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You know it when you see it.
You go to retrieve an object from your dog and he growls at you. Or maybe he growls when his sibling approaches his food bowl or favorite spot on the couch.
He doesn’t want to share and he’ll bite if he has to, to keep it that way!
Resource guarding behavior in dogs is a valuable instinct in feral dogs as it helps them survive on limited means in the wild. However, for domesticated dogs, such behavior is not just weird but unwanted as well.
So, how do you stop resource guarding in dogs?
Well, let’s first find out what it is. Shall we…
What is Resource Guarding?
Most people know that disturbing a dog while they’re eating or enjoying a toy is a wrong move. That’s because there’s no way to predict how they’ll respond.
While some dogs are indifferent to being interrupted, petted, or accidentally bumped into during playtime or mealtime others take offense at such disturbances.
More often than not, this behavior extends beyond food and toys and is known as “resource guarding” or “possessive aggression.”
It is defined as a range of behavior displayed by a dog, the aim of which is to convey to other animals or humans that they should stay away from the dog or something he considers valuable.
Resource Guarding Between Dogs.
Resource guarding is very common in multi-dog households. These dogs will guard resources from each other ranging from food and water bowls, high-value chews and toys, or resting places.
This usually occurs when the resources are limited, for instance, when there’s only one chew but two dogs or one bed is more comfortable than the other.
That being said, most dogs will quickly evaluate a particular resource to determine if it’s worth getting in a fight over. There’s no point getting injured by another dog for something of little to no value.
Many dogs use body language to communicate their desire to keep possession of the valued item to the trespassing dog. And, if you are very attentive you can spot this communication and, likely, interrupt them when the ‘conversation’ becomes heated.
Is Dog Resource Guarding Bad?
Although resource guarding in dogs is frowned upon, it actually served an important role in their evolutionary success.
Because dogs are (or were) opportunistic feeders, they ate as much as they could when the opportunity presented itself, and oftentimes they had to fend off fierce competitions by snarling, growling, nipping, and biting.
In the present, resources guarding can stem from their experience with siblings.
For instance, the pup who ate the most (possibly by being aggressive) grows to be the fastest and strongest, which essentially conditions him to continue being aggressive around “valuable” resources. Or, the pup who ate the least now guards any “valuable” resource from others to avoid losing it.
The above is a good example of food aggression.
Although the behavior is an evolutionary trait, it should be corrected, especially if they’re displaying aggressive behaviors towards humans or other pets.
Signs of Resource Guarding.
Any dog can be prone to resource guarding; it has nothing to do with the breed or if the dog was adopted from the shelter or a breeder.
You likely won’t be able to tell if a dog tends to guard valuable resources until they start exhibiting the behavior. Here are the most obvious signs of resource guarding in dogs.
- Lunging and Air Snapping (a no-contact bite)
In most cases where resource guarding behavior is “milder” or still developing, the dog’s reaction is usually subtle. For instance, a dog enjoying a Kong toy may show these subtle signs before the actions listed above
- Taking items and moving away.
- Eating faster
- Braced body position over the item
- Side eye staring or tracking the human or pet approaching him.
- Raising lips and baring teeth
- Ears pinned flat against the head
- A hard stare that means something along the lines of “Don’t even think about it,” or “Please don’t take it away. I’m enjoying it.”
Dogs that display this behavior usually have a hard time distinguishing between those who are merely passing by and those that are going to take something away from them.
What matters to them is what they think – that there’s a threat to their items. They are reacting to what they think will happen, not what has actually happened. And this is one reason why dealing with resource guarding in dogs is problematic and potentially dangerous.
Common Items That Trigger Resource Guarding in Dogs.
Although resource guarding is often spotted around toys and edible items, a dog can resource-guard any item that they see as “valuable.”
Some of these items you don’t even consider as important – at least for a dog – like a sock. However, for some reason that sock might be your dog’s most treasured possession, kind of like how we all have that one favorite sweatshirt.
Here are common items that trigger resource guarding in dogs:
- Food and treats.
- Bones and edible dog chews.
