Resource Guarding 101 - Dog Training and Behaviour
Updated: Jul 9
Resource guarding can be a very worrying thing to live with, especially if your dog is guarding a variety of things and has escalated to bites to communicate. There is a lot of information out there when it comes to dog training, some wonderful, some terrifyingly bad, and it can be very difficult to know what to listen to and what to ignore. As a dog trainer and behaviourist, I come across all sorts of myths and methods, so I wanted to write an article to help you to get it right from the start (and what to do if you’re already struggling!)
What Is It?
First, let’s talk about what it is and what it isn’t!
Dominance – Your dog is not resource guarding because they are trying to ‘dominate’ you or your other pets. There’s more information on why it’s not dominance here.
Fear! This is why your dog is showing all those teeth or growling, and more. Your dog is afraid that the ‘thing’ they are guarding will be taken from them. For some reason, this object or food is super important to them, so they feel they need to keep it and prevent it from being taken. It may provide them with comfort, safety, or nutrition. Resource guarding, at its core, is just fear based behaviour.
Your dog can resource guard anything they view as important to them – food, chews, toys, beds, spaces, and even owners. This isn’t an extensive list, but more of the most common things I come across that dogs have guarded.
How Does It Start?
There’s an interesting question! I have found these are the most common reasons for the development of resource guarding:
Pain – This is first because it’s probably the most common and most important one, and one we always tend to overlook! I have seen everything from digestive pain, back/spinal pain to hip pain cause a dog to start resource guarding. Food, people, and items make dogs (and us!) feel comforted and safe, eating makes dogs feel better due to the hormonal release they get – it makes sense that if they are feeling pain, they would want to hold onto these things even more. If resource guarding seems like a sudden change or has suddenly escalated, a vet check should always be your first port of call!
Removing items from your dog – it’s a big one and it happens more than you realise, especially if you have a puppy or a dog that eats foreign objects (this one links to pain too…) The more you remove items from your dog, the more likely they will at some point go ‘enough is enough’. Remember what we said about the item’s importance? Imagine you are sat down eating a meal or reading a book. I come along and take the plate or book away from you – no warning, just snatch. How many times do you think I would be able to do this before you get very fed up with me? How would you react? Teach your dog a solid drop or swap instead.
Listening to out of date ‘methods’ – Simply put, never put your hand in your dog’s food bowl, never remove the bowl or food away from a dog while they are eating, avoid touching or bothering a dog while eating and leave them in peace to eat – you deserve to eat in peace, why can’t our dogs? These methods won’t teach your dog ‘who’s boss/alpha’ or prevent them from developing resource guarding, they will teach your dog to lose trust in you and work harder to tell you to back off. All these ideas come from the ‘dominance theory’ and you can find out why it doesn’t work here.
I Have a Dog That Resource Guards, What Do I Do?
First, management. Ensure that your dog is in a separate space whenever they have something they may resource guard. You can put your dog in a crate (if they feel safe here) when you give them chews or if you have visitors etc. Consider baby gates or doors closed when you are feeding them and wait for them to finish before entering the room. You could put them in the garden when they want to play with toys and collect toys up when they are inside. Always ensure that your dog has a safe space that is away from people traffic.
Teach your dog a drop/swap cue so that you can exchange items for high value rewards without needing to remove items from your dog. You can use items that your dog does not guard to begin with so that you’re not increasing your dogs fear. You can also look into Chirag Patels' counting game to create distance while teaching a drop.
If your dog resource guards spaces and people teach a cue that means to leave the situation – this can be an ‘off’ or even a ‘go to bed’ cue.
Teach your dog that approaching means a rewarding experience! This can be used for most things a dog may resource guard. Ensure you have high value food with you:
From a distance, toss the food towards your dog while they are eating or have the object. It doesn’t matter if your dog doesn’t stop to eat the food, just that they know it’s there. You can do this over a few minutes, but be careful not to push your dog to a point where they are uncomfortable.
Over time, if your dog is eating the food and looks relaxed, you can move closer to your dog while tossing the food. This may take a few days or weeks to make progress.
When you are close enough to walk past your dog, you can start to walk past and toss a ‘treat party’ each time. A treat party is dropping a handful of treats at the same time!
Never bother a dog while they are eating or sleeping – the more you bother them, the higher the risk of resource guarding occurring.
A management cue can work wonders – drop, leave, and go to bed - can all be very useful if there is a strong expectation for a reward.
Make sure you rule out pain first – you would be surprised by how much this can be a factor!
Your dog is not trying to dominate you. They are afraid, help them out.
Stay away from aversive equipment or methods – resource guarding is fear and a lack of trust. The moment we start using aversive methods, it teaches our dogs they are right to not trust us!
If you feel out of your depth or are worried about your dogs behaviour, always get a force free behaviourist on board!!