What is resource guarding?
One of the more challenging behaviour issues for dog owners to modify is Resource Guarding. It’s also probably one of the most commonly misunderstood or misdiagnosed issues by dog owners.
One popular, yet dangerously inaccurate, explanation is that the behaviour is that of a “dominant” dog. This is the mistaken belief that dogs are all about rank and that we need to be the “alpha” with our dog. Any dog that attempts to prevent us from taking anything he has must surely be acting out of their “dominant” nature and clearly views us as being on a much lower rank – right? Nope - this is not accurate. Entire methods and programs of training are based on this myth and it is an extremely dangerous approach to take.
Both dog owners and non dog owners often have high expectations of our pet dogs. We have little tolerance for any grumpy or aggressive-seeming behaviour directed toward humans at any point . They can’t be in a “bad mood” and express their feelings in their normal dog way. In addition, many of us do, however, hope our dogs will act aggressively in the event of any threat by a human to our homes or to our families. Essentially, we expect them to distinguish the good people from the bad.
Many dog owners get upset at the idea of their pet dogs refusing to give up a treasured object – “how dare they growl at me” – but at the same time are almost proud of the idea that their dog is “protecting” them from approaching dogs or humans. It’s the same behaviour to a dog and so is a very confusing message when we aren’t clear or consistent in our expectations.
It’s always amazed me that dogs are so tolerant of us! Sensational news stories aside, dogs really have developed an amazing capacity for tolerance in the face of our frequently conflicting, extremely confusing messages and our high expectations of them. If I was a dog, I can’t say that I would be quite so tolerant!
What we’re really asking is that our dogs go their entire lifetime without ever losing their temper. Do you think any human could do the same? Not only are we asking for the impossible, we are also continuing to produce breeds that are genetically predisposed to be “suspicious”, “protective”, “wary of strangers”, “one-person dog”, “loyal” – all euphemisms for dogs who more easily display fearful and aggressive looking behaviour.
Not all aggressive behaviour falls under the category of resource guarding – but a good amount of it certainly does.
Resource Guarding is a normal dog behaviour and can be described as simply as a dog’s attempt to hold on to a valuable resource.
“Behaviour that discourages another to take, or get too close to, an object or valued area in a dog’s possession.” (Excerpt taken from an article on Resource Guarding by Dr. Patricia McConnell, May 3, 2013. Full article may be found at patriciamcconnell.com.)
In a dog’s world if I have it, then it’s mine – simple as that. They are unprepared for the human tendency to want to take things from them frequently or to want to invade their personal space bubble for various reasons that are unclear to the dog. Typically any dog that attempts to take something in the possession of another dog – ignoring warning behaviours to cease their actions – is risking injury in doing so.
All dogs have some degree of desire to hold on to resources that are valuable to them. With some dogs, you may never see any of the behaviour associated with resource guarding during their lifetime or you may see them in only their mildest form.
In the case of other dogs, you may see them start very early then continue and often escalate as they mature. Resource guarding is a “normal” behaviour in that it exists in dogs. When dogs are afraid, feel threatened or are attempting to hold on to a valued resource, they display certain behaviours. However, extreme resource guarding behaviour, especially those displayed in the very young, can be very unsettling, potentially dangerous and most trainers and behaviourists would not consider that “normal” behaviour under the spectrum of resource guarding in the average dog.
In the following sequence we see (1) Dante happily chewing his bone, (2) then he spots someone approaching and gives a subtle warning “look”, (3) human ignores the warning and gets into his space for a hug so he quits chewing, freezes and waits, but that warning is also ignored, so (4) he turns and looks directly at them with a low growl and tightly closed mouth - trying to be more clear. Thankfully the human finally moved away!
Things dogs commonly guard
- Food bowls or food dispensing toys
- Dropped food
- Treasured toys
- Family members
- Sleeping locations – growling as you approach dog beds, couches, human beds or any area the dog is already occupying.
- Dropped objects or found objects on walks
- Stolen items like laundry or items from the garbage
Resource Guarding Behaviours
A display of resource guarding behaviour may include one or more than one behaviour displayed at the same time or added as the circumstances escalate.
Normal guarding behaviour
- Speeding up eating as you’re approaching a food bowl or food dispensing toy.
- Shifting position to subtly block your approach.
- Quick and frequent glances that may speed up as you approach.
- Getting up and taking a toy further away from you as you approach or even just moving it a little bit further away from you as you sit beside them.
- Moving just a little bit closer to you as a dog or stranger approaches.
- Glancing at you out of the corner of their eye – commonly called a “whale eye” – as they attempt to keep their eyes on the prize but also track your movements (in a “whale eye” the white of the eye is visible).
- More frantic movements. You may see a faster moving tail along with faster consumption, shifting back and forth as they quickly either eat or attempt to move items to a different area. They may appear “happy” but movements are faster and more frantic than their usual friendly “happy to see you self”.
- Low growling as you approach.
More extreme guarding behaviour
- Growling that intensifies as you approach. In more extreme cases, growling can become snarling with teeth showing.
