Being able to understand playful versus aggressive behaviours in your dog when it comes to protecting his favourite toys, food, etc, is important. In this blog we’re going to break down resource guarding: what is it, and how to help your dog with this fear-based behaviour.
What is resource guarding?
Resource guarding or “possessive aggression” is a fear of losing valued resources. That resource can range from food to toys, or even your pup’s favourite spot on the couch. Resource guarding is a natural and normal behaviour that should be expected.
Ancestral wild dogs scavenged and hunted to secure resources, so the instinct to protect resources was of utmost importance. The understanding today is that a dog’s resource guarding can hold both a genetic and potentially learned component. Problems tend to arise when companion animals living in home environments display a large amount of fear that they may lose an item or resource.
What can resource guarding look like?
Resource guarding can range in severity and look like anything from a mild posturing, (hovering over an item or stiffening when on a favoured spot) to snarling, snapping and lunging towards a person or another animal that enters their space.
It’s important to read body language and determine how your dog is responding so that we can lessen the fear of losing their valued resource. When we talk about resources it’s important to remember that your dog decides what resources are valuable.
Body language to look out for:
- Hovering and stiffening over items, head lowered and often accompanied by “whale eye” (the sclera or whites of eyes showing) and a tight face.
- Shielding an item with their body
- Scarfing food or eating very quickly when a person or another animal is in proximity.
- Sudden stiffness accompanied by:
- Lip lifting
When does it happen?
Resource guarding can happen at any time and tends to happen more often during stressful times and events. Events may include family/friends coming over (parties etc.), a new dog or other animal coming into their space, when the dog is overtired or when travelling. It happens when a dog feels a valuable resource may be lost. This can include an item being taken away, or being approached while in a certain place or while they have a certain valued item. While resource guarding is a natural animal behaviour, it’s not a desirable behaviour as it can result in fights between animals and aggression towards humans. It is especially dangerous in a home with small children.
Common items that trigger resource guarding in dogs are:
- Food and treats
- Food bowl (filled or empty)
- Bones and dog chews
- Toys (a child’s toy or pet toy)
- Socks or shoes
- Space (dog bed, crate, their position on the couch or bed, their feeding area)
- Their pet parent (from other animals or people)
Managing the environment
Understand that your dog is not acting out of malice but, in fact, a severe fear that they may lose a valued resource. Never resort to punishment – this may increase your dog’s guarding behaviours. Managing resource guarding is all about anticipation and prevention. One of the first things you can do is manage the environment around your dog to prevent aggression and resource guarding:
- Let your dog eat in peace, put their food down and walk away.
- If small children are in the home, put up a gate and feed your dog in a separate and secure area.
- Do not put your hands in the dog food bowl when they are eating.
- Feed your dog(s) consistently. Do not free feed.
- It is only after they’ve finished eating and have walked away that you should pick up their food bowls to clean and store between meals.
- If at any time your dog displays guarding behaviours, stop what you are doing and back away.
- Store laundry high off the floor and put your clean laundry away immediately so socks or underwear cannot be stolen.
- Keep items your dog has been known to guard, or think they may guard, out of sight and reach.
- Ensure your dog has a sanctuary space and the ability to remove themselves from other animals and people.
- Only offer high value items when your dog is in a safe and comfortable space.
Training for your dog’s resource guarding
Resource guarding can be managed and, in many cases, reduced, with appropriate training methods. We recommend working closely with a certified behaviour consultant to work on this behaviour with your dog.
Resource guarding is fear based and can be a learned behaviour in many dogs. Do not punish your dog but instead try to understand their fear. Consistent training and positive reinforcement will build your dog’s trust to anticipate good things when you approach them.
In many cases, dogs eventually become less fearful and leave their food bowl or chew to approach their people. They begin to associate receiving something of high value with the people who care for them. The change in body language is the gauge by which behaviour consultants know if the treatment is progressing as expected.
We hope you find these tips helpful! If you have any questions or concerns about your specific dog, we encourage you to reach out to a positive reinforcement-based dog behaviour consultant.