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Resource Guarding in Dogs: You can slay the monster inside!

Updated: Mar 11

February 18, 2024- jme Thomas


a tan and black puppy looking as though it's snarling while chomping a piece of grass

Resource guarding is a common behavior observed in many dogs no matter their pedigree or upbringing. Much like people who don’t want to share, dogs can occasionally get overly possessive over something they value.


Typically this involves behavior which includes freezing, growling, snapping or even biting when their particular resource is threatened. The resources may include items like food, toys, bones or even empty bowls. They can also include space such as that around them (so wherever they “get comfortable” they don’t want to be disturbed)- like a couch or dog bed. It could also be a combination of things, including people. 


Resource guarding can range from mild to severe and can be concerning for dog owners- although it seems more often than not it too often goes unaddressed until it causes a big problem like a bite- which can endanger the dog’s life or ability to remain in that home any longer. 


This is why it is critical to address resource guarding the moment you see it.


The signs are often there but people also may think it is funny, especially if a tiny little chihuahua is guarding a person and “protecting” them. Too often as well, people actually encourage the behavior in their dogs inadvertently by reinforcing their response with petting or attempts to comfort them- which is really making it worse and ingraining it as a habit.


Resource guarding should never be considered minor or funny as it needs to be addressed immediately. But thankfully it is also one of the simpler issues to address in dogs because there’s always a trigger that initiates the guarding behavior. You just have to determine what the trigger is- and even if you cannot fix it entirely, it is more often than not easy to manage by rethinking your actions and the dog’s environment.


It is important to recognize the behavior for what it is so that you can begin to work backwards to unravel it all- and provide new associations and behaviors. With proper conditioning techniques, resource guarding can be effectively managed and even resolved.


Causes of Resource Guarding

Dogs may resource guard items due to a combination of instinctual, environmental, and individual factors. It is important to know that there is no one type of dog, experience or situation that causes resource guarding- so for example, getting a puppy does not mean you will not experience it. The same goes for buying a purebred dog.


We see plenty of expensive dogs from breeders who have bitten someone over resource guarding- and it doesn’t mean they were bred with poor temperament. This is even more true when considering how many times people are the factor that influence the behavior further- so a perfect specimen of a dog in ignorant hands can still result in resource guarding.


Understanding the potential underlying reasons can provide insight into why a dog exhibits this behavior. It's essential to recognize that resource guarding behavior can vary widely among individual dogs and may be influenced by a combination of these factors. 


Instinctual Behavior: Resource guarding is rooted in a dog's natural instincts. In the wild, dogs needed to protect their resources, such as food, from competitors to ensure their survival. This instinctual behavior is deeply ingrained in their genetic makeup and can manifest even in domesticated settings.


Scarcity or Competition: Dogs may develop resource guarding tendencies if they've experienced competition or scarcity in the past. For example, a dog that has had to compete with littermates for food during puppyhood may continue to guard resources as they grow older, especially if they feel insecure about their access to those resources. This can happen even if your dog always has everything they need once you have them in your home.


Lack of Socialization: Dogs that haven't been properly socialized may be more prone to resource guarding. Socialization plays a crucial role in helping dogs feel comfortable and secure in various situations. Without adequate exposure to different people, animals, and environments during their formative months, dogs may develop anxiety or fear, leading to guarding behavior as a means of self-protection.


Individual Personality Traits: Just like humans, dogs have unique personalities, and some may be more predisposed to resource guarding than others. Factors such as breed, temperament, past experiences, and genetics can influence a dog's likelihood of exhibiting guarding behaviors. For example, a dog with a naturally assertive or dominant disposition may be more inclined to guard resources compared to a more easygoing or submissive dog.


Ownership and Control: Dogs may also guard items as a way of asserting ownership and control over their possessions. This can be particularly common with high-value items like food, toys, bones or favorite resting spots. In the dog's mind, guarding these items may be a way of ensuring that they maintain control and possession over what they perceive as valuable resources.


Anxiety or Insecurity: Dogs may exhibit resource guarding as a response to feelings of anxiety, insecurity, or fear. Guarding items can be a coping mechanism for dogs that feel threatened or vulnerable in certain situations. By controlling access to their resources, they may feel more secure and less susceptible to perceived threats.


Fixing Resource Guarding with Conditioning

Addressing resource guarding requires a multifaceted approach that considers the underlying causes and utilizes conditioning techniques to modify the dog's behavior effectively. 


While resource guarding can be challenging, conditioning techniques can help modify the dog's behavior and reduce or eliminate guarding tendencies. In short, you will try to encourage the dog to elicit a different response based on the same input- because you change their reaction to the threat/ trigger from negative to positive.


Desensitization: You must gradually expose the dog to situations that trigger guarding behavior, starting with milder stimuli and gradually increasing the intensity. For example, if a dog guards its food bowl, start by simply walking past the bowl at a distance and gradually move closer over time.


Counterconditioning: You must pair the presence of the perceived threat (such as approaching their food bowl) with something positive, like high-value treats or toys. This helps the dog associate the presence of the threat with something enjoyable instead of feeling the need to guard it.


Conditioning is all about consistency and repetition, so it’s important to be committed to the process. Responding differently or inconsistently will ensure the process takes longer and your dog may not entirely understand what you are working toward.


Teach the "Drop It" Command: Training your dog to willingly give up items on command by teaching them the "drop it" cue. Trading items until they understand the concept of drop it can be very helpful. Reward them generously with praise when they comply, reinforcing the idea that giving up items results in positive outcomes. Keep in mind, praise should be more valuable to your dog than treats- because you always have your voice but you may not always have treats available.


Respect the Dog's Space: There is certainly an element of management involved in recognizing your dog’s environment and their potential reactions. It is important you alter routines and environment to avoid situations that trigger guarding behavior until you have resolved it. 


This is especially important when there are children and other animals in the home- because just like being a parent, you need to think things through for everyone. You must be vigilant and expect resource guarding to happen- not endlessly hope it won’t happen “this time”. 


You may consider a basket muzzle can help while you’re working with your dog on such things so that until you really have a handle on it, nothing bad will happen in the process. Reducing the fear of a bad outcome can greatly improve your chances of success in resolving it.


Seek Professional Help: In severe cases of resource guarding (often after the dog has bitten someone), you should seek guidance from a professional dog trainer or behaviorist who can assess the situation and provide tailored advice and techniques.


It is important however that you select the appropriate trainer for the job. Someone who has never officially dealt with resource guarding is not the one to try for this. It is easy to make resource guarding worse, if the trainer does not understand it. Be sure to ask them point blank if they have experience with it- or find someone who does.


Conclusion

Resource guarding is a behavior that many dogs exhibit, but with patience, understanding, and proper conditioning techniques, it can be effectively managed and or resolved. Much of the situation is dependent on building a dog’s confidence and also their trust in you as an authoritative/ parental figure who will ensure they don’t need to worry about such things anymore. Resource guarding is often about the humans- and they are the ones who needs to learn what to do and the dogs will follow suit.


Remember, every dog is unique, so it's essential to be patient and consistent in your training efforts. With time and effort, you can help your dog overcome resource guarding and build a stronger bond based on trust and mutual respect.


For more on this subject, check out our Rescue Sh*t Podcast Episode 14.





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