Each night around 6, Thaisi Da Silva announces dinnertime. “Are you hungry, girls?” she asks. Four-year-old Sadie trots into the dining room, while 9-month-old Ripley heads out to the deck for an al fresco meal. Da Silva delivers each dog a bowl of kibble and shuts the door between the two spaces, leaving the dogs to eat alone—and in peace.

If the dogs eat together, Ripley scarfs down her food and then turns her attention to Sadie, says Da Silva, who manages the state council program at the Humane Society of the United States. Staring at another dog over the food bowl may seem harmless, but it can be a sign of anxiety, says Amy Nichols, vice president of companion animals for the HSUS. In Ripley’s and Sadie’s case, it can even lead to fights. The dogs begin growling at each other, Da Silva says, and eventually one will attack.

This behavior—called resource guarding—isn’t limited to food. A dog might guard toys, beds, treats—even a shared water bowl. “Essentially, it’s the dog asserting that they have ownership over something,” explains Nichols. 

The psychology behind resource guarding varies. Former street dogs—like Ripley, who came from Kuwait—often guard food. “They have likely gone through a period in their life where they had to forage for themselves,” says Sharon Crowell-Davis, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist with the University of Georgia and state representative for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. That drive to protect her resources can continue even when the dog is in a new home with a secure food source.

Training can also be to blame. In a misguided bid to assert dominance, some owners take a puppy’s food or toy away just as the dog settles in to enjoy it. The result? A dog who thinks that a human approaching the food bowl mid-meal (or the squeaky toy mid-squeak) means the food or the toy will disappear—and who accordingly will respond defensively.

Regardless of the cause, resource guarding can lead to aggressive behavior, including growls, air snaps and even bites. That’s why it’s important to identify the signs and intervene early. You’ll help your dog understand that the behavior isn’t acceptable and—more importantly—isn’t necessary. Here’s how to handle it.

Stay vigilant 

Watch for signs that your dog is anxious around a resource. “We all think about the growl,” says Nichols, “but there’s so many things they’ll show before that.” Look for ears pointed backward, lip-licking or a sudden stiffness in the body. Increased attentiveness to another dog—like nonstop staring during dinner—also indicates that your pup is “starting to become hyper-aware of the other dog’s presence,” says Crowell-Davis. He’s worried that the other dog will try to grab a bite of dinner or make off with the squeaky toy.

A new situation can also bring out these tendencies. Nichols, who previously owned a doggie daycare chain, recommends being extra alert if a new dog is visiting. “Put the toy basket away, close the crate,” she says. Don’t bring toys to the dog park, and if you take your pup to doggie daycare, ask the staff to tell you if they notice any guarding behavior.

Prevent the problem

Because perceived scarcity is often at the root of your dog’s concern, “make sure that there’s sufficient—and equitable—resources,” says Crowell-Davis. If you adopt a second dog and buy her a new bed, “there’s a good chance they’re both going to want the spiffy, fluffy new bed.” Avoid conflict by making sure there’s enough of everything—toys, beds, treats. 

To encourage good behavior, use positive reinforcement, such as dropping tasty treats into the bowl while your pup is chowing down. Then what’s the meaning of a human walking up to your dog while she’s eating? “Something good’s going to happen,” says Crowell-Davis. The dog will gradually learn to be relaxed about people getting near her food. Teach “give” and “leave it” cues by pairing the action (the dog giving something up) with a reward (a treat). In general, always offer a trade if you need to take something away. “And that’s not bribery,” Crowell-Davis adds. “That is just common sense.”

Try simple solutions

Most of us don’t have our pups from the time of their birth, and dogs can bring baggage from their past. If you notice potential signs of guarding or anxiety, intervene to ensure the behavior doesn’t escalate. Fixes can be surprisingly straightforward.

Crowell-Davis recommends simply removing the problem items. She once had a patient who was a model canine citizen… except when it came to tennis balls. “Heaven help you if you got near the tennis ball,” she says. “He was aggressive enough about it to be dangerous.” After talking with the dog’s owners, Crowell-Davis suggested getting rid of the tennis balls. The owners balked, saying he’d be sad without them. Crowell-Davis insisted. “And you know what? That dog did not die of withdrawal.”

For dogs who squabble at mealtimes, sequestering them in different rooms—like Da Silva does—can ease the tension. “If you need to use the closed-door technique, that’s not a failure,” says Crowell-Davis. “That’s addressing the needs of the dogs. And that makes the welfare for everybody in the house improve.” 

Always remember not to punish your pup for his behavior. Instead, reward positive interactions. If there are squabbles at bedtime, assign each dog a bed and train them to go there on cue, rewarding each successful action with a treat. If they go in the wrong bed? No treat. 

Bring in reinforcements 

Distributing resources equitably and adapting your routine can work wonders. Over time, as your dog learns that resources are plentiful, the guarding behavior may subside. In Da Silva’s case, a few months of separating Ripley and Sadie during mealtimes has helped. “They are both realizing that they have a reliable source of food and perhaps they don’t have to be as aggressive,” she says. 

But in some cases, a dog’s underlying psychology tells her she needs to defend something, explains Crowell-Davis. So even if you remove all examples of a problematic toy or other resource, the dog will pick something else to guard. In that case, it’s time to talk with your veterinarian. In general, says Nichols, if you’re worried your dog could bite someone, that’s a good indicator that it’s time to call in the professionals. Your veterinarian can recommend a trainer or behaviorist (make sure any trainer you choose uses positive reinforcement). The goal, after all, is to make your pup feel safe, secure and loved—and willing to share the bounty with her companions.

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