In the canine world, it’s the standard, well-known advice to not bother a dog while they’re eating. It’s understandable, you wouldn’t like it if someone was interrupting you while you were eating either!
Some dogs can get really overprotective of their possessions, whether that be their food, toys, bed, place or even a person. When a dog displays some undesirable traits, such as growling, snarling and lunging in order to keep people or pets away from their treasured item, it’s known as resource guarding.
It can sometimes develop into extremely problematic behaviour that will need to stop, otherwise, it can get dangerous. We’re going to give you everything you need to know about resource guarding, how to spot the tendencies and what steps you need to take next.
What is resource guarding?
Resource guarding is when a dog displays strange behaviours towards a person or pet who they think is going to take away a certain object they’re treasuring. The resource can be anything, toys, a bed, a chair and even a person. However, the most common form of resource guarding is when it’s over food. Essentially, a resource is something that your dog sees to be of importance and high value.
Dogs who display this behaviour think of everyone as a threat, they can’t differentiate between those who will steal their item from them and the people who are just trying to pass by. They’re not responding to the actual action of something being taken from them, they are responding to the possibility of it, so they’re preventing it before it has a chance to happen.
Why do dogs resource guard?
A long time ago, most dogs lived in the wild and this would mean scavenging for food and protecting what was rightfully theirs. Many dogs to this day retain this instinct from their ancestors and feel the need to ward off any competition and stake a claim on what is theirs, which is where these aggressive behaviours come from.
If it’s happening between two dogs, it won’t be too much to worry about. It’s more just the dog’s way of communicating, saying ‘Paws off! This is mine”, which is totally understandable, you don’t want someone else sticking their nose in your food uninvited. If the dog is only grumbling, holding their body over the food and curling their lip, and the other dog gets the message, leaving them alone, it’s all fine. However, if this erupts into a full-blown fight, you have a problem on your hands.
It’s an important survival strategy, and although it can occur in any dog, it’s most common in dogs that were abandoned and mistreated, they’re just utilising a very valuable instinctual response. Fending off competition allows these dogs to survive on limited means. Similarly, dogs who have been adopted from shelters are likely to resource guard, as in these kinds of environments they’re in a competition for everything with several other dogs, every single one of them wanting to claim the food, toys and territory. This behaviour can continue into their new adoptive homes.
Also, many theorise that it can develop before your dog even turns 8 weeks old. Many breeders will feed the whole litter of pups collectively out of one bowl. Naturally, some puppies won’t be as confident in pushing others out of the way to get their food. Therefore, the more confident, aggressive pups are rewarded with extra food for their behaviour. They might think the same principle will apply when they move to their new home.
Although the behaviour is completely natural, it’s strange to see your dog defending their food or toys in your home. You’ll know that you’ve done nothing to make your dog feel threatened or that you might take something away from them. You’d think your dog would know that we really don’t want to take away their slobbery dog toys!
What does resource guarding look like?
Depending on the aggressiveness of your dog’s resource guarding, some dogs might only guard the resource if they’re actually holding it, whereas some might try guarding something that is just in their general area, even if they didn’t seem interested in it prior to you coming near.
Resource guarding typically shows itself through these tendencies:
- Baring teeth
- Curling lip
- Stiffened body
- Moving item away
- Trying to position body over the object
- Lowering body and holding ears back
- Frantically eating
- -Fixed stare at person or pet who they’re feeling threatened by
- Whale eye (when whites of the dog’s eyes are showing)
In the canine world, if another dog comes near your dinner, it’s natural to display one of these behaviours every so often just to warn the other off. The problem begins when the behaviours are happening all the time, towards other pets and people, and they’re getting really aggressive. Any dog can be prone to resource guarding, it’s not specific to one breed.
Stopping the resource guarding
It’s pretty impossible to know if your dog is going to develop these problematic tendencies until the resource guarding behaviours have already begun.
Try and watch out for the subtle body language signs, mostly the strange stares or whale eyes, a curled lip and a stiffened body. If you start to notice this, it’s good to start steadily changing how your dog thinks and feels about people and other dogs approaching them while they’re with their resource before more aggressive behaviours begin. The longer you leave it, the harder it will be to solve it. If the resource guarding is already severe, you might want to seek further guidance from a trained dog behaviourist.
Resource guarding over food
If your dog is only displaying really mild signs of resource guarding over food, especially if they’re only a puppy, it might be a good idea to attempt hand feeding them some of their meals. This shows your pup that people are actually the ones that provide them with all of these good things, such as delicious food.
If this doesn’t make any changes, you’ll have to start far away from your dog with lots of tasty treats. Depending on how severe the resource guarding is, you’ll have to stand well back from your dog when they’re eating their meal, outside of their ‘reactive zone’, and throw some treats in their direction and calmy retreat even further away. Repeat this same stage every time they’re eating for a couple of days.
If you feel like your dog is happy and comfortable with you throwing treats from afar, start to inch in closer. Don’t go too close all at once, this will only cause your training to regress.
