You reach down to grab your dog’s empty bowl after dinner and he responds by glaring at you, hunching over it like you’re stealing a sirloin steak from him. Or you absentmindedly try to take away a bone that’s gotten too small and your dog bares his teeth when you get too close.
This behavior is called resource guarding in dogs, and it’s shocking when a canine friend you know shows a side you’ve never seen, especially when it’s an aggressive response directed at you.
Being on the receiving end of guarding behaviors can be scary, and these behaviors can escalate and become dangerous. That said, resource guarding in dogs is actually a common training issue and can be managed effectively if treated properly.
What is Resource Guarding in Dogs?
Resource guarding is a dog’s tendency to freeze, growl, snap or bite when they believe that something they value is threatened. And, believe it or not, it is a normal canine behavior.
In the wild, staking claims over food and turf can mean the difference between life and death.
Occasional resource guarding behavior between dogs in multi-dog homes is typical and often ritualized to the point where the behaviors are challenging for pet parents to detect. For example, a dog chewing on a bone might briefly raise his lip to expose his teeth mid-chew if a sibling dog gets too close. This subtle display is usually enough to prevent a full confrontation.
Signs of Resource Guarding in Dogs
Resource guarding exists on a spectrum, both in terms of the behaviors a dog uses to try to establish ownership and the types of items dogs opt to guard.
Some dogs are drawn to guard more than just consumables like food and bones. A possessive dog might guard anything from empty food bowls, toys, beds, specific locations in the home, and people to items that might not seem valuable to us, like tissues, wrappers, dirty diapers, or even laundry.
A dog’s possessive behaviors aren’t always obvious at first and might escalate as the perceived threat increases, meaning a dog’s frozen posture over a food bowl might shift into growling and air snapping as the person gets closer.
Resource guarding behaviors in dogs can include:
- Repositioning the body over the item or running away with it
- Freezing in place
- Hard staring
- Faster consumption of the item they are guarding
- Raised lip
- Lunging or air snapping
What Causes Resource Guarding in Dogs?
While there’s a genetic component to resource guarding, it’s not the sole reason why dogs display the behavior. Any dog can develop guarding behaviors, from an adult dog with adopted at a shelter to a purebred puppy brought home from a breeder at 8 weeks old.
People used to believe that dogs with a history of food insecurity might be more driven to resource guard, but even dogs that have always had a regular feeding schedule can develop resource guarding issues. A 4-year study by the ASPCA found that underweight dogs in a shelter environment were no more likely to be aggressive over food than well-fed dogs.
Some dogs become possessive when given a novel item, like a high-value bone. Special chews, like pig ears, can accidentally trigger guarding reactions in dogs that haven’t displayed the behavior before. Shifts in the household, like the addition of a new dog, might also set off guarding. Dogs dealing with an undiagnosed medical issue or pain might also resort to guarding behaviors when they feel threatened.
How to Help Resource Guarding in Dogs
Before beginning a training program, it’s important to assess the severity of your dog’s guarding behavior. Pet parents who are worried about the intensity of their dog’s reactions should contact a positive reinforcement trainer or veterinary behaviorist for help setting up a behavioral modification program. This is especially beneficial if there are small children in the home or if the dog guards a variety of unpredictable items.
One of the easiest ways to deal with resource guarding in dogs is to manage your home environment to prevent the behavior from occurring. If your dog’s bowl is in a high-traffic area, relocate it to a quiet spot so that he can eat in peace. If you’re concerned about family compliance, whether from a sibling dog or humans, feed your dog behind a gate to avoid mistakes and put his bowl away after he finishes. Keep potential high-value items like laundry or shoes out of reach to prevent accidental guarding situations.
Instead of giving your dog chews that trigger a possessive reaction, provide bones that your dog won’t guard or only give extra special chews in spaces like his crate where you know he won’t be interrupted.
Counterconditioning for Dogs
While managing your dog’s environment is a good place to start, it isn’t an option for every household.
The goal of training for resource guarding in dogs is to change your dog’s emotional response through a process called counterconditioning. This process should make it so that your dog no longer considers a person (or animal) near a treasured item a threat.
Here’s how counterconditioning works:
Step 1: Make a list of everything your dog guards in order of preference. Then determine your dog’s “buffer zone,” or the point where he won’t react to your presence when he has a guardable item. This zone will be your starting point for training with your dog’s least guardable item.
Step 2: Next, load up on savory, high-value goodies. Opt for something potent, like cut up hot dogs, bits of cheese, or cubes of chicken.
Step 3: The longer a dog has possession of an item, the more “ownership” he has, so start the process right as he begins interacting with the item, whether he’s eating from his food bowl or gnawing a bone.
Step 4: Approach your dog and stop outside of the area that triggers a reaction, then toss a few pieces of the special treat so they land close to him, then walk away.
Step 5: Repeat a few times, then wrap up the training session.
Step 6: Continue this process whenever your dog has the guardable item (make sure not to trigger guarding behavior when not in a training scenario) and watch for him to have a positive reaction to your approach, like looking at you with a happy expression as you take a step towards him or relaxed tail wag. This is the point where your dog is starting to make a connection between you getting closer to something he values and the delivery of a delicious snack and is the most important part of the process!
Step 7: Once your dog is consistently showing a relaxed and happy response to your approach and is taking treats from a variety of different directions from outside of his buffer zone, gradually begin to move closer in consecutive training sessions, literally one step at a time. If your dog reverts to guarding behavior at any point, go back to working at the distance where he’s still showing a happy response to you.
Your goal is to be able to walk up to your dog’s bowl and drop a few special goodies into it without provoking anything other than an excited tail wag.
Sudden Resource Guarding in Dogs
Sudden resource guarding in dogs could be due to the introduction of a new high-value bone or toy that your dog values more than anything he’s ever had. For example, a dog that’s only been given rubber chewable bones might be more likely to guard a raw meaty marrow bone.
Unexpected guarding could also indicate a medical condition, like undiagnosed pain, or it could be a symptom of cognitive decline in senior dogs. If your dog exhibits sudden resource guarding, consider scheduling a veterinary checkup to rule out any medical issues.
Training Basics to Help Avoid Resource Guarding
It’s possible to safeguard against resource guarding using training techniques to help dogs understand that people being close to treasured resources are a good thing.
For example, dropping special treats into your puppy’s bowl while he eats is a simple way to reinforce the notion that people approaching his bowl during mealtime equals extra deliciousness. You can also teach your dog to “drop it” or “trade” the high-value goodie for another treat or toy. Work on these lessons during play so that your dog learns that relinquishing something he values means he’ll get a special treat and get the toy back as well. Then start using the cues in real-life scenarios once your dog has generalized the behaviors and will do them happily when you ask.