Gosh, you think you know somebody. Your dog is sweet, happy, mostly friendly, and is always ready to play. You’ve been able to train her to stay off the furniture, to not eat the tootsie rolls the cat leaves in the box of sand, and to (mostly) come when she’s called. Okay, sure, there are some things you’d like to change. You can’t quite get her to stop begging while you’re trying to make dinner, and she still tries to knock you over when you try to walk in the door. She’s not perfect, but she is pretty good. Except for the fact that she will NOT share her toys. Or her bed. And she gets kind of growly when you try to pick up her dishes. And heaven help you if you try to take her treats!
The Root of the Behavior
If your dog acts aggressively when anyone reaches for her toys, treats, or food, she is said to be 'resource guarding.' Resource guarding is a behavior that comes from the fact that your dog evolved to be an opportunistic feeder, and the term relates to anything that the dog considers to be of value. This can be food or treats, sure, but it can also be a sleeping place, or even a person. If it’s important to the dog, she will have the urge to guard it against being taken from her. Dogs don’t use language to lay claim to something, so they will use their bodies to give a warning. It doesn’t matter if the resource is actually in any danger. Your dog perceives it to be at risk, so she moves to defend it, to assert ownership. Your dog is, essentially, saying, “Back off, buddy, this is MINE!" Resource guarding can be annoying or disruptive, but it is downright dangerous when you have other animals or children. Often, children, especially younger ones, will miss the warning signs a dog is showing or if they notice, will simply not take it seriously, especially if such behavior seems really out of character for your dog. For that matter, it’s not unusual for adults to miss the warning signs, or to just ignore them when a normally mild-tempered animal starts to tense up.
The signs of resource guarding can be subtle. Your dog may freeze and tense up her body stance. She may engage in hard staring. She may growl, bare her teeth, and raise her hackles before she barks. You need to watch out for these signs, especially with young children, for whom a simple nip could be very serious. There are times when a dog who otherwise hasn’t had a problem with resource guarding may change her behavior. You will see resource guarding in dogs that have recently had a litter of puppies. You may also see resource guarding in dogs that are not feeling well, or are under a lot of stress, such as with strange visitors coming to their house or new animals added to the pack.
Encouraging the Behavior
One thing to be aware of is that resource guarding is normal behavior for your dog. You can manage this behavior and teach your dog that it isn’t necessary to act aggressively when she values something. If you have a new dog or puppy, or if your dog hasn’t yet begun to show signs of serious resource guarding, you should take steps to train your dog. Your first step in managing this behavior is to determine what your dog considers to be worth guarding. Make sure that you put the object somewhere safe during this training period while you work with your dog to correct this behavior. Keep the item away from your dog until she has learned to be less aggressive with resource guarding. Teach your dog that humans mean treats. When she is eating, drop something tasty into her bowl (it’s important to do this without bending down or putting your hand within biting distance). You can also try feeding her by hand.
Pick a toy that your dog is interested in, but not one that she has shown guarding behavior towards. Offer it to her, and while your dog has it in her mouth, pull it back with a trigger word, like “stop” or drop it. Once your dog gives up the item, give her a very tasty treat, like a cut up hot dog or a cheese cube. This will reinforce the idea that she will get rewarded if she gives up the toy. Once your dog has a clear grasp on dropping items, you can slowly re-introduce the guarded object. NOTE: Once you’ve finished the training session, put the item away and out of her reach; otherwise, your dog will bring you the item in an effort to train YOU to give her a treat!
Other Solutions and Considerations
It’s important to never yell at your dog or otherwise punish her for growling or snarling when she is guarding a resource. Her growls and snarls are a warning to you. If you punish her for the warning you may find that she will stop giving warnings and start snapping and biting. If your dog’s resource guarding has made you feel unsafe, especially if you have children in the home, please consult with a trainer or animal behaviorist. You may need additional assistance to make sure that your home remains a safe and peaceful environment for everyone. The trainer may advise you to talk to your vet about medications for your dog that can help with managing this behavior.
Resource guarding can be annoying and distressing, but it is manageable. It comes from a place of fear and stress, but you can help alleviate that distress. Your dog is a member of your family, even if she has issues, and it is up to you to keep the peace in your household.