Resource guarding in dogs – When your dog shows aggression over food or other possessions…

Resource guarding in dogs is a very common behaviour. Why does it happen?

Resource guarding is a natural trait for survival in the wild – if you don’t protect your food, someone else will take it! It hasn’t been fully bred out of our domestic dogs, so it can certainly be innate. The genetic potential to resource guard varies from dog to dog. It can however, also be a learned behaviour if the dog has learned through experience that it can lose it’s precious resources if it doesn’t protect them. This can often result from well meaning dog owners taking food from their dogs regularly in an effort to prevent guarding in the first place.

The resource being guarding may not just be food. Resource guarding can occur with food, toys, beds, spaces and commonly, owners. 

What are the signs?

The first subtle sign of resource guarding behaviour is stiffening of the body. The dog will freeze and may lick it’s lips while looking towards the threat but staying closely over the resource. Next, the lips will raise to show the teeth and a the dog will start to give a low growl. Some dogs may raise the hair on their back (pilo-erection). If eating, the dog will often speed up or try to carry the object away if it’s a bone, toy or other prized possession that can be carried. If the threat to their resource doesn’t stop, the next stage is a lunge and bite.

Is it a breed thing? 

No. While heredity is a factor, behaviour is specific to individuals rather than being breed specific. While food guarding may occur in specific lines of breeds, it does not mean one breed is more likely to exhibit this over another and we always need to take the learning and environmental history of the dog into account.

Is there anything environmental that may increase the likelihood of resource guarding? 

Dogs that regularly have to compete for resources such as food can become serious resource guarders. This can happen if there isn’t enough food to go around when they’re pups. They can also learn to guard if other dogs or pups are constantly stealing their food or other resources and they learn to defend it with aggression. Once an aggressive display works for them once, it’s a powerful lesson. This kind of scenario can happen where the pups are bred, or later in life at a group dog area or shelter.

Where should you start if your dog resource guards?

Always remember that a dog is resource guarding because it feels a fear of losing the item. With this in mind, never try to stop or prevent resource guarding by forcibly taking food from your dog or removing it often. You don’t want your dog to view you as the person that always wants to take what they have.

From early on in life, teach your dog that you are the bringer of good things and that you’re not there to take from them every time, but most often, you are going to provide them with something great. Here’s three exercises you can try that will prevent resource guarding, and help to stop it.

Remember to put safety first – if your dog is already trying to growl or bite, hire a professional trainer:

1. Teach your dog that when you approach their bowl, it’s to give them something even better. For example, your dog has dry dog food in the bowl, you come over and toss in some steak and leave. You want your dog to learn that your approach is a good thing and results in more or even better food
2. Play the swap game. There will be times you need to take things from your dog. Instead of all take, teach your dog to swap for something else of equal or higher value. When starting the swap game, present the higher value item and allow your dog to take it first, before then removing the item they just had. Pair a command with this so your dog knows what to expect.
3. Hand feed often. This again instills the lesson that hands = good things. Especially as you raise a new pup, feed often from your hands to associate your hands as something that is pleasant to have near their mouth. Training with treats is a great way to do this with the bonus of training other commands while you hand feed.

Seek professional help

If your dog is resource guarding, it’s a serious issue that can be very dangerous. Like any behaviour problem, the earlier you get help, the easier and faster it will be to get results so I suggest getting help as soon as you recognise the guarding behaviour.