Does your dog growl and show his teeth if you come near him while he’s chewing on a bone? Does he stiffen if you try to take a toy from him? If you walk near him while he’s eating, does he eat faster? Would you be nervous if a child approached while he had a rawhide? If you can answer no to all of these questions, take a moment to appreciate your good fortune: you have what most dog people want. If you answered any in the affirmative, your dog is exhibiting behavior that canine professionals call “resource guarding.”
Resource guarding refers to any behavior that a dog displays to convince others to stay away from something he considers valuable. Among these behaviors are the growling, tooth displaying, stiffening and frantic eating already mentioned. To that list, add glaring, snapping, barking, leaning over the resource to shield it and biting. Dogs commonly guard food, toys, treats, bones, rawhide, beds and even another dog or a person.
In most cases, resource guarding is subtle. A dog with a pig’s ear, for example, may turn his body to shield his precious treasure from anyone approaching, or he may pick it up and carry it to another room. He might put his paw on it or even give you a look that means something along the lines of “Don’t even think about it,” or “Please don’t take it away. I want it.” Few people are troubled by such mild forms of resource guarding.
Even though resource guarding can become far more serious, it’s one of my favorite behavioral problems, for several reasons. One, there are ways to prevent it in most dogs. Two, behavior-modification plans are easy to implement, clients usually buy into them and they are effective at improving the dog’s behavior. Three, many people choose to simply live with it, managing it as best they can. That may not sound very inspiring, but I consider any solution that keeps a dog at home and people safe while allowing a loving relationship between the two to flourish and grow to be a success.
Prevent Resource Guarding
Dogs are often nervous about losing what they value. With that in mind, a key aspect of preventing resource guarding, including its most common form—food bowl aggression—is to teach dogs to be happy when someone approaches or reaches for their treasure, or for the bowl while they’re eating. Dogs who are happy in a particular context are a whole lot less likely to act aggressively.
Creating this positive emotional reaction is simple: teach the dog to associate the approach of a person with treats. I advise people to walk toward their dog and toss a really good treat into the bowl or near their treasure. Once the dog is used to this, the next step is to walk over, pick up the bowl or the treasure, deliver a treat (in the bowl is fine) and then return the bowl or the treasure. It’s important to do this quickly—within a few seconds at most—so the dog doesn’t feel like he’s being teased.
I suggest doing this only once or twice per session; even though the dog receives a treat, the interruption can still be irritating. (I imagine dogs in that situation feel like I do when a restaurant server refills my water glass every time I take a sip: mildly harassed.)
Many people have been advised to put their hand in the dog’s food bowl, or to pick up the bowl and hold it. Unfortunately, this strategy is far more likely to lead to food-bowl aggression than to prevent it. Such actions are irksome, so it’s no surprise that many dogs will lose their temper eventually. While some dogs will never become resourceguarders, even when provoked, others can be taught to be aggressive around their food. Some of the worst resourceguarders I’ve ever seen were taught to be that way by their well-intentioned guardians.
People accidentally teach dogs to guard their resources in other ways as well. If a dog has a bone (or food or a shoe or the remote control) and it is taken from him, he learns that he loses treasures unless he takes action. To avoid that, instead of taking something from a dog, trade him for it. Hold a treat or other desirable object right by his nose, and if he drops the contraband, give him the offered item. This teaches him that he gets paid for letting go of things rather than that he will be mugged whenever he has something valuable.
It’s very important to help dogs feel happy about releasing items and to actively avoid making it a negative experience. Trading is far better than a battle, and is very effective, especially if he’s “trading up”—getting something better than what he surrenders.
Another strategy is to have the dog drop the object, give him a treat and then give him back the item. This helps him learn that it’s worthwhile to release things. I like to teach the cue “drop it” so that if a dog gets something he shouldn’t have, I can ask him to release it before he damages it, or damages himself.
Modify Resource Guarding Behavior
Giving extra treats when a dog has something of value is a useful technique for prevention of resource guarding, but it can also be used to stop an existing behavior. (If the dog has previously bitten or threatened anyone, I advise having a behaviorist supervise this interaction.)
Start by standing outside the dog’s reaction zone and tossing high-quality treats to him. The goal is to make him happy that a person is present when he has a treasure. This change in his emotional response is what will lead to a change in his behavior. The closer you get, the more intense the situation becomes. Intensity also goes up if the dog has a more highly valued item, or if you approach, reach for or pick up the resource.
Work at each level of intensity until the dog is comfortable, and only then progress to something harder. The highest-intensity context is to approach a dog and take something that he values highly. Success can only be achieved by gradually working toward that goal and requires many steps and many repetitions over a period of weeks and months.
Live with It
Despite the challenges of sharing a home with a dog who guards resources, it’s common for people to choose to live with it. People who have a dog with this predilection know when to expect the behavior, and they simply avoid going near their dog when he has a valued item. This predictability may account for the lack of concern many have about resource guarding. Of course, predictability varies depending on the household. A single person who rarely entertains is in a very different situation than a family with five small kids who have additional children over to play nearly every day.
Years ago, the standard view was that a dog shouldn’t be approached at mealtimes or when he was chewing a bone or playing with a favorite toy, and there’s a lot of good sense in that. If people don’t bother their dogs while they are eating, and they purposely avoid going near them when they have a bone or other treasure, trouble can be averted.
Life with a dog who allows absolutely anyone to take absolutely anything away from him is pretty easy, but that’s really a lot to ask of even the dearest, sweetest dog on the planet. There are, of course, dogs who are as unlikely to guard resources as they are to calculate Schrödinger’s wave equation. But we shouldn’t assume that dogs who are lovely but perhaps not so nonchalant about being mugged are bad.
With dogs who are at risk of causing injury, it’s obviously critical to have some way to make sure that everyone is safe. People can deal with this problem by preventing situations that trigger problem behavior (particularly aggression) and with behavior modification that alters how the dog behaves when he has something of value. How important it is to train dogs not to resource guard is an individual decision; many people are highly committed to changing their dog’s resource guarding behavior, while others, not so much.
Resource guarding is both common and absolutely normal canine behavior. I’m not excusing it or saying that it’s not a problem, but like barking and chewing, it is accepted by many people as part of living with a dog—although clearly, it’s nobody’s favorite part. As is true of other undesirable behavior, though it can be changed and improved with behavior modification, tons of people choose to accept it, figuring that life is too short to demand perfection of their best friends in all contexts.