Resource guarding in dogs refers to the behavior of protecting items or spaces that they consider valuable, such as food, toys, or their owners. Training a dog with resource guarding involves teaching them to associate positive experiences with giving up their prized possessions and to learn to trust their owners to not take away what is important to them. This process requires patience, consistency, and positive reinforcement techniques, and it is best done under the guidance of a professional dog trainer.
Resource guarding is often labeled as aggression. Yet, they are two distinct behaviors in dogs, although they can sometimes overlap. Resource guarding in dogs refers to the behavior of protecting items or spaces that they consider valuable, such as food, toys, spaces or even their owners. This behavior is usually motivated by fear of losing access to the resource and can range from mild warning growls to aggressive acts like nipping or biting. On the other hand, aggression is a more general term that refers to any behavior that is intended to cause harm, such as biting, lunging, or growling.
Aggression can be motivated by a variety of factors, including fear, territorial behavior, dominance, and pain, and is not always related to resource guarding. It is important to understand the difference between these behaviors to effectively address them and ensure the safety of both the dog and people around them.
Let’s talk about the most common sources of resource guarding and how we can begin to address the issues.
Setting the foundation by teaching your puppy that their food will always be provided is the initial step. We can start with:
Hand feeding our puppies as often as possible.
Holding their bowl while they eat.
Feeding them small portions more often throughout the day so that don’t have to feel the need to guard their food.
Put very small portion in their bowl at each meal so that you must refill it multiple times. They will then get used to you picking the bowl up, handling the bowl and being near them while they eat.
With an adult dog that has food resource issues the principle is the same, however it takes longer as we must take our time and proceed with caution. I have to add the warning of do NOT approach this with the mindset of no dog should growl if someone is around their food. This dog has trust issues and we need to change that mindset.
We need to start at square one as if they are a puppy. Just be sure to move slow and at their pace. Building trust doesn’t happen in a day.
Depending on severity we may skip holding the bowl for quite some time and just continue to hand feed and feed small portions, so you have to refill their bowl often
While we are slowly and gradually acclimating the dog to having their food bowl handled or approached while they are eating. Start by just being near them while they eat. Start from a distance and slowly work your way closer as you see them trusting you more
We can Counter-condition while the dog is eating, drop small treats near their bowl. Over time, increase the frequency and proximity of treats to the bowl. This will help the dog associate good things (treats) happening when someone is near their bowl, reducing their likelihood of resource guarding.
The best prevention of course is being proactive and desensitizing the high value of a bone when they are puppies. This would basically be the same principles as food. With a bone we would want to help them by holding the bone, switching hands often, moving rooms, etc.
We never just take a bone way without some sort of alternative or reinforcement. That could be a bite of food, treat or tons of good old loving.
Time spent with bones should be very short so, again they get used to you handling and being near them while they enjoy their bone.
Gradual Desensitization & Counterconditioning
With an adult dog it is all about management and we can approach this a couple of ways to start. Offer high-value treats that they only get while they have their high-value bone. Over time, increase the frequency and proximity of treats to the bone. This will help the dog associate good things (treats) happening when someone is near their bone, reducing the likelihood of resource guarding.
We and also offer meal time as a trade, Again, we may have to feed smaller portions more often so that we can work on counter-conditioning.
Management: One of the easiest ways to prevent resource guarding with toys is to simply manage the situation. Offer toys one at a time and supervise the dog while they play with them to ensure they do not become possessive or aggressive. Remove the toy if the dog begins to growl or show any signs of resource guarding.
Trade-Up Game: Play a "trade-up" game with your dog where you offer them a treat in exchange for their toy. Practice this regularly to help your dog learn that giving up an item, even a highly valued toy, will result in a reward. Over time, your dog will begin to associate giving up items with positive outcomes, reducing the likelihood of resource guarding.
People or certain areas
Dogs growling as someone, even a loved approaches their human is often misunderstood and labeled as “they are protecting me”, when in actuality they are protecting someone they feel should only be theirs. The same goes for certain areas,
Again, we must begin with management. Anytime your dog begins to resource guard they are removed from the situation. For example:
This often happens when someone is holding a small dog, calmly put the dog down and they get no more attention until they are calm and polite. If you are sitting on furniture and this happens they need to be removed ( if they can safely be handled) from the furniture and must be welcomed back. If these do not work then you and the person walk away a few steps and again, they are ignored until they offer positive behavior.
We can also teach the dog to associate the presence of people or being in a certain space with positive outcomes, such as treats, toys, or affection. Gradually increase the intensity of the situation by slowly exposing the dog to more people or a larger space, rewarding them with treats or praise for good behavior. Over time, the dog will begin to associate the presence of people or being in a certain space with positive outcomes, reducing the likelihood of resource guarding.
All of these methods are just foundational and are basic starting points. Some dogs will need different approaches and possibly some serious rehabilitation training from a professional.