Last updated on August 27th, 2023 at 05:30 pm
If you have more than one dog in your home and they usually get along well, you may wonder why they will fight over a bone. They sleep together, eat their dinner side by side peacefully, and play well together with other toys.
So what is it about the bone? Bones and similar bone-like chew toys are considered precious commodities in the canine world. In the wild, raw meat and bones are crucial to a dog’s survival. So, even though dogs have been domesticated and given plenty to eat, guarding a prized bone is still in their DNA. Guarding a bone is an ingrained instinct, even if it is something that only resembles a bone like a chew toy. Dogs may choose to share food with their pups or some pack members, but generally, it truly is a dog-eat-dog world in their minds.
Why do dogs get aggressive over bones?
Raw bones and meat are a staple for wolves and wild dogs. Bones provide important nutrients that are necessary for survival. Not only that, but dogs love the taste of meat and bones!
Dogs have an ingrained instinct to hide and store food. Their ancestors the wolves and dogs in the wild, never new for certain when the next meal was coming. Resource guarding is an inherited habit to protect their stash of food. Dogs who do this may seem greedy, but it is really more of a reactive instinct to survive.
Have you ever noticed how excited your dogs get when you are roasting a chicken or making a pot of beef stew? They love meat! As a treat, I usually save some of the unseasoned meat in a separate container and then add onions and seasonings to the rest for my meals. The portion of broth and meat I save for my dogs makes a nice topper for their kibble. They usually gobble it down like they are starving!
Bones add many necessary vitamins and minerals, including calcium to a dog’s diet. And, dogs get a lot of chewing enjoyment out of bones. My dogs will sometimes chew on their fake bones made from bamboo, for a couple of hours or more. For them, it is probably like reading a favorite book. It gives them something pleasurable to do while relaxing. If my other dog wanders by too closely and seems like a threat, she may get growled or snapped at to “stay away.”
How Do You Stop Dogs from Fighting Over Bones?
My two dogs don’t seem to care that I give each of them their very own bone or chew toy. I buy two of everything, yet they always want the other dog’s bone! And if it truly is a bone or something like a rawhide stick, a nasty fight may sometimes ensue.
It is probably not a good idea to get into the middle of a dog fight or you may get bitten. But here are some things you can do to stop a fight:
First, do everything you can to prevent a possible fight. Separate the dogs into different rooms or their individual crates when giving them bones. You can also use child gates to keep them in adjacent rooms. And, never leave dogs alone together with bones or chew toys unless you are certain they will not fight.
If one dog merely growls at the other, do not discipline. This is actually a good thing. A growl is a warning to “stay away.” Better to warn than to suddenly lunge and bite.
If they do start to fight, do not wade into the middle or grab their collars. You may get bitten in the process. If possible, get some help and grab both dogs by their hind legs and pull them apart. If this is not possible, you can squirt them with water, bang pots together, or blow a loud whistle. Any of these things will probably distract them and break their limbic brain impulse to fight.
Guarding Resources May Be More Prevalent with Shelter Dogs
A study that was done in 2019 by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA: Characteristics and Adaption Success of shelter Dogs Assessed as Resource Guarders by Betty Mcguire sited some interesting statistics. Approximately 10–30% with an average of 14% of shelter dogs were considered to be resource guarders especially around food. See the table below for the specific behaviors found:
Table 1. The percentages of resource guarding dogs that displayed specific behaviors during the food bowl test and possession test. The number of dogs that displayed the behavior/number of dogs assessed as resource guarding on the particular test is in parentheses.
|Behavior Shown 1||Food Bowl Test||Possession Test|
|Stiffened||20.0 (9/45)||32.8 (40/122)|
|Exhibited whale eye||20.0 (9/45)||9.8 (12/122)|
|Snarled||17.8 (8/45)||18.9 (23/122)|
|Froze||57.8 (26/45)||53.3 (65/122)|
|Growled||35.6 (16/45)||24.6 (30/122)|
|Lunged||0.0 (0/45)||4.9 (6/122)|
|Snapped||11.1 (5/45)||11.5 (14/122)|
|Bit Assess-a-Hand||13.3 (6/45)||8.2 (10/122)|
1 Mild to moderate resource guarding included the behaviors from stiffened through growled; severe resource guarding included the behaviors lunged, snapped, and bit the Assess-a-Hand.
The study noted that many dogs showed less of this behavior after adoption and many new owners did not view it as a problem.
Dogs who have been in a shelter for a long time may feel a heightened need to protect themselves. Shelters can be chotic, frightening, and lonely places. It is no wonder that some dogs dust off their survival instincts and use them to the max in these settings.
It is important not to scold your dog, however. That will only make them feel more frightened. Any type of resource guarding comes from a place of fear, uncertainty, and scarcity. Dogs who fight over bones are simply trying to survive and protect themselves.
Can Dogs be Taught to Share Bones?
My two dogs who are siblings were in a shelter for 9 months when they were five years old. Their owner had to surrender them due to a change in life circumstances. They both developed some annoying barking habits during their stay. But surprisingly, they were quite bonded and got along well. I gave them separate eating areas and beds. They never fought over food and often slept together in the same bed.
Georgia and Charlotte had many toys and I bought two of everything. See my recommended chewy toys on my Dog Toys page. But the day I brought home edible chicken chewies (similar to rawhide bones) all hell broke loose! One dog finished her little bone and then went after the other dog’s chewy which ended up with a lot of growling and a little scuffle. So, I found I just could not give them this type of chewy.
I am not sure that dogs can be trained to share bones. But they can be trained to respect one another’s territory. With dogs, possession is the key to ownership. Whoever has the bone, owns it. But once it is dropped or left on the floor, it becomes fair game for someone else.
Prevent fights by giving each dog her own space and plenty of chew toys to reduce the feeling of scarcity. Try to provide a calm, reassuring, and secure environment. Yelling, scolding, or punishing does not help and will likely worsen the unwanted behavior.
You can’t completely remove the canine instinct for survival. But you can recondition, reassure, and minimize the behavior of dogs who fight over bones in most cases. You can set boundaries, learn what does and does not work. And if necessary, you can get the help of a certified dog behavioralist.
Most dogs want to get along with their pack. If your dogs feel secure, loved, and well cared for, they can adapt and get along well with their human-canine family.
Deanna Euritt is a dedicated dog enthusiast with over three decades of experience in raising and training a diverse range of dogs, including many rescue pups. Her practical expertise is rooted in real-life experiences, where she has successfully navigated the challenges of nurturing rescue dogs into confident, well-adjusted companions. Residing in Northern California, Deanna’s days are filled with adventures along trails and beaches with her beloved dogs, Charlotte and Georgia. In her writing, she offers insightful, compassionate advice to fellow dog lovers, leveraging her extensive personal journey in the world of dog care and training. See About Us.