I remember back when I was first becoming interested in dog behavior. I had just adopted a tiny poodle named Willis. He was cute and fluffy and fun. I purchased new toys for him, tiny dog toys, like a small stuffed elephant. I gave him the elephant, and he snatched it away from me quickly, shook it back and forth viciously, and began ripping it to shreds, fluff flying everywhere. I went to reach for it, and Willis became very tense, tucked his head away from me, clamped down so hard on that elephant there was no way I was ever getting it back, and snarled at me. My tiny, cute dog was a resource guarder.
While I knew very little at the time about behaviors like this, I know a lot now. I see resource guarding in a lot of my client dogs, whether a dog is guarding from people, other animals, or both. Resource conflicts are one of the main issues behind household dog fights, and certainly a reason homes with children and dogs run into big issues. Willis was not the only resource guarding dog I’ve had in my house and I’m sure there will be more in the future. Because, and what I’m about to say is very important……
Resource Guarding is Normal.
That’s right. Resource guarding is a normal dog behavior. Rest assured, I don’t mean resource guarding is convenient, or that it is safe. In fact, there are some situations where a dog is guarding resources to a degree that makes the situation completely unsafe, and not appropriate to even attempt behavior modification. But that doesn’t mean it is not normal for dogs to guard what is theirs – whether it is actually “theirs” or not.
I like to make sure my clients understand this from the get-go. We don’t take normal dog behaviors and make them completely go away. We always have to remember that we put these animals in our homes, and we should expect them to act like animals. The Law of the Jungle is “Finder Keepers.” If your dog finds it, and they decide it is of value to them, they may guard it, whether subtly or very obviously. That’s actually a pretty smart survival technique. Either way, reasoning with them will get you nowhere. There are some things however that we as the humans can do to make this problem so much better…..or so much worse.
To try to understand it from a dog’s perspective, consider something a trainer I used to work with would do. During a training session, she’d be mid-sentence explaining resource guarding and just reach over and take someone’s wallet, purse, or something else that was presumably pretty high value to them. Everyone in the room would gasp. And then she’d say “See?” It was a risky way to illustrate her point, but it worked. If someone takes something of yours, you feel violated and your sense of trust is fractured. So it is with our dogs.
If you see a tendency to resource guard in your dog, the first thing to remember is to try not to provoke their need to guard. This means keeping distance when they have a resource and not removing it from their mouth or out from under their paws. Continuing to take something from your dog will strengthen their need to guard it. By taking things from them, you are reinforcing resource guarding behavior. But here’s some things you can do:
Trading Protocol: If your dog has a forbidden item, dog trainers will tell you to trade them for something different that they can have. But this method takes a bit more explaining than that. If your dog has your shoe, you may get some cheese to trade. If you toss the cheese away and then grab the shoe, your dog may feel very conflicted – they may grab the cheese and then quickly try to grab the shoe, which may lead to trades becoming harder and harder over time.
The key when trading is to relax. You’re not trying to trick your dog, nor are you trying to beat them to the object. Take a breath and spend some time. Toss a piece of cheese away, let them come back to the shoe. Repeat. Watch for your dog to get more involved in the cheese toss game than the shoe, and then it’s ok to pick up the shoe.
Go Away, Call Away Protocol: This is a protocol I encourage my clients to embrace, whether they have a resource guarder or not. Situations generally get more tense if we stay stationary and try to have a lengthy conversation with our dogs about an item. Instead, I move away from the item and area where the dog has the item, and call them to come with me. A few things may happen here. First and most importantly, hopefully the dog relaxes since they’ve been given space instead of being trapped. Second, if they come with you, they may decide to drop the item along the way. Third, this gives you room to find something better with which you can trade. This may be a bag of treats, it may be opening the door to the yard. With some dogs, they aren’t going to leave the item and they aren’t going to come with you. That’s ok. No matter what, you’ve diffused a situation instead of escalated it.
Give it Up: No, I’m not talking about your dog giving up the resource. I’m talking about you giving up dreams of laying your face next to your dog while they eat a bone. Or taking the toy right out of their mouth if they’ve said no (taking a toy from a dog’s mouth is NOT a “drop it” behavior – that’s you stealing). We’ve all probably known the dog who would tolerate these things, but was it even fair then? No. And if your dog has said that doesn’t fly with them, continuing to press the issue is generally what loses good dogs their homes, and in some cases, their lives. Don’t take it personally. The Law of the Jungle applies to you too. If you look outside and see someone stealing your car, you’re probably going to respond, right? Your dog is no different.
The Devil’s in the Details: Some aspects of resource guarding are a bit more subtle than you might think, and may end up being overlooked as a result. For instance, when diffusing conflict due to resource guarding in a multi-dog household, one big thing that gets overlooked is time. Let’s say you have excellent management in place to prevent conflicts. You’ve given one dog a bone, and you have two baby gates set up between that dog and your other dog (good job listening to your trainer!). Dog A is done with their bone, and you trade for it and put it safely away. You let Dog B into the room because the resource is gone, right? Uh oh, a scuffle breaks out. Why?
Some dogs are still going to guard the space in which they had a resource after that resource has been removed. More time needs to pass before the dogs can be together. To prevent problems, wait 30 minutes (maybe more? Some dogs need hours) before letting the dogs together. When you do, let them be together in neutral territory (where the resource was not present) first.
Other subtleties to look for include:
Blocking: Standing between a person or dog and a resource, which could be a dog bed, a bone, or a whole room.
Hunching: The dog may hunch over the resource, either by lowering their head or putting their mouth and paws on the object.
Vocalizing: A dog may bark or growl to tell others to back away from a resource. This can seem subtle because they may leave the resource to do this, and if they’re away from the object barking at you, it may be hard to realize why.
When is it too much? I’m not saying resource guarders can make it in every home, and I do not take resource guarding lightly. If a dog resource guards and there are children in the home, the risk level of working on the issue goes up exponentially. A lot of kids can leave a dog alone with their food bowl, but leaning over and accidentally bumping the dog while they’re laying on the floor with their toy happens. If you see resource guarding and you have children, especially very young children, seriously evaluating the risk level is crucial. And if your dog has resource guarded to the point of injuring a person or animal, the risk level of the situation will also need to be evaluated. Avoiding the situations that cause this level of guarding while you seek professional help is the best route to take.
Ok, so it’s normal. Does that mean there’s no point in training? Quite the opposite! The good thing about dogs is that they’ll exchange many of their normal behaviors for new ones if we know how to reinforce those new behaviors properly. With a resource guarding dog, I like to teach leave it and drop it on cue. I also work to condition a new emotional response to being approached while in possession of a resource. These skills should be taught once the Trading and Go Away, Call Away Protocols are in place, the behavior is largely prevented from occurring most of the time, and most importantly, all people and animals in the household are safe due to careful prevention and management techniques.