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Understanding Resource Guarding by Diane Bauman 2024




Resource guarding is a term dog trainers/behaviorists use to describe a dog that becomes aggressive when it thinks something that belongs to them is being threatened.  Resource guarding is a normal dog behavior but like most things, too much of a “good thing” is no good!


Dogs are inclined to guard food bowls, toys, bones, stolen items (socks, paper items, gloves etc.) other dogs, and even people.  Basically, anything they deem valuable can result in guarding behavior. This behavior can begin as a puppy but often does not rear its ugly head until the dog becomes a young adult. Some dogs guard only food or a toy, others guard multiple items. 


Guarding often begins with a growl, lip curl, stiffening of body, crouched position and may progress to lunging, baring teeth and barking.  All breeds of dogs are capable of these actions, but some breeds are more prone to it. For example, female German Shepherds are frequently overly possessive of their owners. While some owners like to feel guarded by their dogs, be careful, because the dog will also guard you from your friends and family.  This is not a behavior that should be permitted in a domestic setting.  


Dogs/puppies raised with limited access to food, in crowded conditions, with multiple size dogs around, may learn to guard as self-preservation. It is not uncommon to find this behavior in dogs rescued from puppy mills or hoarding situations. This is not always the case. Truth be told, I have known dogs with no reason to guard, who grow up with this tendency. Because of these observations, I believe that some resource guarding behavior is learned, and some is genetic. 


Anything a dog learns, can be unlearned. Genetic personality disorders are usually not extinguished through training and rely more on management of environment than trying to change behavior. 


It never hurts to attempt to re-educate a pup, but when behaviors do not improve, management is the best option. It’s always easier if the dog guards only one item. Keep this in mind as you decide whether to work to change a dog’s behavior or manage the environment to avoid triggering resource guarding.


If your dog resource guards his food bowl, put the bowl in your lap as you sit in a chair.  Feed the dog in small amounts from your hand. Continue feeding this way for a few weeks. Next progress to putting a small amount of food in the bowl and holding the bowl for the dog to eat out of.  Gradually increase the amount of food you put in the bowl until the dog’s entire meal is being eaten out of the bowl you are holding.  At any time that the dog stiffens, growls, or shows any aggression, remove the food and bowl, and go about your business. Try again a few hours later.  When the dog realizes that the guarding behavior causes the food, bowl, and you to disappear, he may decide to change his behavior.


If you are sitting on the couch with a dog next to you and another dog or person approaches, this might prompt guarding behavior.  If the dog next to you growls or demonstrates any aggression, get up and leave the room without the dog.  Hopefully, the guarding dog will make the association that guarding behavior causes the resource being guarded to disappear and is therefore not to his advantage.


There is no “correction” that will stop resource guarding.  If a dog exhibits resource guarding behavior, the best you can do is try to interrupt the behavior with a sound (rattle bottle, metal chain, air horn) or touch (throw something that lands near the dog to break the dog’s focus on guarding) and immediately praise and remove the object being guarded.  Any attempt to correct a dog for growling makes things worse.  The growl is a warning signal and important canine communication.  We never want to discourage this warning because it may prompt the dog to lash out without warning!


For dogs genetically predisposed to resource guarding, management is often the best approach.  Avoid triggers (food and toys) when around other dogs or people. Feed dogs separately and do not give treats in a group.  Leave a leash on a dog so you can easily remove the dog from a situation that might lead to guarding.


Resource guarding is often not fixable when it is a personality quirk.  The worst part of it is that we may not know a dog has this tendency until it is older.  Rescuing older dogs has the advantage of knowing the personality a dog has developed.  People often prefer to get a puppy because they feel that they can mold a puppy into anything they want. This is not reality. 





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