Saving Lives

Food Guarding: A Very Modifiable Behavior

Research by the ASPCA provides a compelling new argument against euthanizing dogs in shelters who display simple food guarding. The research shows that an in-shelter protocol of free feeding, combined with post-adoption support, helps keep food-guarding behavior from reoccurring in the home.

Food guarding, according to this latest research, is easy to modify. To read the entire peer-reviewed study, published in the August 2012 open access Journal "Animals," click here.

Using the combination of free feeding and post-adoption support can help "provide a lifesaving safety net for many shelters," say the ASPCA's Heather Mohan-Gibbons and Drs. Emily Weiss and Margaret Slater.

The study also revealed interesting glimpses of how food guarding is handled in some shelters. In a survey to shelters conducted in 2006, the ASPCA found that shelters across the country reported food-bowl guarding as one of the most common reasons for euthanasia. However, only 34 percent of shelters attempt to modify the problem. Shelters also reported the return rate for food-guarding dogs was lower (5 percent) than dogs that did not guard their food (9 percent.)

Signs of Food Guarding

Guarding behavior can include:

  • Stiffening
  • Gulping
  • Growling
  • Freezing
  • Biting a fake hand

Why Dogs Guard Food

When resources are scarce, many animals will display higher levels of aggression. And many shelters have rigorous adoption restrictions in place for dogs that guard. The result, according to Mohan-Gibbons, Weiss, and Slater, is that "many shelters across the country are euthanizing young and healthy dogs that would be highly adoptable if not for their food guarding behavior."

For shelters with some resources, implementing structured behavior modification while in the shelter can also provide a lifesaving option. The vast majority of dogs that guard their food bowl during an assessment can be saved.

Key Points of the Study

The study indicates that a large component of reducing food guarding is making food readily available. When food guarding is identified in a shelter dog, the dog should be given access to food at all times.

More Food for Thought

  • Provide dogs that show any stiffening around the food bowl plenty of food-based enrichment, along with free feeding.
  • Begin the full food-guarding training the day the behavior is identified for quick results.
  • Collect video footage of the before and after – these can be powerful tools for helping build support for future behavior modification programs in your shelter!

Working with dogs who display food guarding tendencies is one of the effective ways shelters can prepare animals for their new homes, and ensure they find homes well suited to their needs.