Resource guarding is a natural behavior that is present in most animals of any species – including humans. We all want to keep hold of our stuff!
Resource guarding becomes a problem when a dog’s urge to keep people or dogs away from their prized possessions or food, and to keep hold of things, gets overamplified and out of control.
Although some breeds are more likely to do this than others, any dog can exhibit this behavior, no matter its breed or size.
If you’re looking for professional help but an in-person dog trainer isn’t an option right now, SpiritDog Training offers an online course, Stop Resource Guarding, that will assist in resolving this issue.
What is Resource Guarding in Dogs?
What is Resource Guarding in Dogs?
It’s a fairly common behavior problem that dog owners seek help for.
And it’s also one of the most important to resolve because dogs who guard their resources can be dangerous to people and other dogs.
Resource guarding is any behavior that a dog displays to convince others to stay away from an object, place, or resource. It is sometimes termed as food aggression, but it can also include toys, beds, doorways, furniture, and even the dog itself.
Check out this post for help with a dog resource guarding a favorite human being.
What are Signs of Resource Guarding?
A resource guarder may exhibit any of the following behaviors when others approach its valuable resources:
- Posture changes – including raised hackles (hair on the back), ears pinned back, stiffness, stillness, and staring at the other dog(s) or person
- Growling, lip curling
- Whale eye (where the whites of the dog’s eye are visible)
- Swatting or biting to remove another dog or person
- Directing all the dog’s focus/energy on guarding its valuable item
- Dogs will often stand still over the article they’re guarding with their head lowered.
Intensity of Resource Guarding
The behavior can be exhibited in more or less intense forms:
– A dog might only show defensive behavior, such as a stiff body and direct stare, to keep others away from its valuable resource
– Or a dog might go as far as growling and biting to prevent others from approaching his/her prized possession.
Is Resource Guarding Dangerous?
When a dog is trying to guard a valuable resource from others, there’s a strong possibility that the behavior will increase in intensity and frequency. And without help to resolve this, it can lead to aggression towards people and other dogs.
Resource guarding in dogs is dangerous – not just because your dog might bite someone but because resource guarding tends to get worse over time if it’s left untreated or if it’s dealt with in the wrong way.
Different Types of Resource Guarding
Dog to Human Resource Guarding
This is thought to be the most common form of resource guarding. Resource guarding between dogs and people tends to be more of a behavior problem with puppies because they have not learned how to control this yet.
Dog Directed Resource Guarding
As mentioned above, this is thought to be less common than dog-to-human resource guarding, but this may simply be because pooches in a single-dog household rarely have the opportunity to resource guard their stuff from other dogs, as the situation rarely arises.
All pet dogs live with humans, but not all dogs live with other dogs.
However, it’s important that dog owners are aware of it. This is because dogs can be very aggressive with each other if their guarding behaviors escalate, which could lead to injury or even death.
Incidences between two household dogs may occur during certain periods in their lives, such as when either are experiencing hormonal changes or when there’s a change in the canine household dynamic for any reason.
It can also happen if one of the dogs is new to the household or when introducing a new object (such as another dog bed).
Changes that cause this behavior usually occur suddenly and only last for a brief period. Our dog’s brains are programmed to adapt quickly, and once these changes (and the threat they cause) disappear, resource guarding between dogs should subside.
It is not an indication your dog will guard its resources from people, and many dogs are completely tolerant of humans coming close to their resources, handling them, and removing them.
How Can I Tell if My Dog is Resource Guarding?
If your dog’s behavior meets any of the descriptions above, it’s time to seek help!
If you can’t work with a trainer in person but need help with your dog’s resource-guarding behavior, SpiritDog Training provides an online course called Stop Resource Guarding that can help address this problem professionally.
Are There Other Behaviors That Are Sometimes Confused With Resource Guarding in Dogs?
A resource guarding dog is not “playing keep away”. When dogs play with a toy, they are relaxed and happy, even if they are still fixated on the toy.
Resource guarding is a behavior that can lead to injury, and it’s also one of the behaviors most likely to lead to a dog being abandoned or given up for re-homing.
Because resource guarding is commonly seen in Spaniels, the term “cocker rage” or “springer rage” pops up regularly. A genuine case of rage differs greatly from resource guarding.
Rage is a neurological issue similar to epilepsy. If your dog is guarding items and you can identify the triggers, it is not “rage.” I’ve worked with hundreds of dogs, and I have yet to see an authentic case of rage.
What Causes Resource Guarding?
This is a common question and one that doesn’t have a simple answer. Very often, it is a combination of factors that causes it.
Resource guarding can be triggered by early experiences of having a valued item removed without being given an alternative.
Genetics can also play a big role. Part of the reason that Cocker spaniels are particularly susceptible to developing this issue is that we have bred them for generations to do their job of carrying a relatively large bird across difficult terrain.
And in order to do that job, they must have an innate urge to have and hold objects.
When the behavior of holding is so inherently rewarding and reinforcing for the dog, it is easy to see how a few incidents of having something forcibly taken away from them can cause the dog to want to hold on to objects all the more.
As with all behavioral problems, pain can be a factor.
A dog in pain is more likely to show resource guarding type behaviors, e.g., if the dog is on a sofa and somebody comes near them or sits on the sofa, this can sometimes cause pain, and it will look like the dog is resource guarding the sofa.
This is more common in older dogs, who are more likely to have undiagnosed joint pain. Dogs who do not have outlets for exhibiting natural species- and breed-specific behaviors (i.e., doing things that dogs love to do) are also at higher risk of developing behavioral problems, which can include resource guarding.
