A curly-haired brown dog is standing over a bowl of kibble, with his paw in the bowl. His mouth is closed and his eyes are focused on the camera. He appears to be guarding his food bowl.

There are many behaviours that despite domestication, dogs still exhibit. “Resource guarding” is the first that comes to mind. While ball or food obsession seems harmless to many, it can be the start of a more dangerous behaviour down the road. Resource guarding is an evolutionarily advantageous behaviour - meaning it is necessary for survival.

If you think about it, humans do it too! We lock our homes when we leave, we set alarm systems, we even put passcodes on our smartphones and passwords on our online bank accounts. If anyone tried to bypass our system, we would leap into action to protect our valuables.

For dogs, they are pre-programmed, if you will, to protect what is of value to them. Now an important point to remember is that we decide what is valuable to us - no one can decide that for us. Dogs are no different. If they feel that their toys are worth sharing but a dirty kleenex off the curb is the holy grail, we can’t argue with them — it is what it is.

When a dog finds something of value, they are likely to guard it from anyone posing a threat. This explains why people are often bitten when trying to pull a chicken bone out of their dog’s mouth. This guarding behaviour can vary in its displays. Freezing, a sideways glance, a stiff posture (often over the resource), accelerated consumption, snarling, growling, air snapping — these are the most common signs of guarding.

Now, humans don’t generally like this type of behaviour and so we tend to react quite emotionally. We tend to punish the dog for showing signs of aggression, attempting to teach the dog that we feel this behaviour is unacceptable and that they should relinquish the resource. While this works well in our minds, this is not how dogs process our sharp verbal corrections of “hey!” or “no!” or “drop it!” and especially if we pair that with approaching and forcefully taking the resource.

In the dog’s mind, you want what they have and they need to protect it. They don’t see their behaviour as good or bad as if they have a moral compass that is defined by us humans. They see us as threatening the safety of their resource, and to them, this is unacceptable so they must take action. Some dogs will respond by relinquishing out of fear and others will not give up without some kind of fight. It really depends on the dog, the level of threat, the history, and the value of the resource.

A staircase with each step labelled (bottom to top) - Avoidance, Displacement, Stress, Warning, Air Snapping, Bite)

click to enlarge

In what we call “ritualised aggression”, dogs will generally give warning signs that they are uncomfortable and that they need space — these signals are often subtle to the average human - avoiding eye contact, moving or turning away, licking their lips, yawning, stiffening up. If these signals don’t get them the space that they need, they will escalate to more clear communication — snarling, barking, charging, growling, snapping. (This is where we humans get upset.) 

If the threat doesn’t go away, the dog has no choice but to escalate further and that takes us into the territory where bites happen.

We have signals of our own. If I’m sitting on an empty subway car and a person gets on at the next stop, choosing the seat next to me, I will likely shift my body weight away, turning slightly, trying to avoid eye contact and hoping this person gets the hint and moves away. Let’s say this person moves closer and starts staring at me — I’ll likely displace my discomfort by pursing my lips, pulling my purse a little closer, clearing my throat or scratching my neck. If this person still doesn’t get the hint and starts hugging me or grabbing at my purse, I’m certainly not going to be subtle anymore - I’ll likely yell at them to back off. If this person continues then I’ll have little choice but to become physical and shove them or otherwise protect myself.

Does this make me “bad”, or “dominant”? Would you call me “aggressive”? I hope not - I was only trying to protect myself and my valuables when I felt threatened.

Now we can see the dog’s point of view a little more clearly, can’t we?

This is just to say that resource guarding is normal animal behaviour, however it’s not to say that we should turn a blind eye or encourage it. It certainly can start out very innocently and take a turn for the worst, so we do need to modify the behaviour to make the dog as safe as possible in our society. The reality is that dogs live in our world; we don’t live in theirs.

When we see our dogs becoming possessive over items such as food, toys, resting places or other various objects, we should take action.

Management is 90% of training. If we allow our dogs to practice unwanted behaviour, their skills will only improve. If we can prevent the dog from practicing, this is more than half the battle. This means we have to avoid allowing the dog to have access to the resource or simply allowing the resource (such as food) in very controlled environments. We avoid provoking a response, we prevent others from provoking a response (children, visitors, etc...), and unless it is life-threatening, we avoid forcefully retrieving anything from our dog’s mouth.

If the dog steals dirty kleenex from the bathroom and guards it, we learn to put the garbage away or close the bathroom doors to prevent access. If the dog guards his food, we feed him in a secure location and we allow him to eat his meals uninterrupted and on a schedule. If the dog guards his toys, we put the toys away until we can modify the behaviour. We avoid the dog park where tennis balls are like falling leaves. It sounds tough but oftentimes this is the easy part. We get creative.

Once we have managed the behaviour, it practically disappears. The dog’s stress level decreases because they are no longer worried about guarding that resource. The lower stress level will allow them to learn and this is where behaviour modification comes into play. We must first focus on changing the dog’s emotional response to us approaching them while they have the resource. We need to rebuild their trust. We give the dog the resource (provided it is safe to do so and in a controlled environment) and then we add something fantastic to the mix to create a marvellous association with us approaching them while they are in possession of said resource.

For example, if the dog guards his food bowl, we could do the following:

  1. 1
    put 1/4 of the dog’s meal in the bowl and place it on the floor
  2. 2
    as soon as the dog starts eating, we step away and start tossing pea-sized pieces of a higher value food into/near the dish
  3. 3
    when the dog is done eating, we repeat these steps until we can see that the dog is relaxed and happy, anticipating those little bits of flying cheddar or ham while he is eating
  4. 4
    eventually we can move a little closer and repeat these steps until eventually we are placing the treats in the bowl or retrieving the bowl to toss a few treats in and replacing it for the dog to consume

Note: this is only an example - if your dog has a history of resource guarding, please consult a qualified professional prior to attempting this on your own.

What this exercise does is regain the dog’s trust. Rather than playing the thief, you are teaching the dog that wonderful things happen when you approach them and their resource and that there’s no reason to get defensive.

Now this is where I often hear “I don’t want to reward my dog’s bad behaviour.” Well, then don’t. If your dog shows signs of resource guarding during modification, you are going too far too fast (or perhaps too close too fast?). The food is not a reward in this scenario - it is simply to create an association (think Pavlov and the bell) and change the dog’s emotional response.

Of course this is not the only thing that will solve the problem — dogs need to be taught foundation skills so that we can communicate with them clearly and quickly. Using reward- based training teaching your dog a solid recall (come when called), “drop it”, “go to place” and even a retrieve - these four behaviours are perfect as a foundation to modifying resource guarding.

Lastly let’s talk maintenance. No skill stays sharp without practice so ensure that you don’t get greedy or lazy when it comes to training. Practice these foundation behaviours and modification exercises in various environments where you can confidently bet me a thousand dollars that you and your dog will be successful and everyone will stay safe. It’s all about setting them up for success. If you are not going to be successful in an environment, ask yourself if it is worth the risk.

So before you play the part of a thief, think about it from your dog’s point of view — have you given them reason to guard their resources? Or have you built trust with them? Are you relying on the hope that your dog feels that you are in control and therefore must submit to your every command? Or are you and your dog a team who have learned to communicate?

At the first sign of this complex behaviour challenge, get in touch with a qualified professional who uses reward-based training— don’t try to solve this puzzle on your own. There are many reasons why this behaviour happens and oftentimes pain or illness is at the root. The information contained therein is made available by the author for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide medical or training advice. It is acknowledged that there is no trainer-client relationship between you and the author. This article should not be used as a substitute for competent medical or behavioural advice from a qualified professional.