Positively certified trainers https://positively.com/dog-training/find-a-trainer/find-a-vspdt-trainer/

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