Dogs find a variety of things valuable, from food to your favorite sweater. But, some might growl, stiffen, lunge, or bite when you go near or try to retrieve something from them. Resource guarding, as it’s called, is a valuable instinct for feral dogs, because it allows them to survive on limited means in the wild. But it’s not such a great trait for domesticated animals. So, how do you get your dog to stop resource guarding?
Defining Resource Guarding
Experienced dog owners and dog-aware people usually know not to disturb an animal while they’re eating or enjoying a toy. Simply put, you never can anticipate how they will respond. Some dogs are indifferent to being petted, interrupted, or accidentally bumped into during mealtime or playtime. However, others mind such disturbances very much.
Occasionally, this behavior extends beyond food and toys. Bestselling author and animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., notes that resource guarding is also known as “possessive aggression.” From a dog’s point of view, possession, like in real estate, is nine-tenths of the law. That real estate might range from a nesting spot to a preferred human.
Discovering the Behavior
Chances are, you won’t know that your dog has tendencies toward resource guarding until they start exhibiting them. Nicole Costanza, AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator and owner of Big Momma’s Dog Training in New Jersey, affirms that there are body language signs to watch for when a dog is attempting to ‘guard’ an item. These include stiffening of the body over an item, a hard stare, ‘whale eye’ (when dogs show the whites of the eyes), lifting of lips, low growling, and baring of teeth.
“Any dog can be prone to resource guarding. It’s not specific to one breed,” Costanza says. “A dog who comes from a breeder could have resource guarding issues, but a dog from the shelter may not. It all depends on the individual dog. The environment a dog grows up in could also dictate whether they have resource guarding issues or not.”
Dogs who behave like this don’t distinguish between those who are going to take something away from them and those merely passing by. It only matters what they think might be a threat to their items. They are responding to the trigger, not the actual action. This is one reason why resource guarding is problematic and potentially dangerous behavior in a pet.
Discouraging Resource Guarding
“Your best bet is to start training early to prevent resource guarding from developing,” Costanza says. Of course, that’s not always possible, especially if you rescue an adult dog from a shelter or inherit one from a family member. Costanza says that you can work with dogs who resource guard food, for example, by slowly desensitizing them to your presence around high-value items.
“Tether your dog to someplace heavy and durable. Stay 6–8 feet away from the dog and toss food, such as chicken or hot dogs, in the dog’s general direction,” she advises. “Walk by the dog and throw the food, but don’t stop moving. If the dog gives you warning signals like stiffening the body or a raised lip, you have wandered too close. Once you’ve done this a few times, watch to see if the dog’s body language has changed. If they look up at you in a happy way, anticipating food will be coming their way, then you may move a little closer.”
Costanza emphasizes going through this process slowly and avoiding rushing the dog. The end goal is for you to be able to approach the dog’s bowl without having them feel threatened or stressed. However, she advises asking professional trainers to help take on this task, to provide tips and tricks to guide you along.
Deciding Between Dogs and Humans
Some dogs develop resource guarding after reaching adulthood and become unusually protective about their food, toys, and beds. Before training these dogs, a veterinary visit should always be a priority, says Costanza. A change in behavior or a sign of aggressive behavior may mean that there could be an underlying medical issue.
In such instances, she recommends consulting either a vet or animal behaviorist to put a treatment plan into play. But that treatment isn’t always directed at the dog. Those who live in the household, especially children, must learn management skills. Of utmost importance, Costanza says, is to refrain from any type of punishment.
“No yelling at your dog, screaming at the dog, or hitting the dog to ‘exert dominance,'” she says. “This may only serve to worsen the behavior.”
Unfortunately, resource guarding, in some cases, leads to biting. If such an event occurs, Costanza strongly suggests calling in a behaviorist immediately to impartially determine an outcome. This is especially important if babies or toddlers live in the home.
When left unchecked, resource guarding can become problematic, and even dangerous, behavior. Therefore, it’s important to seek professional help sooner rather than later to address the issue.