- Barking and lunging – often seen displayed toward an oncoming dog or person when on leash with a human.
- Freezing – completely stilling their movements as you approach. The freezing may be small seconds of freezing as they tracks your approach or longer moments of freezing if your approach continues.
- Crouching or lowering their body to hover over a treasured object.
- Hard eye – a hard open-eyed stare. This can be directed at the person or dog approaching. It may even appear that your dog is just staring out into space. The hard stare while just staring at nothing in particular can be mistaken for a lack of interest in your approach and has even been mistakenly thought of as a seizure by the unaware.
- Muzzle punches directed at the body part reaching for an item or closest to the dog.
- Quick forward lunges with or without a snap.
- Air snapping. Some people assume that a dog “missed” when they witness an air snap. Make no mistake, when a dog means to bite they will bite and can do so faster than you can blink or move. An air snap is exactly what he intends it to be – a threatening gesture without causing immediate damage.
- Full contact bites with or without any damage – minor or significant.
Extreme resource guarders can begin guarding from great distances. A dropped sock or Kleenex can elicit guarding behaviours from a dog who may be all the way across the room from the item.
What NOT to do when your dog guards!
The absolute worst response to any resource guarding behaviour is to get into a conflict with your dog. Not only could you possibly get badly injured, but also you will make the behaviour worse in the future. If you were “successful” in thwarting your dog’s attempt to guard their valued resource, you will then see an escalation of the behaviour because the last attempt was not successful.
If you choose to use punishment-based training techniques which involve forcing your dog to give in to you and/or stopping some of the behaviours they are displaying, you are going down a very dangerous path. More often than not, the result is to cause your dog to begin hiding some of their earlier and subtler resource guarding behaviour. A glance, freeze or growl may be eliminated in favor of a direct bite as they go aim more immediate success. Positive trainers use the analogy “like removing the batteries from the smoke alarm” – there is no longer any early warning signs to heed.
When you hear news stories of dogs who “bit without warning” or “the bite came out of nowhere”, you can assume that there is a high likelihood of a punitive training history with that dog.
Proactive Prevention of Resource Guarding Behaviour
You can begin the process of preventing resource guarding at any point with your dog. If you have a new puppy or newly adopted dog, begin on day one. (If you are already seeing resource guarding behaviour, please seek the help of an experienced positive trainer who uses force-free techniques.)
Trade vs. Take
I would get pretty darn irritated if every time somebody wanted something of mine, wanted to sit where I’m sitting or lie where I’m lying they simply took what they wanted or shoved me aside.
Trading for everything and taking nothing is a simple yet powerful concept and very easy to put into place. You are essentially making your dog feel more comfortable about giving up things that they deem valuable.
If you want what your dog has, trade for it with something they would like just as much – ideally something that is even more valuable. Present a raw bone – if your dog happily takes it, then you can calmly pick up the kong.
I encourage people to practice this a lot when it doesn’t really matter and when there is an enormous up side to the dog to make the trade. If you practiced a lot by trading ridiculously valuable and tasty treats for toys your dog is playing with and immediately giving the toy back – what dog isn’t going to happily go for that deal? If your dog learns that more often than not they don't really lose anything, in fact they gain something and then get to have back what you took, they will start to become far happier about giving up items.
If you offer your dog a trade for what they have and it doesn’t work – they don't happily drop what they have – then up the value of the offer until they do. If I offer my dogs a raw bone for their kong, they will often prefer to keep their kongs – because I’m really good at stuffing them! I may have to offer 2 kongs to get 1 back, or I may have to offer a tasty slice of freshly cooked meat. The point is that the dog gets to decide what constitutes a reasonable trade and what doesn’t. Every dog puts a different value on things and it’s up to us to come up with something of matching or greater value.
When you are doing Trade vs. Take, don’t be sneaky about it – don’t offer your trade and quickly snatch away what they have while he investigates your offer. We need to know how they feel about the trade, otherwise future trades won’t be successful – they won’t trust your intentions.
Trading, of sorts, also works for sleeping locations. If you want your dog to get off the couch, try calling them over and then reward with a very tasty treat. If calling them over doesn’t work – they're really comfy and the lure of a treat just isn’t important right now – then find a better treat or item and try again. Yes, you are luring them off the couch in this case – but this is so much better than getting into conflict. If you find that a lure (bribing) is needed, then the feedback from the situation is that more Recall training practice needs to be done.
Proactively, I always tell my clients to prevent any tendencies for dogs to guard sleeping locations by tossing a tasty treat for their dog any time they pass by or approach their dog who is lying or sleeping anywhere they are allowed to be. It’s not unusual for dogs to be a bit grumpy about being disturbed when they’re sleeping. With enough repetitions and lots of really good treats, this simple act helps turn any potentially grumpy feelings into happy anticipation.
Dogs practicing trading all the time. In this sequence (1) Puppy Jack wants what Quincy has, (2) He offers an equal trade, (3) A successful strategy - and she lets him have both! Easily done, no unnecessary conflict.
In addition to helping your dog become more comfortable with giving up items or sleeping locations, training is a necessary addition to any training plan for the prevention or management of resource guarding behaviour.
Teaching a Drop-It Cue
I have found no better method for teaching a solid Drop-It than the one presented by trainer UK trainer Chirag Patel and his training company Domesticated Manners. He has done a very good video on YouTube giving you step-by-step directions to teach the cue. Search YouTube.com for Domesticated Manners and watch his video “Teaching Your Dog to ‘Drop’”. It’s brilliant in its simplicity and there are self-checks involved – meaning that whenever you’re not successful, simply go back and step and do more repetitions before proceeding further. I started this with my puppy, Jack, the first day we brought him home and after months of continuous work, I have yet to find anything that he will not Drop on cue – even a food item in his mouth (as long as he’s not actually already chewing it). Not only does the cue Drop It help recover items you need to get back from your dog, because it’s taught using positive training, your dog is happy to comply – no need for any bribing or conflict.
Teaching a Leave It Cue
Leave It is a very valuable cue to have. The one thing I don’t like about the Leave It is that people tend to rely on their presence to accomplish the goal vs. good training. Having to use an angry or loud voice, intimidating body language or repeated cues means your training is not reliable and not enough work has been done yet.
I use the Leave It cue for something that my dog does not yet have in his possession or has not yet gotten close enough to. When my dog spots a dropped item or an approaching dog, cueing “Leave It” results in my dog ignoring what he wants and turning back toward me – for which he gets a lot of valuable treats and/or a quick game of tug. If he is at a distance from me, he will come racing back to get his reinforcement.
The training starts with your dog being heavily reinforced for choosing eye contact and works up to choosing eye contact in exchange for an increasingly valuable array of items.
Teaching a Solid Recall
Perhaps the most valuable cue of all, especially for space or furniture guarders, is teaching your dog to Come when they’re called. Aside from the obvious value in giving your dog off-leash freedom, imagine how useful it would be able to successfully have your dog Recall off the bed or the couch when necessary, or ignore that piece of dropped chicken on the floor in favour of racing back to you. Many people have some version of a “Come” cue for their dogs, but few, it seems, work on it to the point where it is truly solid and likely to work almost all the time. There will always be that one exception that you just can’t easily train for that may pop up in the lifetime of your dog. However, successful practice and a lot of it can easily make this cue a truly remarkable thing to witness and make use of.
Now this is a solid recall!
What If There is an Emergency?
What if you really need to get that item away from your dog? If your dog has something that's dangerous, then you need to do whatever you can to get it away from them. However, you really need to do your best to ensure that even an emergency situation ultimately has a positive outcome for your dog with the emergency being averted without the use of force or conflict. Make a plan and make it now.
You need to find out what your dog finds so overwhelmingly valuable that they just can’t resist it – find this item now, keep it on hand and use it very rarely to keep it’s value high.
If I had to drop an entire roast beef on the floor in order to save my dog from danger, I would do it in a heartbeat. This is so much better than having to wrestle anything from a dog – you may or may not be successful and you may very well do irreparable damage to your training and your relationship with your dog not to mention the possibility of sustaining serious injury.
Take the added precaution of tossing the valuable item quite a distance from your dog, so they will be far away from what you need to get when they drop it to investigate. Keep a second version of the prized item on hand in case they takes the dangerous item with them to investigate before dropping it to consume the roast. Now, I don’t always have one or two cooked roasts on hand, but I always have leftovers of some kind, a block of cheese or meat in the freezer. My dogs consider any sort of human protein pretty valuable even if it’s frozen – a large quantity of it is mind blowing!
Sometimes a large handful of treats tossed at a great distance away may be sufficient for your dog to drop what they have and race over to investigate. However, if it’s not really valuable, it won’t work a second time.
Proactively, spend as much time training solid, useful skills as you can so emergencies just don’t happen or can’t be easily managed.
Some Additional Notes
- If you have a dog that objects to dogs or people coming into their space, please enlist the services of a professional positive dog trainer who is experienced in this area. It really does help to have someone help you. It’s best done using a “set-up” where an experienced trainer can help control the distance and access of dogs and people while at the same time coach you through a simple training plan. An extra pair of hands is essential and an experienced one is well worth the investment.
- You will more than likely find that sharing items with your dog rarely results in any resource guarding behaviour. Many dogs are happy to chew on something that you are holding onto, join you on the couch when invited, or come over for a pat when you are already petting another dog. This is simply a display of “when you have it, it’s yours” – well understood by most dogs.
- The most critical part of any training plan is Management. If you have a dog who displays concerning Resource Guarding behaviour, you need to manage what they do and don’t have access to while you seek help from a qualified professional.
- If you have children living in your home or as part of the life you share with your dog, please seek the help of a qualified trainer to help you with any level of resource guarding behaviour.
- If you have a new puppy, get to a positive reinforcement puppy class that actively practices the prevention of this behaviour.
- If you’re looking for a good book on the subject of Resource Guarding, check out “Mine!” by Jean Donaldson.
As always, keep it Positive, have fun with your dog and start your training now!