Resource guarding is a challenging and potentially dangerous behavior where a dog does not allow people or other dogs near a resource. That sounds fairly vague but most people can easily imagine a dog “guarding” a bone or another precious item. The guarding behavior can generally be seen as the following: stiffening when approached, showing whale-eye or the whites of the eye, lip vibration, showing the canines, growling, and lunging at whoever is approaching too closely. The distance is determined by the dog. These behaviors where a dog feels threatened can lead to serious injury. If your dog is guarding any resource: food items, toys, sleeping areas, people, etc., you need to speak with a qualified trainer or behaviorist. Luckily, this natural behavior pattern can be prevented and here I will focus on the prevention of dog-human resource guarding.
First, it is important to understand that resource guarding is completely natural. Animals would not survive in the wild if they did not maintain exclusive rights to their resources, and in fact, people still resource guard today. There are entire industries in place to help people protect their resources: banks, online security firms, financial advisors, etc. For your dog these resources generally fit into one of the following categories: food, toys, space, or life rewards. Some people even find it funny or endearing when a small dog growls at anyone who approaches their owner or toys- in reality this is resource guarding and would be a lot less cute if the dog were 80lbs or if the person being growled at were a small child.
Dog-to-human resource guarding is the action of guarding a resource from people. Some dogs exhibit dog-dog resource guarding, where they guard from other dogs but not people. This is a different situation and needs professional intervention if you feel this may be developing in your home. While resource guarding is natural and even common, it can be dangerous and is easily prevented. Whenever possible, it is always easier to prevent poor behaviors than rectify them, and this is a really important behavior to prevent. It is easiest to avoid resource guarding if you start with a newly adopted or young dog that is not showing any signs of guarding. If you have had your dog for a while and want to work through the following tips, that’s fine too, as long as you are not seeing any current guarding activity. This is especially important to work on if young children will be around your dog or if you are considering a new pet.
Resource guarding occurs when a dog feels threatened by someone approaching them with a high value item or space. What you want to do is change their perception from, “Oh no someone is coming” to “Woo hoo! Come closer!” The basic idea is to make the approach really fun for your dog. You can start this during any meal. If you normally feed your dog in a bowl, you can simply walk by your dog during meal time and drop something extra tasty in with their normal food. This makes you coming close to their bowl pretty awesome: not only are you not threatening to take their meal, but they actually get extra goodies when you show up. You can advance this game by walking up, picking up their bowl mid-feed, adding the goodies, and putting it back down. Now you taking their food away is fun too.
Be sure not to add any commands to this process. The goal is the simple association of you and goodies around their food bowl: not sitting or staying for goodies which should be practiced separately. Remember, this is only safe to practice with dogs and puppies who are not showing any signs of food bowl guarding. This game can be used for almost any approach. If your dog is chewing on an especially good bone, you can toss a treat as you walk by and eventually trade the bone for the treat then give the bone back. Now it is really fun to share with you! You can also hand feed your dog some of their meals. If you have a puppy, this has the added bonus of teaching your puppy to use their mouth gently on your skin in order to procure food.
The degree to which you allow resource guarding in your home will vary by owner. Some owners accept that bones and dog beds belong to the dog and people should respect their space. I personally expect that every dog that lives with me be able to give me any item without protest or retaliation. To be fair, I work hard teaching them cues such as “leave it” and “give” to avoid having to forcibly take items and be the bully. Giving back a high-value item like an X-Box controller always results in a treat party in my house. If you can prevent the behavior by teaching your dog to love sharing with you, it can save you a lot of heartache and potential bites down the road. If you ever see your dog stiffen or give you any other warning sign, this is the behavior that immediately makes trainers and behaviorists take a step back and a deep breath. You will most likely get a bad feeling the second you see it, so please get professional help.
The book, “Mine” by Jean Donaldson can give you some insight, as well. Remember resource guarding behavior does not mean you have a “bad” dog, an aggressive dog, or an abused/neglected dog. In fact, I have seen this behavior in coddled sweet tempered house pets just as often as in rescues with unfortunate backgrounds. We don’t know why some dogs exhibit this behavior (and some don’t), but we do know that it can be prevented and treated.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator