I remember being almost through my dog training apprenticeship. My primary mentor was asking me if I had any questions (the answer was yes, I always had questions) and I realized I'd never learned anything about resource guarding. And so we launched into a week long intensive study of resource guarding: what it is, signs of resource guarding, what causes it, and how to address it. And now I'm here to pass on what I've learned.
What is resource guarding?
A resource is defined as anything a dog values. Most people think of dog's resources as food, water, and toys. But resources can also include space (their bed, crate, the couch, etc), companions (human or canine), and even things the dog has stolen (rocks, plants, Kleenex, I've seen it all). Resource guarding is where the dog performs distancing behaviors to keep possession of their resource from anyone wishing to possess it (generally you and other dogs). This typically means a dog will make posturing and aggressive behaviors to get you or another dog to go away and leave them alone.
What are signs of resource guarding?
The big signs such as growling, snarling, snapping, and biting are often the first signs that people notice, but they are generally some of the last signs a dog shows.
The first sign of a dog resource guarding is when someone approaches a dog will freeze over their item. This will often, but not always be accompanied by whale eye (the dog rolling their eye so you can see the white of it).
Next, if the assumed threat does not leave or they advance, often the dog will begin the make the resource less accessible. This often means wolfing it down as fast as they can (regardless of whether it edible or not) or lying down on the resource to make it less accessible or taking the object and turning away with it or running away with the object.
Typically, that is when the posturing will begin. Dogs will start to growl, then snarl. The next step that people will sometimes not recognize for what it is is reaching out and muzzle punching (poking) a hand reaching toward them. This is the dog warning you exactly where they will bite you if you continue. From there a dog might snap. And then they may bite this is typically on the hand, but if your face is in range, it may be on the face.
Not all of these steps happen with every dog or every instance. If you have punished a dog for growling when you take their resource, they are less likely to growl in the future and might more directly to snapping or even biting. Not every dog is terribly socially savvy so they might move directly from freezing to growling. Regardless, there are so many warning signs that are often missed because we don't recognize them for what they are.
What causes resource guarding?
Genetics can be a factor in resource guarding. Typically (though not always) if a dog is prone to resource guarding, one of their parents was too. For instance, Amidi showed signs of resource guarding as a puppy as did her father. It was easily addressed and I haven't seen signs of resource guarding with people or known dogs since, but it is something to note. Incidentally, when I was working at the training center I say probably literally 100+ "English Cream" Golden Retrievers and I would say 95% of them resource guarded often badly, resulting in level 3 and level 4 bites. This was in contrast to a much much smaller percentage of Goldens in different shades who resource guarded.
It is also important to note that resource guarding is a perfectly natural behavior. It makes sense as a defense mechanism from a developmental standpoint. However, not every perfectly natural behavior is considered socially acceptable. Such is the case with resource guarding.
In my opinion, the bigger cause of resource guarding is humans dealing with a dog stealing objects in a way that encourages resource guarding. No one wants their dog stealing stuff. It can get tiresome of dogs constantly running away with Kleenex and napkins. It can get dangerous when dogs are running away with chocolate and poisonous plants and other potentially toxic or sharp objects. Thus, the natural reaction when a dog steals something they shouldn't have is to make a huge deal of it, carrying on, yelling NoNoNo, and running up to the dog and prying it out of their mouth.
But what have we done by responding in this way? We've put a lot of value on the object, which increases its value in the dog's mind. Thus, frequently, though the dog doesn't like the fuss you make, the desire to possess the object overcomes their desire to avoid you making a scene. So the urge to steal objects becomes more cemented in the dog's mind because the object has gained value. Over time, the value will build to the point where the dog will start to resource guard and typically, if owners continue to push their dog and take the item back anyway, their resource guarding will escalate, possibly to the point of biting.
How do you address resource guarding?
First, I will always encourage you to find a train experienced in dealing with resource guarding, particularly if any level of bite is involved. Second, I will always recommend Jean Donaldson's book Mine! which is the industry standard for dealing with resource guarding.
In general the approach for decreasing/eliminating resource guarding looks like this:
- Eliminate to the best of your ability any behaviors that are encouraging the resource guarding. This includes making a fuss over stolen items, assuring that you aren't leaving items out, keeping children out of the dogs food, toys, and bed, and many other factors.
- Separate from working on decreasing the resource guarding, teach a rock solid Drop It/Out behavior. This will be important when dealing with resource guarding.
- Some exercises such as holding a resource (a bone, a toy, etc) while the dog shares it with you can be useful to help accustom the dog to sharing their resources. If the dog won't touch the object while you hold it, this also gives you a clue as to how deeply the resource guarding is ingrained.
- When your dog has a resource they are allowed to have but is high value (often various types of bones work well for this) and thus they might guard it slightly, begin approaching. Drop a high value treat (chicken, steak, hot dog) at your dog's feet and then walk away. Continue this until your dog stops chewing and looks up at you in anticipation of the treat. This may take several sessions.
- Once your dog consistently looks up at you give the treat, reach toward to the item, give the treat, walk away. Repeat until your dog looks eager that you are reaching out rather than apprehensive.
- Continue working through this process in little steps: touch the item, take the item then immediately return, take and hold the object for a moment, and so on and so forth. You've now trained your dog to trade their prized object for a treat.
- Once you have a solid Drop It/Out behavior, you can also begin asking for that behavior when you want an object back. With a dog with a propensity or history for resource guarding I will never take an item from a dogs mouth. In general, even with my own dogs I won't take anything from their mouths. I'll request they let go of the object and then reward them (be it praise, petting, food, or a toy).
- What do you do if your dog steals something and won't trade? I get creative. I'll go to their food bowl and start scooping food. I'll throw a ball. I'll drop a novel item (my watch which has a metal band and is pretty chew proof often works great for this purpose) on the ground for the dog to investigate. I'll ask them if they want to go for a walk. The big thing is I don't want to put my hands anywhere near their teeth. The other important thing is that it's typically best to follow through with what you're offering (food, a walk, play time), otherwise your dog will realize it's a trick very quickly.
- What do you do with a dog that swallows the object rather than let you have it? That's a hard one because a lot of time the distractions detailed above won't work. And while completely ignoring the behavior and divesting value in the object can work, it's risky if they have something dangerous. In these cases, I will often recommend a remote collar that gives you the ability to tactilely communicate without approaching the dog. You don't need to use the collar as punishment if you have correctly conditioned the collar as a prompt. The only other option that I'm aware of is to manage your environment so well while you are working on reducing resource guarding that your dog never has anything to steal and management always breaks down because no one's perfect.
- What do you do if you have a dog that guard resources from other household dogs? This one is harder to deal with. You can leash your other dog and do the same procedure as above with your dog for company. You can also do group exercises where you give one dog the resource and cue your resource guarder to Watch you instead of looking at the other dog then reward that dog with a high value treat or a duplicate of the same resource. Done enough this can create an automatic cue that when another dog gets a high value object they should look to you. Be very careful when working with a dog guarding resources from other dogs because there are more variables at play that are less easily controlled.
I will again note, please see a qualified trainer if you have any worrying degree of resource guarding. While this is a relatively straight forward problem to tackle, it can also be a somewhat dangerous problem to address if you don't have experience working with it.