Resource Guarding

Resource Guarding

November 20, 2022


Resource guarding occurs when a dog has, or is around, something they find very valuable. This could be a special treat, their bed, their food bowl, some rubbish they’ve found, a human or toys. Resource guarding is normal dog behaviour. Dogs have evolved as opportunistic feeders, and it is natural for them to protect what they consider to be their valuable treasure from potential threats. They will begin signalling discomfort through escalating aggression (see ‘canine-aggression ladder’). Aggression signals in canines can be an important form of communication to avoid conflict.

Resource guarding can be identified by other subtle changes in behaviour, such as eating faster or putting their body in between the perceived threat and their resource. If they feel the need to tell someone or something to “back off”, they will utilise their social toolbox and use their subtle signals such as lip licking, growling, freezing still and giving the side eye. If this works well enough for their desired effect, they will not escalate their signals further. If their signals are ignored or challenged, they may escalate into growling, all the way up to biting in the worst instances.

Whilst resource guarding is normal, it is still important to work on it as it is important for humans to be able to remove dangerous items from their dogs and for children to be safe around dogs and their resources.

It's important to remember that the things our dogs find valuable can be changeable; what they are resource guarding today might be different from what they feel they need to guard next month. Because of this, the best way we can help our dogs minimise resource guarding tendencies is to focus on the bigger picture, rather than just the item in question on a given day. To do this, rather than look at training around a certain toy, we are instead going to focus on altering our dog's emotional state - we want them to look forward to seeing us (or other animals) while they have possession of, or access to, whatever they find valuable.

What NOT to do in order to minimise resource guarding behaviours!

Very common advice you will find on the internet is to pet your dog or play with the food in their bowl while they are eating, or to remove the food from them and then give it back. If you try these techniques, you will in the best case scenario just be an annoyance to your dog while they are trying to enjoy a meal. In the worst case scenario you are creating serious defiance towards you near their food and therefore the guarding behaviour is created and continuously escalated.

Minimising resource guarding

We always want to teach our dogs that our presence means good things are going to happen. We don’t want to make them fear losing what they have; to no surprise, taking food off your dog does not teach them how to enjoy the presence of others around valuable things. However, providing them with positive experiences while they have access to high value items can change their minds.

It would be counterproductive attempting to stop our dogs from using their subtle warning signals; all we would be doing is making them bottle up displays of their emotions at times where their behaviour would be mild. By ignoring those signals and pushing forward anyway, we can unintentionally invoke aggressive behaviour much higher up on the aggression ladder, such as lunging and nipping. We actually want our dogs to be able to use these relatively safe signals to show their discomfort, giving us the opportunity to moderate our behaviour, modify the environment accordingly and address the identified issues through training.

As with most training, our first tool to use is MANAGEMENT. We want to prevent as many potential negative feelings around prized resources as possible. This means giving your dog ample space when they have prized things.

If they are the sole dog in the home, you will only need to monitor the humans in the home. This means making sure everyone knows, and follows, the rules. If you cannot guarantee that, it is best you utilise a quiet area or crate.

If you are in a multi-dog household, you can set your dogs up for success by providing your dogs with separate areas to enjoy their goodies, whether that be in a different room from one another, in their crates, or seperated with an appropriate divider (e.g. puppy-fence/baby gate). Unless you are actively supervising your dogs, it is best not to leave them together with high valued treats or toys, particularly if they have any history or tendencies to guard resources.

Start building up positive associations by using the TREAT & RETREAT method:

  1. Review the Canine Aggression Ladder again and also watch this video to start noticing what your dog is trying to tell you.
  2. Give your dog a longer lasting goodie, or be ready for when they have chosen one for themselves and are enjoying it. While we want to increase to really high valued items, it is often better to start with something of lower value.
  3. Watch your dog's body language as you approach the area. There is no need to rush your dog.
  4. Stop before your dog shows discomfort or back up if you have overstepped, in range of throwing a treat, and gently toss a really yummy treat towards your dog.
  5. Walk away.
  6. Repeat.
  7. Sounds simple? That’s because it is, and it works. What we are doing here is showing our dog they have nothing to lose from our presence (they lost nothing) and everything to gain (a freebie treat). Like all our training, you need to go at your dogs’ pace in order for it to be successful. Don’t jump the gun or try to rush them through it.

When doing your treat & retreat at your dog's pace, you will begin to notice your dog perking up when you approach. This is what we are looking for - the expectation of something good coming. Continue to reward them using your treat & retreat, reducing the distance between you and your dog in slow increments once they have shown happy signals at the last distance you used. Eventually, if you have taken the time your dog needed, you should be able to bring your hand to the dog’s resource and add your high value treat right on top of it; moving forward from there, at some point your dog will even look forward to you picking up the item because they know it will come back with even more goodness on top. Do not rush it and only move forward if your dog’s head backs away from the item and they look at you full of positive expectancy.

If you have more than one dog and are concerned about potential resource guarding issues between them, you will also use the treat & retreat method described above but with a barrier between your dogs. If you do not have access to a barrier, you can use their leads to maintain a comfortable distance for each of them. Allow them to move away from one another but not towards each other - you need to be the one keeping an eye on each dog's signalling and preventing them from even getting to that point while providing the treats to create a positive association. Follow the same principle as the treat & retreat for humans.

You should also practice swapping one goodie for another with your dog/s. This is especially helpful when they get hold of things they're not supposed to have. Set them up for success by asking them to ‘swap’ their low-value toy/item for your high-value toy or chewie. Rather than approach your dog to swap, call them over to you to reduce the pressure. Our reward needs to be better than what they have. Very gradually you can ask your dog to swap things that are a bit higher in value - always going at your dog's pace.

In essence, the aim is to improve your dog's emotional state around the things they value the most, such as a special toy or certain foods. We are increasing their optimism that good things, rather than bad things, happen when you’re around their goodies. In the long run, your dog will be much happier, and healthier, for it.

If your dogs are already past some minor signalling and are properly resource guarding, please contact a force-free trainer and work through the protocols with them.