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Resource Guarding in Dogs

October 31, 2013

One of the most common concerning behaviors for dog owners is when their dog guards objects such as toys, bones, or food. This behavior is called resource guarding (RG), and the good news is that while it can be an emotionally charged issue, it is a behavior that is usually responsive to management and training and generally carries a good prognosis.

There are some important things to understand about resource guarding in order to address it:

While it is an unacceptable behavior for dogs living with people, in the grand scheme of things, although not all dogs resource guard it is a very normal dog behavior. In fact, it is a very common behavior for many animals because access to resources such as food, water, and safe resting areas is necessary for survival.

This means that… a dog who does RG is not “bad” or necessarily dangerous (depending on the extent of his/her behavior and what s/he guards).

Dogs may guard almost any resource you can think of, and probably some you can’t: Food, toys, sleeping spots, a particular room in the house, used paper towels or tissues, empty food bowls, the garbage can, a pair of shoes, or even people (one of my own dogs resource guards ME from the other dogs in the household). An individual dog may guard several resources or only one or one type (such as food).

This means that… if dogs choose to guard resources that do not immediately seem valuable to us, it can be difficult for us to recognize that RG is occurring or easy to misidentify what the dog is actually guarding.

Dogs may RG against other animals, against people, or against both – but not always against both. That is, a dog may RG against other dogs but not people, or vice versa.

This means that… a dog who resource guards against another dog in the house is not necessarily a danger to humans in the house.

Despite some popular theory to the contrary, at its core resource guarding is NOT a “dominant” behavior. Quite the opposite,  it is almost always fear or anxiety based. That is, the dog is afraid s/he is going to lose his/her stuff, and why not? Dogs’ instincts tell them that an animal who loses his or her stuff cannot survive for long. A confident dog is far less likely to resource guard than an insecure dog.

This means that… punishment or dominance based ways of addressing the behavior will often make resource guarding worse instead of better, as these methods tend to teach the dog that not only do they have a good reason to be afraid we will take their stuff, but that we might also scare or hurt them to get it.

For any situation involving conflict, including resource guarding, normal dogs usually go through an escalating series of warning signals that are meant to AVOID a fight or bite. Typically they start by tensing or stiffening their body and hunching over or putting their paws on the valuable resource. This is usually followed by lifting a lip, then growling. Next, most dogs will “air snap” – that is, they “bite” the air without making any physical contact (because they are “firing a warning shot” and intentionally missing). Lastly, dogs will bite with varying degrees of what is called inhibition; a very inhibited bite is a “soft” bite that does little damage while a very uninhibited bite is full-force bite and can do a lot of damage. Individual dogs may travel through this sequence very quickly or very slowly, and this may change over time.

This means that… once you are familiar with dogs’ warning signals, you can safely avoid escalating any particular guarding incident from warning signals to a bite.

So what can we do about resource guarding? The good news is that whether you have a new dog or puppy who has shown no signs of RG or a dog who is already showing signs of RG, there are several training exercises and games you can practice to help prevent it.

First, a note about management. Management simply means controlling the environment so that your dog does not have the opportunity to practice behaviors you don’t want him/her to practice. The more a behavior is practiced, the more ingrained it becomes and the harder it is to get rid of. In the case of resource guarding, this means avoiding situations in which your dog guards. If your dogs guards the food bowl, feed the dog in a crate or behind a baby gate where s/he will not be disturbed, and pick the empty bowl up between feedings. If your dog guards toys or chews, either do not give your dog that type of toy/chew (either temporarily or permanently), or only give it when your dog is safely confined where s/he will not be disturbed.

Second, “In the moment,” your goal for a particular episode of resource guarding should be to keep everyone as safe as possible. It is not a teaching moment; your dog is too anxious to learn anything and you may be too anxious or emotional (it is normal to feel somewhat betrayed) to teach anything effectively. Unless your dog has something that may be harmful to him or her, simply walk away and let the dog have what s/he has. The idea of doing so is offensive to many people who feel they are letting the dog get away with bad behavior, but too often punishment or stubbornly trying to fix the problem in the heat of the moment only makes things worse overall as both you and your dog’s tension escalates. In particular, it is very, very important not to punish growling. Growling is not a behavior problem in and of itself; growling is simply communication, a way for your dog to tell you that s/he is uncomfortable in a situation, and a superficial symptom of the real problem that needs to be fixed (in this case, resource guarding). If dogs are punished for growling or other warning behaviors, there is a chance that they may learn to skip the warnings altogether and go straight to a bite.

