Resource Guarding and the Myths that Surround the Behavior
Updated: Apr 12, 2019
Here's a myth we've all heard: "If your dog growls at you while he's eating his food, you should take away his food to show him that it's yours!" Other renditions including teaching your dog that aggressive behaviors result in losing the item of value, etc. But here's the truth about resource guarding: It's a totally normal, natural behavior. What???!! How could a trainer say such a thing?! Don't worry. I don't mean we should be content having a dog who guards resources and do nothing about it, but it's important to understand that it is a completely normal response. And guess who is most likely a really big resource guarder... You. And me. And most humans. Imagine this with me for a moment...
Someone walks into your home without your permission and starts reaching for your laptop. Naturally, you fear the loss of that important and expensive piece of technology, so you immediately run toward your computer yelling, "STOP IT!!!" But rather than flee, this uninvited house guest simply swipes the computer into their arms, turns their back on you, and as they head toward the door, they say over their shoulder, "I'm taking this from you to teach you not to yell at me!" Would this stop you from yelling in the future? Or do you think you might come running with a weapon next time? Or maybe you'd try to preempt the theft by installing security cameras and calling 911 the moment the thief stepped onto the property. Rather than learn not to guard your resources, you will have learned that you need to guard them more fiercely! You will have learned to escalate.
And this is what our dogs do as well. It's a rare person who has taken the time and shared enough life experiences with us that we feel good about trusting them with a key to our home or with our valuable possessions. We certainly didn't learn to trust them by having them take stuff from us all the time.
Neither will your dog. The best way to stop resource guarding is before it ever begins. If your dog has something that she shouldn't have, trade her for something even better. While your dog is eating, chewing on something, sleeping on a favorite sleeping spot, or playing with a toy; from time to time, simply walk by, drop some high-value goodies (steak, chicken, cheese, etc.), and keep on walking. Occasionally, you can hang with your pup while she is occupied with this other activity and periodically drop higher-value goodies near her. This way, your dog will learn that your presence does not mean she has to lose something she cares about but rather that something even better is coming!
But what if your dog is already guarding resources? Maybe he hovers over his bowl, freezes, and gives you a hard stare; or perhaps the white of his eye is showing as he looks at you from the side. Maybe he suddenly inhales all his food at once. If it's a toy or other item of value, he might grab it quickly in his mouth and try to turn his head away from you to avoid grabby hands. Perhaps he's started growling or lifting his lip when you approach, or maybe he's escalated further to a snap or lunge.
The first thing you'll need to do is to hire a knowledgeable professional positive reinforcement trainer who can help you learn to read your dog's body language and manage the environment so that everyone remains safe. But your training will look very much like the above paragraph on prevention except for one major difference: You are going to be standing MUCH farther away from you dog. You are going to be tossing those amazing goodies toward your dog from whatever distance your dog needs to feel completely safe. And then, you are going to walk away. Every time you approach, coming no closer than the point right before your dog begins to show guarding behavior, you toss something wonderful. Over and over again. Once you've reached the point that your approach brings an eager expression of expectation (perked ears, soft eyes, head up, possibly an open mouth, lose body, tail wag), it's time to take a step closer before tossing those goodies. And then, you'll repeat the process until you are close enough and your dog is comfortable enough for you to safely hand deliver.
If at any point, your dog shows body language indicative of guarding (see the list above), rather than scold or punish in any way, quietly give your dog more space. You can approach again in a few minutes, not coming quite as close, and try your treat toss from that greater distance. Only move closer when your dog appears eager and relaxed, and if you aren't completely sure about what that looks like, this is where your trainer can guide you. Remember that some valuables are more valuable to your dog than others and might require greater distances from you. Help your dog feel safe in your presence. Teach them that their valuables are also safe in your presence. You are not the taker of good things. You are the bringer of better things. In many cases, raising your dog this way will actually cause him to value your very presence more than anything else. Your dog might invite you to hold her favorite chewy on her favorite bed so she can get a better angle for her chewing pleasure. Just the other day, I picked up my Cane Corso's dinner, which happened to include a raw, meaty bone, in order to relocate it to a washable surface. My dog was just delighted to have my company while he ate. This is trust, and it's something to be earned. Just like many of us, some dogs give trust more judiciously than others. So respect your dog's need to feel they and their valuables are safe, and show them that they are. Dogs who have no fear of losing things they value have no reason to guard them.