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Research Update: What Happens When We Stop Assessing for Food Guarding?

Heather Mohan-Gibbons shares preliminary results from an exciting new pilot program overseen by the ASPCA Research & Development team.


What comes to mind when you think about placing a food guarding dog into a home?

“That is crazy, why would we ever do that?”

“Been there, done that, no problem!”

We have heard both of these responses and everything in between!  

But what if you are already placing food guarders and don't even know it?

You’re probably familiar with the two studies on food guarding during standardized assessments. The ASPCA published results in 2012, as did Dr. Amy Marder and her team at Center for Shelter Dogs in 2013. Both studies found that food guarding behavior occurred in the home at a lower frequency than in-shelter. The studies also showed adopters bonded to their food guarding dogs, did not see the behavior as problematic, and they returned their dogs less often than the general shelter population. 

Over the past three years, we’ve been spreading the message to stop euthanizing food guarders and instead to send them home. We’ve shared this via blogs, presentations, webinars, workshops at national conferences and in a new book, Animal Behavior for Shelter Veterinarians and Staff. Some agencies now ensure that every policy they have provides each animal the best chance at a live outcome. Yet we all too often still see this policy: “If a dog shows any food guarding, growls when someone looks in their kennel or shows leash frustration, then the dog is a liability and can‘t be adopted.”

It is worth highlighting one aspect of Dr. Marder’s study—twenty dogs guarded their food during the assessment, yet only 11 dogs guarded food in the home. More importantly, 77 dogs did NOT guard their food during the assessment, yet 17 dogs guarded food in the home. Six more dogs guarded in this second group who did not guard on assessment. This means that shelters are unknowingly sending home dogs who guard their food, and those adopters did not receive counseling on what to do. It is time to educate every adopter that food guarding is a normal behavior and provide them with tips for success to avoid and/or manage the behavior in home when it appears. 

So the obvious question is, “Why are we still assessing for food guarding?” Some places like Dumb Friends League dropped the assessment some time ago. So we asked you for your help in a pilot program. We wanted shelters to keep their assessment intact but stop assessing for food guarding. We have nine shelters participating in this pilot in different states. In the first two months of baseline, over 550 dogs showed food guarding behavior, mostly through the shelter’s standardized assessment; this was categorized as mild guarding behavior (on a scale from mild to severe). 

We have overwhelmingly positive responses from the shelters so far. One shelter reported:

“It’s SO MUCH FASTER and more efficient without the food preparation, fake hand repairing, food bowl cleaning and fetching (they get borrowed when we’re not looking)! We were averaging about 4 evaluations per hour before and now we can do 6…but we DON’T, because we like having the extra time to get to know everyone a little better!”

Another shelter offered:

“I have not seen any change in returns due to eliminating the food guarding portion of the SAFER assessment. I am, quite frankly, surprised at how few dogs did show food guarding when we were really paying attention to it the first two months, and that it primarily fell into the mild-moderate level of guarding when demonstrated.”

Science is our compass, allowing us to test out different paths while keeping us headed due north. There is a balance of protecting the public from perceived risk to saving more dogs’ lives. We need to acknowledge what we don’t know and recognize that we may not be evaluating what is important to the public. As Dr. Emily Weiss said in a recent JAVMA article, “It’s time for us to take off the veil in terms of us deciding what [the public] wants.”  

Stay tuned for the results of this research and ways to support your staff and adopters to drop your food assessment.



As the Director of Applied Research and Behavior at the ASPCA, Heather’s work focuses on improving the lives of animals and reducing their risks in their communities. For over twenty years, she has worked professionally with animals in veterinary clinics, universities, federal and state governments, and animal shelters. She loves training a new species, growing heirloom seeds, and being outdoors with her rescue dogs.





Related Links

Blog: “Prostates and Food Guarding…”
Food Guarding: A Very Modifiable Behavior

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