How to manage resource guarding in the home
Resource Guarding: describes the behaviour used by a dog to achieve or maintain control over an item of perceived value (e.g., a bone, toy, food, leash, their owner, and even a certain space).
Current research has identified three behavioural signs of resource guarding, these include:
Rapid ingestion - rapid consumption of an edible item; this can include non-edible items if the dog is severely guarding something, i.e., a sock
Avoidance - positioning of the head or body to maintain item control, or location change with the item, i.e., hovering over the toy or picking it up and bringing it somewhere else less threatening
Aggression - snapping/bite attempts, growling, etc.
Why resource guard?
Resource guarding is a sign of the dog not feeling particularly safe. It is not a sign of dominance. If your dog is showing resource guarding behaviour, they are likely feeling threatened that a valuable resource of theirs is at risk of being taken from them. This can be troublesome to most dog owners because they can begin to think that they caused this behaviour by perhaps unintentionally making them feel unsafe. However, like most all behaviour, both genetic and environmental factors are at play in the developmental process.
The best course of action is to first acknowledge that your dog has resource guarding issues, and then begin to manage the behaviour in the home.
Many factors aid in the development of resource guarding behaviour and minor adjustments can easily be made in the home that can not only reduce the severity of the behaviour but also can prevent the behaviour from even developing.
How to reduce the behaviour:
Desensitize and counter-condition your dog to expect something good when you are near their resource, instead of feeling threatened.
1. Detect their radius of comfort
Every dog has his or her own threshold, where the crossing of this threshold produces the guarding behaviour. We like to call it ‘a radius of comfort’. Imagine a big circle around your dog. The radius of this circle will increase with the severity of their guarding behaviour. For instance, if their radius is fairly large, then you might not even be able to enter the room, if they are in there with their highly valuable resource, without stressing out your dog. Thus, the further you are from them, the safer they feel. Each dog is different however, some dogs begin to get stressed when the guardian is 5-metres away from the dog and the resource, while others get stressed when the guardian is within 1-metre of the resource. The first step in counter-conditioning your dog is to gage what threshold your dog has before you begin.
Simply approach your dog slowly and stop once your dog begins to show signs of stress and guarding behaviour (e.g., hackles raised, barking/growling, hovering over the item, moving away). Once you detect these signs, take a step back until the signs go away. This will be the distance where they feel the safest.
2. Begin the counter-conditioning process
Begin to toss treats towards your dog, while they are with their item. You want to aim to toss these treats near them and their guarding item (e.g., if with a toy, toss treats beside their mouth near the toy; if with a food bowl, toss treats either inside or outside the food bowl). If you miss, just toss another treat. Wait for your dog to eat the tossed treat, and then toss another piece. Repeat once or twice, then leave the room. If your dog leaves the guarded item and comes over to you for more, look up at the ceiling and ignore him. You want your dog to learn that food only comes if they are with their guarded item and you are standing nearby. The goal is that they begin to associate your presence as good and non-threatening when they are with the item they usually guard.
If this valuable resource of theirs is food, then be sure to use very tasty treats that are even better than their food. Treats should be tossed over time, so that they begin to associate your presence as good and non-threatening. This process should work to shrink their threshold level so that slowly you can begin to toss treats at closer and closer distances over time.
Only advance to a shorter distance if your dog is responding well. “Responding well” means that your dog is switching from “Oh no! He’s going to take my bone away” to “Great, whenever he comes close to me and my toy I get something better!”. What does this look like? Your dog’s body will not be stiff, their posture will not be hovered over their guarded item, they will not start eating faster when you approach, and their mouth will be open and not tense in anticipation for your approach.
If you notice any presence of discomfort or guarding behaviour, take a step back and start again. You likely moved too quickly for them.
The ultimate goal is that eventually you will be able to sit beside your dog feeding them treats, without the need for them to display any form of resource guarding behaviour. Remember that this process demands patience. You will unlikely be able to achieve this end goal in a day or two. In order to reduce your dog’s stress level and achieve successful results, it is important to be patient and slowly reduce the distance from which you toss treats. For instance, jumping from outside their comfort zone to right beside them will not produce the desired outcome, but instead will cause high stress in your dog and place human safety at risk. Remember, that each step closer is an achievement on its own.
4. Offer a trade
Now that you have achieved reducing your dog’s threshold level, and they are comfortable with you approaching them, offer a trade: a treat for their resource. If the dog has the item in their mouth, it is never advisable to grab the item from their mouth by force. This will reinforce the need for them to protect their resources. It is best to simply reveal to your dog that you have a treat, and because they can only eat the treat unless they drop the item, they should drop the item if they are motivated enough to eat the treat. When the item is dropped, give the treat as a reward. This will teach them that when they share, they get rewarded.
Using this technique to teach the cue ‘drop it’ is a particularly useful technique if the item they have is dangerous.
5. Repeat with everyone in the house
Repeat the protocol over again with another person in your family serving. Choose only an adult (or near-adult) who can follow the explicit instructions.
6. Don’t punish the behaviour.
The underlying emotion for resource guarding is fear. If resource guarding behaviour is punished, this will reinforce the behaviour, solidifying the need for the dog to be protective of their resources.
7. Maintain boundaries - Reduce the availability of potential guarding items
Your dog should know which space is theirs and which space is yours. For a dog that has the potential for guarding behaviour, minimizing the resources they have available to them at all times reduces the chances of it developing further. For instance, it is best to not leave toys or food (any item you know they guard) lying around the house. Rather it is best to have a designated playtime and/or mealtime, where trading the valuable item for a treat would be performed in order to put the items away. This step is of vital importance if there are children in the home, as the dog can begin to guard a child’s toy.
To prevent it from developing:
Always offering a trade to your new dog for when you want to take a resource away is best to ensure you maintain that positive association with sharing their resources. By keeping up with these habituation techniques, it will ensure that you prevent resource guarding behaviour from developing.
The above steps are for human-directed resource guarding, however dogs can also display this behaviour towards other dogs. Managing this behaviour in the home can be fairly simple as ensuring that each dog has their own: food bowls (separated from one another), toys, and space.
**Be sure to always reward your dog when they are not showing guarding behaviour, and never punish your dog for displaying resource guarding.**
The above is a relatively standard desensitization protocol for resource guarding, but for a tailored training plan for your dog please contact an appropriate professional.
If you have any questions regarding your dog’s guarding behaviours and are uncomfortable performing the training process on your own, please seek the help of an appropriate professional.
Jacobs, J.A., Pearl, D.L., Coe, J.B., Widowski, T.M., Niel, L. 2017. Ability of owners to identify resource guarding behaviour in the domestic dog. Applied animal behaviour science 188, 77–83.