Resource guarding can be described as the propensity of some dogs to attempt to maintain possession of or guard particular things they consider of value (i.e. resources). These can include, but are not limited to food bowls, toys, territory, and people. Dogs displaying guarding issues will often freeze, growl or snap when approached, when you attempt to take an item away, or while being touched. In the worst case scenario a dog may go beyond these warning signals and actually bite.
Guarding things they consider valuable is a very normal, natural and necessary part of dog behavior. After all, survival is often based on being able to successfully get and hold onto things such as food. People guard resources as well, including houses, cars, and jewelry. However, for a dog to live safely and happily in a home he or she needs to clearly understand how to curb or inhibit their natural inclination to guard resources.
Some dogs seem to have a stronger genetically based propensity towards resource guarding than others. But, as with most behavior issues, it is usually a bit of both nature and nurture that plays a part. Some guarding issues also seem to stem from the simple fact that they have been allowed (albeit inadvertently) to develop because families either don’t commit to preventing or resolving the issue early on, or don’t know how to. For example, a young pup who is allowed to consistently grab things and run off to the corner to chew on them may well come to think that doing so is his or her right and if someone tries to take something back a battle of teeth on hands may ensue.
We all love our dogs so much that we usually give them just about everything they want in life for free. They can jump on us and receive attention, they have a basket of toys at their disposal, we serve them meals and water even if they jump madly about barking at us, and they can claim any comfy spot as their own, including on our bed or favorite chair. In some of these cases a dog who is temperamentally inclined and is allowed to be pushy may make for a dog who basically takes control of what he or she wants in the home.
So, it is important to be careful not to ‘kill with kindness.’ That is, not to indulge your dog to point where you allow a potentially serious behavior issue to develop. Any dog will be even that much more loveable when they have a clear understanding not to guard resources from people. So, one of the ways to be a truly kind pet parent is to help your dog learn the rules in a gentle manner.
As with any behavior problem, it is always easier and safer to focus on prevention rather than cure. If your dog is already presenting signs of having a resource guarding issue it is advisable to seek the assistance of an experienced, reward based trainer to help you in person. In order to prevent resource guarding issues we need to condition our dogs to not only tolerate, but actually like something that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to a dog. In this case, to respond promptly when we request them to give up objects or territory (such as a spot on the couch).
Management is the key to success as it is a way of preventing problems from being practiced, but also a way to help your dog understand that you control a valuable resource, i.e. his access to you and your home. Management is something we practice everyday in many ways with our dogs, including in the form of walking them on leash to keep them safe. When working on preventing behavior issues, management should be used intensely at first and then may gradually decrease depending on your dog’s progress. For example, once you feel confident your dog is happily releasing things when you ask him or her to, you may choose not to use on leash supervision anymore (assuming your dog is housetrained and doesn’t have other behavior issues you are also trying to prevent or resolve).
Controlling Resources: Perhaps the most important part of any training protocol, controlling the things your dog wants in life is the first step in getting him or her to understand why paying attention to you and figuring out what you want is important. A dog that gets everything he or she wants in life for free is likely to have a hard time understanding why you (and listening to you) are valuable. Doggie resources fall under four categories: Food, Toys, Attention, and Life Rewards (anything else you can think of your dog wants such as walking out the front door, being allowed to play with other dogs, sitting on the couch, etc.).
Get control of all of these things by not allowing your dog free, unlimited access to them and use training skills such as sit, down, come, etc. as a way to show your dog how to earn what he or she wants. That is, ask him or her to sit before getting a tummy rub, to hand target before getting dinner, to shake before going out for a walk, etc.
In an effort to control resources and to maintain safety you should employ the use of On Leash Supervision. When you are home and can supervise your dog keep him or her on a leash tethered nearby or while you hold it or step on it. This way you have a gentle and effective means of maintaining control. For example, if your dog is off leash and grabs something inappropriate to chew on you would have to chase after him or her to get it back. This scenario is likely to reinforce many inappropriate behaviors including playing keep away from you and guarding.
Once you have focused on developing good management skills as outlined above you are ready to move on to working on specific anti-resource guarding exercises as a preventative and for dealing with low level existing resource guarding (i.e. the dog may stiffen and growl, but no bites or dog teeth to human skin contact has yet been made. If it has, you should contact a trainer asap!).
Chew Toy and Bone Sharing – With your dog on a leash present a chew toy. Offer the chew toy to your dog to investigate and chew on for a moment while you hold one end. After a few moments, take it away and offer your dog a tiny, tasty treat from your other hand. As you progress with this game you can let go of the chew toy and gradually allow your dog to chew on it for longer before you take it away and give a treat. This is a simple, but wonderful interactive game for you and your dog. By continually taking objects away and replacing with an object/toy/treat of equal if not greater value your dog is sure to look forward to you doing so.
Food Bowl Bonuses – When you have time, hand feed your dog at least part of his or meals. This way you can put a bowl on the ground with a few pieces in it, reach to take it away and offer a piece or two from your other hand. You can also reach towards the bowl as after you place it down and toss in some food. You should also work with bonus, high value treats that you can offer occasionally when you reach towards the bowl.
Practice in Many Places, with Many Things – Playing these trading games as many times as you can in as many different environments and with as many different things as possible is a great way to help your dog learn to want to share everything!
If you have any concerns about resource guarding, it is highly advisable to contact a reputable, experienced trainer who uses a gentle, science based approach to teaching. Be sure to avoid any methods that require verbal or physical reprimands which could exacerbate the problem and put people (and your dog) at greater risk of injury.