Does your dog act out aggressively when around certain things like food, toys, treats, or even you, a human? If so, he may be resource guarding. Keep reading to find out more about this process, why dogs do it, and what you can do to ensure your dog stays on his best behavior.
Resource guarding, sometimes called possessive aggression, happens when your dog shows overly protective behavior like growling or biting over a resource, or something they consider to be high value.
A dog’s resource can be anything from food to toys to a bed or favorite bone, and even you, their human. Although it can be tolerable to live with in some cases, severe resource guarding may risk injury and discomfort for both humans and pets. That’s why it’s important to understand what this problem is and how you can take steps to correct it.
Resource guarding actually served an important role in the animal’s evolutionary success. Because dogs are opportunistic feeders, they eat as much as they can when they can, sometimes fending off competition with fierce growls, snarling, nipping, and biting. This can stem from the time they’re young, where the puppy who eats the most (at any cost) grows fastest and strongest, essentially conditioning aggressive behaviors as normal. Also known as food aggression, this type of territorial reaction is under the wider umbrella of resource guarding.
While it is an evolutionary trait, it should be conditioned out of dogs if they’re showing aggression to you or other pets. When a dog lashes out, it can be a discomforting experience for the pet owner, at the least. A worse scenario plays out when a dog actually bites a person and causes injury.
It’s important to note that even if your dog displays resource guarding tendencies, you should never assume that he or she is a bad dog. There may be some underlying conditions that are causing your dog’s emotions to flare up.
Possessive aggression can occur at any point in a dog’s life. The most common way it develops is when breeders feed puppies communally, out of one big vessel, without tending to the weaker and less-aggressive newborns. The more aggressive puppies get the most food and thus are rewarded for their behavior.
It can also develop at any stage of life, particularly if the dog is abused, abandoned, or otherwise mistreated. Throughout their lives, some dogs are in and out of shelters and live in big social groups where they’re forced to compete for territory, food, toys, and even love. If this aggressive behavior becomes a habit, it can carry over into the home when they’re adopted.
Finally, a change in behavior - particularly in older dogs, may mean that there could be an underlying health issue in the pet. Any type of sickness, from distemper to heartworm to kennel cough, can cause the dog stress and lead to over-aggression.
Although growling, snarling, and biting are obvious signs of aggression, there are some other more subtle ways that your dog may tell you to, “Get back!” In particular, pay attention to body language and audible sounds, and watch for these warning signs:
- Stiffening or rigged stance
- Lowered head with body over the item
- Narrowed-in staring
- Getting in-between object and approaching person/dog
- Always running away with object and refusing to drop
- Rapid eating and chewing
- Showing teeth/curling lips
Although these behaviors are troublesome, they occur naturally across all dog breeds. Your particular dog might not have a problem with resource guarding when showing one or two of these behaviors occasionally. However, when many of these warning signs are happening simultaneously and the dog starts physically lashing out, it may be time to reach out for professional assistance.
A good place to get help would be at your preferred veterinarian’s office, or by consulting an animal behaviorist. These professionals are experts at reading, responding, and fixing a dog’s undesired traits. They can also help diagnose any underlying medical conditions that could be causing resource guarding.
To work on the behavior at home, take a look at the steps below to get started. With the proper training and a sense of commitment, you can de-train a dog that’s showing the warning signs of resource guarding.
Step 1: Desensitize the Dog by Standing Outside Their Reaction Zone
For canines that are too protective of their possessions, desensitization is a great approach to help quash it. By cautiously triggering the dog in certain ways, you can help the animal understand they are not under threat.
Stand just outside their “reaction zone”—the area around the item they are resource guarding—while they’re enjoying their prize. The goal is to get them used to the fact that you will not take their food, and reinforce the fact that you’re friend, not foe.
Step 2: Start Throwing the Dog High-Quality Treats
Feeding high-quality treats will help your pup associate you with generally good feelings of being fed whenever you’re near.
First, stand outside the dog’s reaction zone, and toss the treat in his direction. Once the dog gets comfortable with this, walk slowly toward him and drop the treats directly in front of him. If your dog is guarding their meal, pick their bowl up, place the treat, and deliver the bowl back to the dog.
Step 3: Increase the Intensity by Moving Closer to Their Resource
The goal of this step is to alter your dog's emotional response to you coming closer to their possession. Instead of the common reaction of fear or anger at a potential perceived threat, you want the dog to react positively to your presence (read: “I’d do anything for a treat!”).
Start far away from the dog while they’re enjoying a treat or mealtime, and slowly approach the reaction zone. Aggressive dogs will let you know when you start to get too close, most likely with a low growl, body stiffening, and/or partial head turn. Stop and wait until the aggressive behavior subsides, and repeat the process. Doing this helps get you to a point where you can comfortably approach your dog, pet them, and even touch their prize, without triggering aggression.
This is one of the most crucial steps in modifying resource guarding behavior. As such, it’s important to work consistently and for as long as it takes to be successful. Don’t rush the process. If you manage to have enough patience, you should finally be able to completely take the possession away from your dog without any negative reaction.
Step 4: Live With Resource Guarding
Some pet owners simply live with a dog showing resource guarding behaviors, as long as they’re not causing physical harm or fear. Certain dog lovers have come to expect this type of behavior, particularly those who have rescued, adopted or otherwise taken in a dog, and just avoid going near them when they have their treasured item. It will depend on your unique situation and lifestyle – a single person could better handle an aggressive dog than a family with infants and toddlers, for example.
Plus, there are other options to mitigate animal aggression, like bringing your dog to its own “safe space” when having guests over or keeping multiple pets separate at mealtime.
To stop resource guarding before it starts, your best chance is to start prevention measures as early as possible. This is easiest when raising a puppy, but adopted pets should be given the proper attention as soon as they are brought to their forever home. Even dogs that don’t show guarding behavior should go through some occasional exercises to make sure negative behaviors don’t develop in the future.
When training your dog not to resource guard, it’s important to stay calm, approach an animal slowly, and always have tasty treats on hand. Other things that may help are giving your pup the proper exercise, diet, and veterinary requirements he needs. As long as you follow those practices, you’re ready to stop your dog’s resource guarding.
When it comes down to it, resource guarding can put strain on the human-pet relationship, and you should take the proper preventative measures to make sure everyone stays happy and healthy.
In all, it’s important to understand the many causes, signs, and steps of the process to correct that behavior as soon as it starts. This way, you’ll have a much more enjoyable pet-owner relationship.