- Food bowl (with or without food)
- Space (crate, dog bed, their position on the bed or sofa)
- Their favorite hooman (from other pets in the home or other people).
One important thing to keep in mind while dealing with resource guarding in dogs is the fact that your dog is not a “bad dog” for displaying resource guarding tendencies.
There are usually some (fixable or manageable) underlying conditions behind your dog’s emotional response each time he feels his possession of a valuable resource is threatened.
Unfortunately, the typical human response to resource guarding in dogs is either punishment or avoidance (or both) and these can result in even more resource guarding.
That’s why you need to work with a certified dog trainer to ensure that your dog gets the positive training they need to correct the unwanted behavior and to keep you and your family safe.
So, let’s look at what NOT to do if your dog is showing possessive aggression (aka resource guarding).
What NOT to Do if Your Dog Guards Resources.
1. Don’t punish the barking or growling.
You should never punish a dog for growling or barking. That’s because dogs show their displeasure at something or someone by growling or barking before they resort to nipping or biting.
If your dog learns that growling or barking at someone or another pet approaching their “valuables” results in them getting yelled at, knocked, or “tapped” from a shock collar, and the loss of said item they were guarding, the next time they won’t offer a warning – they’ll simply go all in for a bite.
Don’t try to suppress the warning!
2. Avoid “playing” with their food and chews.
More often than not, dog pawrents make resource guarding worse than it was by “playing” with their dog’s food bowl while he’s eating.
This might be sticking hands into the bowl or randomly taking away their chews to “show them who’s boss” or the “alpha.” And instead of the desired result, what they have is a dog that not only snaps when they reach for the bowl but lashes out when they simply walk by.
And, this makes them even more fearful of the dog or punishes them harder.
Sticking your hands in your dog’s food bowl or taking away valuable chew items they are guarding will likely backfire if you don’t take proactive and preventive steps (we’ll soon get to this).
What you end up doing is annoying your dog further because they learn that when you reach for something that’s in their possession they always lose it.
And that’s not the association you want your dog to make!
What to Do If Your Dog Resource Guards
1. Talk to a certified and qualified dog trainer or behaviorist.
First off, you need the help of a certified dog trainer or behaviorist to address any resource guarding behavior in your dog.
The behaviorist or dog trainer will get to know your dog personally and in the process evaluate the severity of your dog’s case as well as his behavioral history. They’ll build a trainer-client relationship with you and your dog and help you through the steps briefly outlined below.
Resource guarding can be dangerous depending on how it is handled. It is important to put safety first – for you, your family, and your dog!
2. Find out your dog’s threshold before you begin.
Resource guarding can be likened to temperament – everyone has one, but the magnitude varies.
Every dog that displays resource guarding behavior has a threshold to what it can and cannot tolerate. Think of it as an invisible like or radar – you’re not visible until you cross a certain point where they start to get uncomfortable.
To make progress, you need to find out where this boundary is and ensure you do not cross it too fast. This method takes patience on your part, however, it will keep everyone involved safe and comfortable.
3. Manage the Environment.
List all the things your dog has become possessive over. Then look for ways to change the environment to remove access to these things.
If your dog loves to grab underwear, socks, or other clothing from the laundry basket and then guards the item when you try to take them away, you can set yourself to succeed by eliminating the opportunity for them to do so by raising the basket or locking the door.
Do not leave items your dog may find valuable enough to guard lying around. Put his toys away and pick up food bowls after he’s done eating and has walked away. If they become protective over certain toys or high-valuable chews, then don’t offer it to them again – at least until you’ve learned to handle the situation properly.
Once his environment has been managed you can practice commands like “drop it” and “leave it.”
4. Let peace reign.
I don’t know who coined “let sleeping dogs lie!”, but the person was right. You should also let eating dogs eat…in peace.
You cannot control your dog’s access to every “valuable” resource, instead, you should think about managing the context.
If your dog guards their food bowl, then you should consider moving him and his bowl to an area where he can eat in peace without disturbance. Block this feeding spot with a baby gate, I recommend the Regalo Baby gate to prevent children, the elderly, and even other dogs or pets from approaching the dog and making him feel like he has to react.
