“Resource guarding” is a general term used to describe a set of behaviors (generally aggressive) that a dog displays when they are attempting to retain control of something of value. Sometimes these are food or toy items, but sometimes they’re not tangible items. Your dog may guard their favorite sleeping/resting spots, an area near their owner, a doorway, etc.
Dogs can guard against humans and against other dogs and these do not necessarily overlap. In other words, your dog may growl when another dog approaches them while they have a chew toy, but they would be fine with you or possibly another person approaching. Resource guarding is generally pretty specific (i.e. they predictably guard certain things), but it can generalize to other things when your dog discovers how well it works.
The term “guards” just means that the dog is fearful that the item will be taken away and they are doing their best to retain control of it. If a dog resource guards their owner this does not mean that the dog is being protective against a real threat. It is similar to the way the dog would guard his bone (i.e. “I don’t like people touching my things!”).
Guarding is generally more about insecurity than anything else.
FIRST STEP: MANAGEMENT
Any behavior that gets practiced is likely to become a habit. This means that you should set up the environment so that guarding behavior does not occur. How you go about this will depend on what the dog is guarding and what your specific situation is:
If you find that they’re already in possession of an item they normally guard, or are in a place they guard…JUST LET THEM HAVE IT! Don’t force a confrontation or try to take it away so you can “show who’s boss.” This will just make it worse.
DO NOT “CORRECT” IT
Most owners’ first reaction is to reprimand or punish their dog for guarding behavior.
DO NOT DO THIS.
Your dog is already expressing stress over it and you getting angry at them only makes it worse. It does not teach them not to guard; at best it teaches them to stop acting like they’re guarding it. This is how you get a dog that bites without warning. You’re essentially teaching your dog that they’re right to get anxious about it because an argument is going to happen; it’s like trying to put out a fire with kerosene.
Also, do not set the dog up to fail by provoking a guarding response so you can “correct” your dog. This will only result in increasing their stress which will only make their reaction worse next time.
FOR OBJECT GUARDING: SET UP AN EXCHANGE PROGRAM
Teach your dog that hands come in to give, not to take. Present your dog with a neutral object that they do not guard. Let them sniff it and know that it’s there.
Then, take it away, and give them three tasty treats, one after the other. Use effusive praise. Say Yes! Yes! Yeeeesss! To your dog, this will be the strangest thing you’ve done yet. But you’re establishing a reliable exchange program and you’re teaching them the mechanics of it with an item they’re not invested in.
This makes it easy to focus on the conditioning piece, which is that something good will be offered in exchange. This is rehearsal for the main event.
IMPORTANT: do not bribe. The item is taken, then the treats appear in front of your dog. Do not waggle the treats in order to distract your dog while you reach in. That defeats the whole purpose of establishing expectation.
Distraction training will always fail in the long term. When this is completely rote and taken for granted, begin practicing the same exchange program with increasingly more valuable things.
Do it the same as always: present the item, allow your dog to sniff it, take it away, then say YES! and feed. Follow each session with play, if possible. A good game of tug or fetch further conditions your dog that the exchange program is a winning proposition.
When you get to the item(s) that your dog is the most possessive of, you should have already practiced this dozens if not hundreds of times. They should be totally neutral about it, and expect something nice to happen when you take the item.
If the item in question is something they routinely grab, some kind of “contraband” like a tissue or a remote, then practice with that item in a setup. Don’t wait until an actual incident to try it out.
Rehearsals are the KEY to success!
FOOD BOWL GUARDING
For a food, bowl you can set up a similar expectation: hands come in to give, not to take. Go through the steps of preparing your dog’s food like normal, except set down an empty bowl. When your dog looks at you like, “What gives?” Take a small handful of kibble, reach down, and drop it in the bowl. When that’s gone, put some more in it, and so on until the meal is finished. Now you’ve changed the landscape of food and you being nearby.
On a side note, if your dog is food guarding AND you’re free-feeding your dog, change immediately to timed, routine feeding. From a behavioral standpoint, free-feeding (leaving a bowl down all of the time) is contributing to the problem! You need to retain better control of the food, and bring it back to being an interactive event.
PLACE/OBJECT/FOOD GUARDING: COUNTER CONDITIONING PROTOCOL
To prevent guarding from being a problem (or for early signs of guarding), you can condition your approach to mean something pleasant to the dog. To do this you would approach him while he has something of value and before he gets anxious toss him a delicious treat and walk away. This begins to teach the dog that your approach means good things for him. You will gradually be able to get closer and closer to the dog while he has something of value.
The important part of this exercise is that you reward him or her BEFORE you see signs of guarding. Often the first sign of guarding is that your dog eats faster (or tries to swallow the item) or that he freezes over the item and stops eating/chewing. If the early sign of guarding occurs when you are 10 feet away, that means you need to toss the delicious treat from 12 feet away. Do everything in your power to not let the guarding behavior be practiced.
The process is essentially the same when the trigger is another dog. We put the other dog on leash to control range, then introduce your dog at whatever range the guarding dog is comfortable with. At that point, we start Classical Conditioning and start delivering tasty treats. Over several sessions we decrease the distance between the two.
POSSESSION PROBLEMS: TEACH MOUTH CONTROL
Practice the “Drop it” command with items that the dog does not value. This is best done with playing constructive games of Tug.
“Drop It” is not lured or taught with pressure; we simply make it boring and non-rewarding. Immobilize the tug toy, say “Drop It,” and W-A-I-T. Don’t pull on it, don’t movie it around, don’t
reprimand, just wait it out. When they let go, mark it and reactivate the game with energy. Your dog learns that letting go turns the game back on. With a little practice Drop It will become instantaneous.
The benefit of this is that the dog learns that giving up things to you is a good thing. Do not chase or corner your dog if they have something (if it can be avoided) as this is more likely to
provoke a guarding response. Likewise, if the trigger is the approach of another dog, you can teach that dog to “Leave It.” We have step-by-step instructions on the website:
GOOD CANINE ENRICHMENT REDUCES MANY NERVOUS BEHAVIORS
A dog that has numerous outlets for both physical and mental stimulation often has greatly reduced behavior problems. Some things to consider:
GUARDING PEOPLE: GET HELP
Resource guarding specific items against humans has an exceptionally good prognosis, provided you get the appropriate help. The problem becomes harder to deal with if there are children involved, unpredictable triggers, your dog guards’ numerous items against other household dogs in which a bite occurred, and the inability or unwillingness to systematically desensitize the dog to your approach.
Here is a good, detailed book if you feel up to tackling this yourself:
If you treat your dog like a criminal, that is exactly what you’ll create. If you treat your dog like a good dog that is making a mistake, it’s easier to fix the problem. Kindness, support, and consistency will ALWAYS teach more than childish demonstrations of power.