Digestive issues are sometimes implicated. Emerging science suggests gut flora is very much linked to behavioral issues, particularly anxiety.
In a study of rodents showing anxious behaviors, when the contents of the rodents’ gut were transplanted with another group of rodents, the recipient animals took on the temperament of the donor group.
Mice colonized with gut microbiota from stressed mice showed stress-type behaviors. The results suggest a link between gut flora, brain function, and anxiety/depression.
What Should I Do if My Dog is Resource Guarding?
If your dog shows any of the behaviors described in this article, they may be trying to protect their valuable objects from you, other members of your household, or other dogs.
This is a serious issue that needs to be resolved as soon as possible.
When to Consult a Canine Professional About Resource Guarding
Resource guarding in dogs should always receive professional attention. There are many potential reasons for resource guarding, and each case is unique.
One of the most important things you can do to help your dog overcome its behavior is to work with an experienced positive-reinforcement trainer who understands canine body language.
They’ll be able to properly assess your dog’s unique situation and recommend strategies to help them overcome their issues.
What are the Most Important Steps I Can Take if My Dog is Resource Guarding?
While you are waiting for your behaviorist appointment, here are some general guidelines:
- Don’t forcibly take anything away from your dog. If you absolutely must take something away because it’s a life or death situation, throw down a handful of high-value treats and remove the article when the dog isn’t looking. Some dogs will get wise to this and will carry the article to the scattered treats and stand over it whilst they vacuum up the food, so it can help to practice this treat scatter when the dog has nothing of value.
- Feed them in a low-traffic place – e.g., not in a narrow hallway where people need to pass close by or in a busy kitchen. Let your dog eat in peace.
- If your dog steals articles such as socks or teatowels from the laundry pile, keep your laundry in a hamper with a lid and keep the dog in another room while you are loading and unloading the washing machine. Don’t give them the opportunity to steal and guard items.
- If your dog resource guards their food from another resident dog, keep them separate for feeding or chew times. Feeding your dogs in different rooms or in crates is an easy fix for this.
- Don’t leave items lying around that might trigger your dog to guard. By removing the issues from your dog’s immediate environment, he’ll be able to get plenty of practice being relaxed with others while not guarding his resource.
- Always have food-based training sessions in an area where your dog feels comfortable, even if you need to feed your dog in several places around the home.
- Allow your dog to adjust to his environment at his own pace, even if that means he guards resources for longer than you’d like.
- Learn how canine body language changes when dogs are feeling defensive.
- Do not allow others to approach your dog when he is eating, chewing, playing with a toy, sleeping or resting.
- Teach your dog behaviors that can help you move them around without manhandling them, such as a hand touch.
Can Resource Guarding be Fixed?
The best way to stop this behavior is through consistent training, effective management, and positive reinforcement.
When resource guarding isn’t resolved early on, it often gets worse as the dog gets older.
Most dogs can be trained out of their resource guarding behavior, but some may never fully overcome it completely, and it may be something you always have to be mindful of.
Can Resource Guarding Be Prevented?
Preventing resource guarding starts by teaching your dog that he doesn’t need to be protective over his valued objects, but this behavior is often learned the hard way.
When others interact with your dog positively around its valued resources, it helps to desensitize your pet so he learns he doesn’t need to guard items from people.
To prevent resource guarding, if you ever need to take an item away from your dog, always trade up – this means you give them something more valuable in return so they understand it’s in their best interest to give up the article.
If it’s not a matter of life or death, you can trade up, pretend to inspect the item and then give it back to your dog so they get a double reward.
To prevent your dog from becoming food aggressive over his food bowl, while he’s having his food, you can (from a safe distance) add higher value treats to the bowl so he develops positive associations with having people nearby while he eats.
If your dog is already showing signs of resource guarding, only do these exercises under the instruction of a qualified canine professional.
If you can’t meet an in-person trainer for help with resource guarding, you can take the online course, Stop Resource Guarding, offered by SpiritDog Training. This course will help you resolve the issue.
What NOT to do When Your Dog is Resource Guarding
Never take your dog’s bowl away before he’s finished eating, or put your hands in his food bowl and don’t hassle him when he’s got something he values; otherwise, you’re confirming he’s right to be worried and suspicious about things being taken away when anyone comes close.
I sometimes see this approach being recommended on social media, but this is old, outdated advice that can make the problem way worse. If you want to get bitten, this is a great way to go about it.
If I was in a restaurant and the server tried to take my plate while I was eating, they’d probably feel the sharp end of my fork in the back of their hand! It’s the same for your dog, so don’t mess about taking away your dog’s food.
Never punish the growl, as this is a warning. If you punish that warning, your dog will learn to skip that step and go straight for a snap or bite. Many trainers liken this to taking the batteries out of a smoke alarm. When a dog doesn’t give any warning before snapping or biting, they then become truly very dangerous.
What are the Consequences of Owners’ Inability to Resolve Resource Guarding?
It can be a dangerous canine behavior that dog owners need to be aware of because it sometimes results in bites and attacks on people.
This behavior can hurt you not only physically but emotionally as well. The consequences of not being able to resolve the problem are high, both for the dog and for other family members.
The dog can become aggressive towards visitors or guests. It can be dangerous for children who might play with its toys. It could get into fights with other dogs over food or chew items that have been left out. They can even become dangerous to their own family members.
What to do Next…
If you feel like your dog might be showing signs of resource guarding, seek out the help of a qualified professional canine behaviorist who can guide you through the steps needed to resolve the issue.
For more information about resource guarding, check out these pages: