Help, my dog is a resource guarder! Part 1

Resource guarding (of food, toys etc.) is a common problem. It can crop up in rescue as well as purebred dogs, sometimes already when the dog is a puppy. I believe that the better we understand our dog’s behavior, the more effectively we can help them. In this post we will cover the basics:

  • What are resources and what is resource guarding?
  • What does it look like?
  • What causes resource guarding?
  • What factors influence the prognosis for behavior modification?
  • How can you prevent resource guarding in your dog?

If your dog already guards resources, read how to deal with it in the next post.

What is resource guarding?

Resource guarding is the use of avoidance, threatening, or aggressive behaviors by a dog to retain control of food or non-food items in the presence of a person or other animal. (Jacquelin et al. 2018)

Resource guarding is a natural behavior. Unfortunately, there is this myth circling around that dogs would handover their resource to the “dominant” individual just because. This myth has done a lot of damage and frankly it is dangerous.

Imagine you’re in the middle of a meal and suddenly someone comes up to you and takes away your plate. You would probably react quite aggressively to that! And if you wouldn’t, you would still experience negative emotions and link them to the person who took away your plate. I doubt that anyone would consider you a “bad” person or your reaction inappropriate, if you snapped at the lunch thief. After all they did steal your food!

Whether a dog will show resource guarding behaviors is influenced by multiple factors:

  • genetics
  • personality
  • experiences
  • the specific context

And what are resources? Anything can be a resource! But most commonly dogs guard:

  • food (received or found)
  • objects
  • locations
  • people

What does resource guarding look like?

One of the biggest problems is that people often realize that their dog guards resources once the dog is growling/snapping biting – so once his behavior has escalated. In reality there are many “smaller” behaviors that signal that there is a problem before it gets out of hand. For example when someone gets closer the dog:

  • starts eating faster
  • carries the resource away
  • shields the resource with their body
  • uses threatening behaviors

The dog’s body language tells us if they feel comfortable or uncomfortable with someone approaching while they have a resource. It’s important to pay attention to multiple signs at once, as well as to the context. Signs suggesting that the dog might want to guard his resource are:

  • stiff body posture
  • stress signals (for example dilated pupils, whale eye)
  • a “hard”, fixating stare
  • corners of the lips are pulled up, teeth are visible
  • ears up
  • tail pulled down or kept stiff at body level
  • piloerection (hair standing up)
  • growling or snarling
  • snapping
  • biting

What causes resource guarding?

Very often dogs start guarding resources because of human errors. Unfortunately there is a lot of stupid advice on the internet, for example telling people that they should stick their hands into the dog’s food bowl or that they should take away toys randomly, “so that the dog learns who’s the boss”.

It also happens sometimes that the breeder used to feed all the puppies from the same bowl, which may result in a dog who associates eating with frustration and stress. If the dog has a negative association with eating, they might “tip” into resource guarding more easily.

Unsurprisingly, resource guarding is a very common problem in shelters. However, this example also demonstrates how the important role played by the environment and the availability of resources. According to research, most shelter dogs did not guard resources at all after they got adopted (Gibbons, Weiss & Slater 2012).

What factors influence prognosis for resource guarders?

  • shortage of resources – the rarer a resource (for example food or the owner’s attention), the more it is worth and the more likely the dog is to guard it
  • predictability – can we always predictl what kind of resources and in which contexts the dog is going to guard?
  • health condition – physical stress always has a negative impact on behavior
  • stress and frustration – if a dog deals with a lot of stress on everyday level, they might be less patient around resources
  • conflicts with the owner – when trust is lacking in a relationship and conflicts abide, the dog can develop a negative association with their owner and be more weary of their approach

Prevent resource guarding

Good news is that in many cases resource guarding can be easily prevented. Especially, if our dog hasn’t shown these behaviors yet.

Here is a handful of ideas:

  • teach your dog that your approach during meals predicts something good (for example, from time to time you can quietly place a super high value snack on the floor while they eat, far enough for your dog not to worry)
  • practice swapping objects and toys – help your dog associate dropping something with a positive outcome
  • make sure you’re not too close to your dog when another dog is approaching (so that your dog doesn’t feel the need to guard you)
  • spend enough time with your dog, give them enough attention 🙂
  • if you live in a multi-dog household, make sure every dog feels comfortable during meal times (that might mean feeding them separately, nothing wrong with that!)
  • don’t stick your hand into their plate 😉

Basically, the goal is for the dog to associate good things with our approach. When your dog learns that, they will also expect good things to come from you when they do have a resource.

If you want to learn more, I highly recommend Jean Donaldson’s book “Mine! A practical guide to resource guarding”.