As your dog is finishing off their meal, approach them with some treats and drop them relatively near the food bowl, moving away instantly after. Your dog should eat the treats and return to completing their initial meal in their bowl. Hopefully, after doing this same tactic multiple times, your dog should look up at you, awaiting a stream of treats as you start to approach them. This is exactly what you want. Now your dog is starting to see you as a positive presence while they’re eating their dinner, you’re the provider of even more extra tasty food! From here, you can start dropping the treats even closer to their food bowl.
Even though you’re coming towards your dog to bring good things, you still need to be careful. Always approach them in a non-threatening manner, kneeling on the floor is a good way to do it. This positions you on your dog’s level, rather than walking straight towards them or leaning over them which would position you at a much higher, threatening and more imposing level. If you’re walking towards your dog and you spot any of the key signs, a stiffened body, a curled lip or a low growl, you must stop and start again at a lower level of proximity.
Once you’re able to walk near your dog and dispense treats right by their food bowl, you can take this up a level. When you give your dog their dinner, hold some of it back. Allow them to finish what you’ve already given them and then approach them again to add more to their bowl. Once they’ve finished, add more.
Keep repeating these processes over and over, it’ll take a long time to completely change their behaviour, but it’ll be worth it in the end. At the end of this, your dog should have changed their opinions on people coming near to them while they’re eating. You need to reinforce that you’re the provider of good things, more food!
Resource guarding over toys
Dogs can get really possessive over their toys and chews and a very similar method can be implemented here as with food to help decrease the resource guarding behaviour. When your dog is chilling with their beloved toy, place a few treats around them and allow them to move away from their toy and take the treats. Keep doing this over and over again. Essentially, it’s about associating you with positive things happening.
In these scenarios, you can also attempt to teach your dog the ‘drop it’ command. Start by grabbing any item, it could be another toy, an empty toilet roll tube, whatever you can find really that you don’t mind your dog chewing on. As long as the item is enough to entice them, but not be too precious that they see it as really high value. You’ll also want lots of tasty treats.
Hold onto one end of the item, swish it around in front of your dog’s face, twirl it, spin it, anything you can do to make it exciting. Hopefully, they’ll grab the other end and you can have a quick little game of tug of war.
Keep hold of the item and then put a really tasty (and really smelly) treat near your dog’s nose. Ideally, they’ll spit out whatever was in their mouth. As soon as they do, reward them with a treat and continue this until you know it works consistently, at which point you can add in a verbal cue such as ‘drop it’. Make sure that the treat is something of much more high value than the item they’re holding.
Once they’ve eaten the treat, immediately give them back the original item with a cue such as ‘take it’. Keep repeating this exchange. In the end, your dog should learn that when they drop the item, they get a tasty treat and they’ll still get back the item they gave up in the first place too. Win win!
Move the item out of sight when you’re not in a training session, our dogs can be cunning and crafty and will try and blag a treat out of you by constantly picking the item up in hopes of a treat.
Whatever the key item is that your dog feels the need to guard, you need to make sure this item is prohibited until they’ve learnt how to drop a lesser value item without any issues. Only then can you take training to the next level by using their treasured resource.
Stopping resource guarding can be tricky but there are a few things you can do to help your training.
Your end goal is to make your dog feel pleased that there’s another person around when they have their treasure, and this is all done by ensuring every time you’re training you have something that’s of higher value to your dog. It works to develop a complete change in their emotional response.
One of the most important things to remember when trying to change your dog’s behaviour is to never ever punish them when they do resource guard. This does nothing beneficial, it just increases the levels of stress in the situation, and it could even cause the resource guarding behaviour to become more aggravated. Trying to exert your dominance over your dog will not work.
Before anyone new enters your house, warn them about your dog’s behaviour so they know never to interrupt your dog when they’ve got their special resource. If the resource is a favourite toy, it might be a good idea to remove it out of sight before any guests arrive.
When living in a household with children, you need to be super cautious. Children are prone to prodding, poking and pulling at dogs, and if this occurs when your dog is tucking into their dinner or playing with their favourite toy, things could get very dangerous. Resource guarding probably isn’t too much of an issue if it’s just you and your dog. You’ll know to respect their boundaries, so the behaviours won’t ever really need to make themselves present. However, if your dog is expressing these tendencies in a household with children, the behaviour really needs to be nipped in the bud.
Stopping the behaviour as soon as you start to notice any tendencies is the best thing you can do. As with any dog behaviour, the longer they have been allowed to do, the longer it will take to change. At the end of the day, resource guarding is entrenched into your dog’s brain, whether the reasons for doing it are rational or not.
If the behaviours are severe, getting the help of a professional dog behaviourist might be what you need to solve the problem.
- Factors associated with canine resource guarding behaviour in the presence of people: A cross-sectional survey of dog owners Preventative Veterinary Medicine, 1, (161), Dec 2018, 143-153, doi:10.1016/j.prevetmed.2017.02.005.
- Characteristics and Adoption Success of Shelter Dogs Assessed as Resource Guarders Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, 9, (11), Oct 2019, doi.org/10.3390/ani9110982
- Defining and Clarifying the Terms Canine Possessive Aggression and Resource Guarding: A Study of Expert Opinion Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 5, (115), June 2018, doi:10.3389/fvets.2018.00115