What is resource guarding?
Resource guarding (RG) is when a dog has possession of an object that he/she thinks is valuable, and is growling/snapping/biting in an effort to protect/keep that object.
The object may be something we deem silly, for example, a piece of Kleenex is a common object dogs guard...or even empty bowls. Some dogs will even guard spots, like a bed or couch. And in few, rarer cases dogs will see their owner is a resource and guard that person.
Why does my dog do this?
Generally speaking, RG is a genetic, inborn behavior. This behavior evolved because in the wild, possession of something is important, and not allowing that thing to be stolen is a matter of life and death. Many dogs retain this behavior, despite there being ample resources. Just like hunting, playing, and mating, RG is a survival skill built into the dog.
In some cases, RG can be learned. This happens most often when a bored dog starts to chew objects. The owner approaches and removes the object, often times scolding the dog. Unfortunately, this only teaches the dog to steal/chew objects out of the owner’s sight to avoid punishment, and/OR it will teach him that he needs to protect the object from the owner, as he sees the owner as a thief.
Things like anxiety, being in a new home, or the addition of another dog or pet can increase these behaviors, or cause them to appear seemingly spontaneously. Dogs that are under-confident in other aspects of their lives tend to be guarders.
What’s with all the biting, snapping, growling?
These behaviors are part of the dogs hierarchy of warnings. The warnings play out like this:
- Freezing in place/hard staring
- Placing face against the object, putting more paws on the object
- Lip lifting
- Warning/air snapping (these will not make contact)
- Warning snaps with contact (does not break skin)
- Biting that breaks skin
- Full attack fight that must be broken up.
Generally speaking, most dogs will travel up the hierarchy, over time, giving stronger and stronger warnings, until they finally end up biting or attacking. Now, how hard the dog bites, depends on his learned bite inhibition. Bite inhibition is learned as a puppy from littermates, and from his owners when he comes home. If a dog has good bite inhibition, he will be very restrained in his bites, if he has poor control, he may bite very hard, and sooner than a dog with better control.
Some dogs go up this hierarchy, gradually, over time. For example a dog being pestered by another dog while he eats may progress over weeks or months until they finally fight, but other dogs may go up the warning hierarchy VERY quickly - so quickly that they run through all the signals in a blink of an eye. These are the types of dogs that many people site as “biting without warning". What actually is happening is perhaps the owner did not see the signals, or chose to ignore or punish the lower level signals.
The point being, dogs do not want to attack over their object, they want to do everything possible to keep their object, but without causing harm, this is ritualized aggression. Its when the issue is pushed (for example a human that continues to take objects away despite warnings, or another dog that continues to bully the RG) the dog's behavior can, and usually does, escalate.
Should I use corrections to stop this?
Isn't my dog trying to dominant me?
Dogs that RG are not trying to climb a social ladder, or overthrow the humans as the "leader". In fact, these are the dogs in the household with confidence or anxiety issues. These are dogs that are, in a sense, "paranoid" that everyone is out to get their "valued thing". Confident dogs do not feel the need to RG most objects, as they are positive no one is even going to try to take their stuff.
However, most "normal" dogs, with average to high confidence, may guard something of very high value - like a piece of raw meat, a new toy, etc. - when the dog doesn't normally get to have those things. It is the abnormally high value of the object that elicits the behavior.
Strangers can also create the behavior. A dog that would never RG from the family may snap at a guest, the anxiety from not knowing the person as well triggers the behavior. Or, in the case of a party or gathering at the house, the dog may simply be over-stimulated.
Corrections for this behavior, such as yelling at the dog, making hissing sounds, physically punishing the dog, poking him, or removing the object as punishment are all methods with a very high likelihood of backfiring, plus making the behavior worse. Since this is often anxiety based, punishment will only increase anxiety, and also damage your relationship with your dog. It puts you two in conflict every time he finds an object he likes.
What should I do first?
First, we want to manage (prevent) the behavior as much as possible. Pick up your clothes and things, remove dog toys and treats from the floor, moving and covering trashcans, and so forth. Use x-pens and baby gates to keep your dog out of areas where he is going to find objects to guard.
The reason this is so important is that every time the dog practices the behavior, it is becoming more and more ingrained. Preventing it helps keep the dog at the level he/she is already at, while you implement training. If the dog guards food/food bowls, feed him separately from other dogs, preferably in his own room or crate.
For dogs that guard food bowls/food management:
If the dog is being aggressive with humans, one of the best things you can start is hand-feeding ALL meals. Many dogs do not make the connection that food comes from YOU, and instead think it magically appears in their magic bowl (hence guarding an empty bowl).
Couch/bed guarding management:
Attaching a short leash to help guide the dog off the spot will work in an emergency, but placing cardboard boxes or other objects on the surface that discourage usage is preferred. Also remember to close doors or use baby gates to keep the dog away from the surface they guard.
Make sure to discuss the management plan with all family members so that everyone is on board and there is a better chance of success.
Ok, so I am preventing the behavior, can I start training now?
Yes, but first...
All this training advice is meant as a guideline. Different dogs will progress at different rates due to temperament, history, environment, handler skill, and so forth. It is very important to understand that RG takes a decent amount of time to "fix" with most dogs, and the training will have to be repeated, from the beginning, with all other family members to ensure the dog has generalized the behavior. Patience is key.
Also, if your dog is breaking skin, you are otherwise afraid or intimidated by your dog, or you in any way feel you may be harmed (dog size is a factor to consider), then its time to hire a professional to help you. Keep in mind, most trainers are not experienced in aggression cases and will not take them on. Also be aware that many of the trainers that agree to take on aggression cases may not be truly qualified to do so. Your best bet is to select your trainer very wisely or hire a good behaviorist, in either case, one who understands and practices Relationship Based Training.
Read About Relationship Based Training Tips from Suzanne Clothier:
Watch a Great Video about Relationship Based Training Tips by Zak George: