Resource guarding is when a dog has something and they don’t want you or anyone else to have it. It’s best to teach them when they’re young but that’s not always possible.
First we must understand that resource guarding is a normal behavior and since dogs live in a human dominated world, we need to teach boundaries and how they can feel safe in this challenging world of human beings. It’s instinctive to guard their food. It’s how dogs survived and we’ll never take away their instincts, nor should we, but we must help them feel safe in their environment in the home and out in the world. Teaching pups early in life will go a long way to mitigate any kind of aggression from resource guarding.
Help your dog to feel safe when being approached while they have something.
When they’re young, start with something they don’t care too much about but that is their toy or chew toy. Approach them with a calm voice and soft, easy going posture and movement, saying something comforting and non-threatening, like a greeting that you do at any other time of day. Have something of higher value that you will use to replace what they have in their possession. When you get to the dog, show the higher value toy to them and when they let go or stop chewing on the toy they have to sniff or see what you have, give them the new toy and take away the other one. You are trading up with something more valuable. Then offer the toy they had back to them and when they let go or stop chewing on that toy, go ahead and give the toy they had originally, back to them. What we are looking for is the dog not fearing your approach while keeping calm and happy chewing on their toy. Your approach is associated with something good; a new toy or bone, thereby not having them feel like they must covet their toy or food because something of higher value is coming. By changing their discomfort or fear that something will be taken a way from them, they will be less likely to feel they need to guard the resource.
When you’ve done this a couple of times a week when they’re young, they will not ever feel the need to guard a toy or food. It’s important to do this a few times but don’t over do it. It will happen naturally in your daily routine of life. Once your puppy feels safe with you, then you don’t need to keep the pup in this teaching phase because he already trusts you and it won’t be an issue.
If it becomes an issue, say with an older dog or a puppy who had a bad start or felt threatened by someone early in life, then there is more work to be done to change the association from negative to positive when being approached. At this juncture, desensitization and counter-conditioning needs to happen. How much work needs to be put in depends on the level of aggression.
Dogs communicate their emotional state through body language and these are the signs to watch out for to know if you have a problem or not.
Signs of Resource Guarding
Freezing: The dog stops chewing or playing with the toy and freezes. They may stare at you indirectly, keeping their head near the item.
Eating faster or playing harder: Instead of freezing, they start eating faster or chewing harder on the toy. They become more intense.
Growling: Growling is another form of non-violent communication. They may freeze, growl a low and steady growl and we need to respect this so it doesn’t escalate but is a sure sign we have a resource guarder and there are ways to help mitigate any further aggression.
Raised lip and snarling: When they raise their lip they are showing their teeth as a warning sign and again needs to be respected, understanding that there’s training or desensitizing to be done.
Snapping: Some folks call this an air-snap. They are warning again, not trying to make contact but be certain it’s a sign they feel uncomfortable and are letting you know that you are too close. If they want to bite they would. This is a warning.
Biting: When a dog bites, they mean to bite. However, some dogs bite but don’t want to do damage. This is called an inhibited bite. It’s usually a single bite and no puncture or damage has been done. We must remember that when a dog wants to bite and do damage they can and will. Keeping this in mind, a resource guarder doesn’t want to hurt you but since you haven’t been respecting them nor trying to teach them that they don’t need to guard any resource, they feel the need to get bigger in their communication and bite.
I recommend a book entitled “Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding In Dogs” by Jean Donaldson, to help you if you already have a resource guarder. It’s the best book there is to help you help your dog at whatever level they are at.
Dogs can and do adapt to our human dominated world and we can help them do that with some preemptive training and conditioning. Understanding the nature of dogs and how they communicate while being aware of who we’re being with dogs can create a bond so deep that it fulfills our greatest desires and hopes for the relationship we all want with our dogs.
About the author: Jill Breitner, is a professional dog trainer, award winning author, writing articles for Dogster, The Whole Dog Journal, Animal Wellness and her own blog. She is also a dog body language expert, loving and living her life on the west coast of the USA. She is the author of Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language recommended and used by veterinarians, shelters, trainers, educators and guardians worldwide. It’s available in iTunes and Google play. Jill, is Fear Free Certified and has been teaching gentle handling/basic husbandry skills to clients dogs for 40 years. She helps you to be your pets advocate for a happier and stress free life. She also does online dog training, worldwide. Join Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page