So what should you do?

First and foremost, if your dog has seriously bitten anyone or you are afraid your dog will seriously bite someone, please call the clinic for guidance. You may need help from a veterinary behaviorist, or your dog may benefit from starting anti-anxiety medication while you are going through the training process. If your dog is showing some warning behaviors but has not bitten, you can try some of the following exercises on your own:

  1. One very simple exercise is to casually walk by your dog when s/he is eating and drop small bits of very tasty food (such as small pieces of cooked chicken or other lean meats) near or into the bowl. You can do the same thing when your dog has a toy or is resting on his/her bed. Over time, your dog will start to associate your presence around his/her resources with tasty treats dropping from the sky and instead of being anxious will be relaxed and happy. For a dog who is already resource guarding, this is the very first thing you should start with and the only exercise you should practice until your dog’s body language is relaxed as you walk by things that s/he would previously tense, hover, or growl over as you walked by.
  2. There are a variety of “trading” games that can prevent or reduce anxiety about giving up resources. For trading games, it is helpful to consider what the “value” of various foods or other resources are to your dog. For example, usually something like peanut butter or small bits of cheese are higher value to a dog than their regular kibble. For some dogs, toys might be higher value than food or vice versa, and among toys a squeaky toy might be higher value than a ball or vice versa.We care about relative values because when you start playing trading games with your dog it is very important that what you have is higher value than what your dog has. You will be giving your dog an opportunity to “trade up”; most dogs will learn that giving up what they have is not a big deal if they are likely to get something better in return.

    So the game might look like this: I sit down by my resource guarder, Pip, and hand him a tennis ball (a low value object for him) while I am hiding a wooden spoon dipped in peanut butter (very high value for him) behind my back. I ask “can I see that?” and hold out the wooden spoon. When he starts licking the spoon, I casually reach out and take the tennis ball. Then I withdraw the spoon and give the tennis ball back to him. I have demonstrated two things to him: 1. If I take what he has, he will probably get something better. 2. If I take what he has, I am likely to give it back. Over time, with a lot of practice and gradually escalating the value of both the object he starts with and the object I offer in trade, he learns it is no big deal when I am around something he has and values.

  3. If your dog guards places – for example, a spot on the couch or bed – you will need to work on an “off” command. In the meantime, temporarily prevent access (keep doors closed, use baby gates, or place cardboard boxes or other objects on the space) and keep a drag line or long, light leash attached to your dog’s collar. The leash can be used to gently guide your dog off the spot as necessary before s/he has learned off, and also to help teach it.To teach “off,” start with your dog on a place s/he does NOT guard such as a footstool, chair, dog bed or even a rug or mat. Tell your dog “Dog, off!” and toss a treat off to the side. If s/he does not step off the place, gently guide her off with the leash and reward. Practice this frequently, changing the location until eventually you are practicing on the guarded spot.
  4. If your dog guards a person, the person should calmly get up and walk away whenever the dog displays any guarding behaviors around him/her. Do not look at or speak to the dog, just calmly walk away. We want the dog to learn that guarding you actually makes you go away instead of keeping you “safe.” Also avoid getting stuck in any tight spaces with the dog; the more space around you, the less urgently most dogs will feel the need to guard you.
  5. There are two excellent books that can help guide you through this process. They are both by a dog trainer named Jean Donaldson. One is called “Mine!” and is primarily geared towards dogs who resource guard against people. The other is called “Fight!” and is primarily about dogs in the same household who fight with each other, but includes information about dogs who resource guard from each other.
  6. The exercise of repeatedly taking away a dog’s food bowl while they are eating (or bone or toy or whatever), while widely recommended to prevent resource guarding, commonly backfires and actually creates RG and I absolutely do NOT recommend it. (Remember that RG is based in fear of having things taken away, and this makes sense.) Let your dog eat or chew his/her bone in peace; be trustworthy, and your dog will learn to trust you.
  7. As always, if you have questions please feel free to call the clinic and speak to one of our veterinarians.

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