HOW TO: Resource Guarding

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Resource guarding (also known as “possessive aggression”) is when dogs protect their valued resources, such as food, toys, sleeping areas or even people, by displaying aggressive behavior such as growling, lunging or even biting.

The most common reasons for resource guarding are:

  • Past trauma
  • Genetics
  • Multiple pets in the household (competition)

Some of our dogs have been INTENTIONALLY STARVED by their previous owners and so obviously that dog is going to guard its food like it’s life depends on it. At one point it did.

How to Prevent Resource Guarding Between Dogs

Most importantly keep dogs separated when feeding, giving treats or toys. Do not leave any of these valuable items in public spaces.

Do not yell at nor physically threaten your dogs if they begin to show signs of aggression. By scaring them when they show us their warning signs we are encouraging them to HIDE the warnings and go straight to the attack.

How to overcome resource guarding
(by Patricia McConnell)

STEP ONE: Be an armchair ethologist by thoughtfully and specifically writing down what objects your dog guards, what your dog does to cause you to say she is guarding, and how close you need to be to see any sign of guarding. Here’s an example:

Objects: Chew bone, stuffed Kong, favorite stuffed toy in the shape of a deranged dinosaur.

Behavior & Distance: My dog first stops chewing or eating, and stands motionless if I get within 4-5 feet of her while she is chewing on her Kong. If I move to within 2-3 feet, her body tenses and her mouth closes. If I walk right up to her and reach toward the object, she will growl.

STEP TWO: Find something your dog likes even better than what she guards. Usually it will be some form of meat, but every dog is different. Be sure to experiment–every trainer or behaviorist has seen X,000 numbers of people who swear their dog “doesn’t care about food” until we get out our super stash of cooked chicken or freeze-dried liver and get their dog turning somersaults for it. Food is ideal because you can have it on hand and chop it up into pieces that allow you to create lots of reinforcement.

STEP THREE: Stocked with lots of treats, set up a situation in which your dog would guard. In the example above, give your dog a stuffed Kong, leave the room and re-enter with a handful of cooked chicken. Stop WELL BEFORE you would predict a reaction (any reaction) from your dog. In the example above, that would be at about 7-8 feet away. Toss a piece of chicken so that it lands right beside your dog’s mouth. (If you are like me, and flunked softball in school, just toss another one if you miss.). Wait for your dog to eat it up, and toss another piece. Repeat once or twice, then leave the room. If your dog leaves the Kong and comes over to you for more, look up at the ceiling and ignore her. You want her to learn that food only comes out of the sky if she is eating and you are standing nearby.

STEP FOUR: After a few sessions of this, start where you began in the last session, but don’t toss any food until you walk forward one step closer, no more. Toss chicken and withdraw one step. Walk forward one forward again, toss a treat and then WALK AWAY. You want your dog to think “NO! Don’t walk away!!” If, however, your dog reacts by stiffening, make a mental note to start farther back or to only approach in half steps. You can either stop there, or leave the room and re-enter it, repeating Step Four one or two times.

STEP FIVE: Gradually, ever so gradually, decrease the distance between you and your dog. Walk to within 5 feet in one session, then 4 in the next. Go back to just 5 feet for 2 sessions, then go to 4 and possibly 3 IF the dog is responding well. “Responding well” means that your dog is switching from “Oh No! She’s going to take my bone away” to “Goody! Here she comes! Whenever I have a chew bone and she comes close to it I get something better! How cool is that????” That means your dog’s body is loose and not stiff. She does not start chewing frantically as you approach. Her mouth is open and she looks as if she is happily anticipating your approach.

What if she leaves the bone and come to me? Well, good girl Fidette, that means you’ve stopped guarding the bone in search of something better. Again, simply ignore her and wait for her to return to her bone. It might take awhile for some dogs, but if you look away (this part is important) she will eventually give up and go back to her Kong or dinner bowl.

STEP SIX: Once you can approach your dog and stand right beside her, begin skipping the food toss until you are a few strides away, and start classically conditioning a reach toward the object. Keep in mind that you are working on re-wiring her brain so that she forms a new association between your actions and how she feels about them. Walking toward her is a different action than reaching toward her, so you need to think of it as a different category. (Understanding the distinction between each action you make is perhaps the most important aspect of being able to use classical conditioning to turn around a behavior, and it is not something we do naturally without training ourselves to be expert observers and thoughtful analysts of behavior.) First, bend toward the food or toy, drop a treat and then straighten up. Do this several times, or as often as necessary for your dog to remain relaxed. Remember: your dog drives the system here, not an idea you have in your head for how long this should take.  Gradually move your arm and hand closer and closer to the food or object, eventually taking it away and giving your dog something wonderful in return. I once convinced a head-strong and very RG’y dog to give me the dead bird she had in her mouth, and when she did, I gave it back to her. The people watching were appalled, but that’s what she wanted more than anything in the world, and she trusted me ever after.

STEP SEVEN: Keep it up. Forever. Not every day, or even every week, but at least every month or so you should remind your dog why it is in his or her best interests to let you take anything away.