Why Do Dogs Guard Empty Food Bowls?

Dogs guard empty food bowls for the simple fact that dogs find them extra valuable. Let's face it: food bowls from a dog's perspective come to develop a strong representation of food, and since dogs tend to be quite gluttonous beings, it comes natural for them to perceive them as a highly valuable resources that are worthy of protecting. Of course, this is just one piece of the puzzle, there can be several other reasons as to why dogs guard empty food bowls.

A Matter of Associations

Dogs are very adept in associating stimuli end events with one another. For example, when your dog hears the doorbell for the very first time, he may just startle or tilt his head to orient his attention towards the source of the sound. However, as time goes by, he quickly learns that, every time he hears the doorbell, there is somebody at the door.

Something similar happens with the food bowl. When a puppy sees the food bowl for the very first time, he likely goes to sniff it, but then loses interest quickly. Fill it up with food though, and soon the puppy learns to associate it with food. The food bowl is now very powerful as it comes to represent food. 

It is therefore not surprising if dogs decide to start protecting the food bowl as they would do with food, even if it's empty. If we put ourselves in our dog's minds, we can easily deduce that, to them, an empty food bowl is just a matter of a meal waiting to happen.

 Just at you wouldn't want a person to walk by and steal your empty dish at the restaurant as you're waiting for it to be filled by a waiter, your dog might not like other dogs (or even people) to swoop down and remove that empty food bowl from right under his nose.

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This dog is focusing at the camera and is possibly bothered by the mealtime intrusion. 

Protecting a Hot Spot

On top of forming associations between stimuli end events leading to another, dogs are also predisposed to a phenomenon known as generalization. Generalization is the spreading of the effects of training from the training setting or behavior to other settings or behaviors (Jonathan Tarbox, Courtney Tarbox, 2017). 

So if your dog starts guarding the food bowl, it is possible then that he may start guarding the whole feeding area at some point. 

Your dog may therefore perceive the whole feeding area as his "castle" and he may therefore become reluctant to have others around "his fortress." The "others" may be any other dogs sharing the household, other pets and humans may be included too.

On top of this, consider that dogs appreciate having a little peace and quiet when it's mealtime. For many dogs, mealtime is one of the biggest perks of the day, a highly anticipated event. Dogs may therefore get cranky if, when they are eating, there's too much activity going on near their bowls.

Some Predisposing Factors 

Some dogs may be more prone to guarding food bowls (whether empty or full) compared to others. 

For example, dogs with a history of starvation and fending for themselves may decide to never leave their food bowls from sight even once they are welcomed to their new homes and food is never missing. However, it's important to point out that resource guarding can also be seen in dogs with no history of starvation.

Dogs with certain medical conditions or taking certain medications (like steroids) may develop a ravenous appetite (polyphagia)which can predispone them too to guarding their food (iatrogenic resource guarding).

Breeders can sometimes be guilty in instilling guarding behaviors in their puppies if they aren't careful enough. Feeding a large litter of puppies with one single bowl and not enough food can lead to overcrowding and the pups may feel in a competitive mood. This can pave the path towards resource guarding. 

Owners too can sometimes encourage resource guarding in their dogs. Petting a dog while eating or removing the food bowl repeatedly can be irritating to a dog as somebody touching your face at a restaurant while eating and removing your dish from right under your nose when you were enjoying a juicy steak. 

Other ways dog owners may also encourage resource guarding is by chasing dogs around to retrieve an item they have in his mouth (even if just for play), prying a dog's mouth open and retrieving something out of their mouth by force, and generally using confrontational methods when dogs have access to food. 

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This dog seems quite relaxed despite the fact the food bowl is right there

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs have their own reasons for guarding empty food bowls. If your dog guards empty food bowls towards other dogs or pets sharing the household or towards you or any of your family members, please play it safe and consult with a dog behavior professional. Following are some tips for tackling the issue. 

  • If guarding food bowls is a new behavior, consult with a vet to rule out medical problems known to increase appetite (diabetes, Cushing's disease) or other medical problems.
  • Give your dogs distance. If your dog is prone to guard his empty food bowl when other dogs are around, ensure your dogs are given distance. Feed them at the opposite sides of the kitchen if your kitchen is large or use a kitchen island as a visual barrier. Close feeding quarters can be stressful to dogs and risk encouraging resource guarding. 
  • Even better, provide separate feeding areas. If your dog guards the empty food bowl, most likely your other dogs are approaching him after finishing their meals. To prevent this, feed your dogs in separate areas or use some barriers (baby gates, feed in separate crates or exercise pens). 
  • Another option is to feed at separate times. Feed one dog in the kitchen when the other dog is in the yard and then swap them. 
  • For dogs who resource guard hot spots, it may help to  feed them always in different areas so they are less prone to associate a specific area with food. 
  • Train your dogs to hold a solid sit/stay or down/stay after finishing their meals so they don't go check each other's bowls. 
  • If safe to do so, and if the guarding is directed towards only other dogs or pets (for food guarding towards humans read below), as your dogs hold their stays, pick up their food bowl as soon as they're emptied clean and give your dogs a tasty cookie in exchange. 
  • For food bowl guarding geared towards humans, it's important to use force-free behavior modification focusing on desensitization and counterconditioning. You will need to create positive associations with you moving towards the food bowl by tossing high-value treats. The goal is having your dog appreciate your presence rather than dreading it. Your dog should see you as a waiter delivering tasty food rather than a thief attempting to steal it. For safety and correct implementation, please consult with a dog behavior professional specializing in force-free behavior modification. 
  • Did you know? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! Start early by investing time in providing exercises to prevent resource guarding in puppies from a young age. 
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