If your dog guards long-lasting treats or chews, then you should only give them these in their crate of a safe place where they won’t be bothered and ensure everyone knows that they should let the dog be when he’s eating.
5. Use food dispensing toys and hand feeding.
Dogs now get their meals for free, but their ancestors had to work (hunt) for all their meals – they haven’t forgotten this.
This and hand-feeding your dog some kibbles help break the routine of eating from the food bowl and, though not a cure for resource guarding, will help build trust, confidence, and impulse control, as well as distract your dog from “trespassers.”
6. Use treats to desensitize and counter-condition your dog.
Desensitization and counterconditioning are key when it comes to modifying your dog’s resource guarding behavior. Instead of punishing your dog for guarding his valuable resources, you need to modify how your dog feels about people and other pets approaching him while he’s eating.
You want them to be happy and expecting good stuff whenever you come around and not frightful that his goodies will be taken away. And, the way you do this is by counterconditioning and desensitization.
However, since it’s easy for us to move too fast when dealing with behavioral issues, your dog trainer should be involved in the process to help manage your pace.
Basics of desensitization and counterconditioning for resource guarding.
- Get a high-value treat that your dog enjoys munching on more than the object that they’re guarding.
- Find out the distance at which your dog’s resource guarding behavior is triggered. Some dogs do not get tense or protective of their items or food until you’re a couple of feet away. Whereas others get tense just by seeing you in the same room with them while they eat or interact with the guarded resource. Your goal is to find the distance where they notice you but aren’t tense or reacting to you. If, for instance, your dog begins growling, eating faster, or bares his teeth when you’re four feet away, then you have to start desensitizing him from 6-7 feet away. This will help you determine their distance threshold for resource guarding.
- Now that you know the distance, the next time just give him his meal or chew like you usually do and walk away.
- Next, approach your dog with some delicious treats while he’s with an item he guards and stop at the predetermined distance. Toss 2-3 of the treats to him, then leave him.
- Repeat this step a few more times that your dog has something that he guards.
- After, say 5 sessions, slowly inch forward and repeat the treat tossing, then take a step back. What you’re doing here is stepping into his discomfort zone and giving treats before he has time to respond as usual by guarding his valuable item. This step will slowly decrease his distance threshold without triggering his possessive aggression, so don’t rush.
- If your dog becomes tense or shows other signs of resource guarding, take one step back and restart.
Think of it like weight lifting or distance running, you’re slowly increasing his tolerance to having someone around when he has something precious.
Don’t rush the process. Watch this video to see the steps in action.
Follow through consistently and your dog will learn to expect good things when you come around, as long as you don’t move too fast.
In many cases, your dog might choose to leave whatever they used to guard and happily approach you.
7. Teach your dog basic commands.
Every dog, especially those struggling with resource guarding behavior, should be taught basic doggy commands such as “drop it”, “leave it”, and “come.”
These are reliable commands to practice with your dog and they can be useful for preventing resource guarding behavior. It’s much easier and safer to call a dog away from a guarded item than to try grabbing it from them.
8. Teach Your Dog to Share.
Sharing is caring and your dog(s) needs to learn that there are enough resources for everyone. So, how do you train a dog to share their “valuable” resource when they growl at anyone that gets too close?
An effective trick is to offer the dog something of high-value and delicious for him to chew while you hold onto the other end of the treat.
Your dog will have to tolerate having you near his food.
9. Easy does it!
Desensitizing a dog that is struggling with resource guarding is simple, but it is not easy!
It is a slow, tedious process that works wonders over time. With patience, dedication, and consistency you can reduce your dog’s resource guarding behavior around food and other valuable items.
Be sure to let everyone know about the issue and the risk involved, as well as ensuring that they’re all on the same page when it comes to managing the behavior to avoid setbacks.
Remember: If your dog has severe resource guarding and is prone to biting and attacking, you should consider getting a consultation or evaluation from a professional dog trainer. Without help, the behavior can and often gets worse, and it becomes a risk to the whole family.
I’d love to hear from you, which person or silly item does your dog guard and what have you tried so far?