Our beloved pooches can develop guarding behaviours around any resource they value. This could be their food, favourite toys, favourite sleeping spot, their owner, anything.
There are a number of factors to consider when your dog is showing resource guarding behaviour.
Management is vital.
When we are working on a behaviour modification program to reduce resource guarding behaviours, we want to initially set up safe and controlled environments. If situations arise where they feel threatened and practice the guarding behaviour, the stronger it becomes. We also want to make sure that everyone is safe and aren’t putting themselves into potentially dangerous situations. This is especially important if you have young children in your home.
Ensure that no directly confrontational techniques are used. This includes the old ideas of ‘showing your dog who’s boss’ and ‘teaching your dog a pecking order’. These ideologies are not only outdated, but extremely prone to dangerous fall out such as increased aggression through developing fear of owner’s presence.
Don’t only ever take things from your dog.
If you only ever remove things from your dog’s possession, your dog will learn that the approach of someone equals losing their precious resource. In turn, your dog will try strategies to prevent this this loss and hence resource guarding behaviours may develop.
We never want our dogs to view us as something they don’t want to have around. We do however want our dogs to trust us, and see us as a source and provider of all of the good things they want in life. We want to be associated with gain, not loss. Often resource guarding behaviours can develop through too much competition in feeding set ups at breeders or owners repeatedly taking things from their puppy’s possession at home without exchanging it for something else of value.
We certainly do need to be able to take things from our dogs as there will be many times when we have to. The object they have could be dangerous to them, or it may be our favourite shoes, remote control or expensive glasses! However, we don’t want to create a stand-off, a game of ‘catch me if you can’ or even worse, ‘don’t come near me’ growls or snaps.
Teach them more desirable behaviours and positive associations!
Simply teach your dog to let go of things on cue with a command such as ‘give’ or ‘drop’.
You can teach this skill easily through swapping items for a higher valued resource as a reward for releasing the item. You can do this with a toy that they can have back, or even use it in the case when it’s something we don’t want them to have. Simply say ‘drop it’ or ‘give’ and then present a treat next to them or on the ground where they can see it. They will spit out the object to get the food, give them some additional treats for spitting out the object, then give them the toy back or in the case they had a forbidden object, give them a toy instead. If they run off with it as it’s become a game to run away previously, get a super exciting toy such as a squeaky toy, squeak it, make it super fun by throwing it around in the air.
This is best done as set up training exercises rather than only doing it when the situation arises that they have something dangerous.
Associate the presence of others being close by as a positive experience.
If your dog is already displaying resource guarding, we need to begin gradually desensitising them to the presence of others being near them while they have access to the resource they are guarding. Working with a dog that is resource guarding is something that I highly recommend seeking the advice of an experienced and qualified dog behavioural trainer to ensure you aren’t encouraging the behaviour to get any worse, and aren’t at any risk of harm.
It is critical that we do not implement any form of an old school ‘dominance’ based tactics or ‘threaten’ your dog through growling/rousing. This is only inviting your dog to a challenge for the resource and teaching them that the approach of another is a sign of aggression, threat, challenge and in turn inviting them to continue to challenge you back. This will only make the behaviour worse and create a dangerous scenario if strangers/small children walk past them when they have a toy/food etc.
If your dog is showing food guarding, you may want to start feeding your meals from a treat pouch instead and have your dog work for it. This way they will learn being calm and responsive to your requests is what gets their food. They will also learn that you are the holder of all things they value and need to show desirable behaviours to receive access to their food.
When starting to work towards having our dogs eat from their bowl, we may place a handful of food in their bowl, ask for a sit and wait, and then slowly lower the bowl to the ground. If they break the sit and move toward the bowl, quickly raise the bowl again. Once your dog is waiting calmly while the bowl on the ground, release your dog with an ‘ok’ or whatever you choose as your release cue to eat. Once they have finished, ask again for a sit and wait, and place another handful of food into the bowl, and release them again to eat it. Each time you are about to add more food into their bowl, take a step away and step back into the bowl to add more food, this way your dog will associate your approach toward their food bowl as the bringing of more food, not loss. Repeat this until they have eaten their entire meal.
Throughout this process we are wanting our dogs to associate backing off from their bowl and focussing on us is what results in more food being presented. They’re also learning to associate our presence around food time as a positive experience.
When you have reached the point that your dog is feeling more comfortable with you being near the bowl while they are eating, begin throwing high value treats into their bowl while they are still eating. We are wanting our dogs to associate our presence with the adding of very positive things. It is vital to start at a larger distance and throw the treats toward them while they are not showing any signs of discomfort with your presence. Once you find your dogs is starting to look up at you, or even wag their tail as they realise you are approaching, start decreasing the distance you get to them while you toss treats towards their bowl.
The final steps when safe to do so is being able to touch your dog while they’re eating, being able to put your hand in their bowl, and being able to say ‘give’ and take it away and return it. If your dog has previously shown guarding behaviour around the bowl I strongly recommend seeking professional advice to do this safely and to ensure you’re reading your dog’s body language correctly as to whether it’s safe to move onto the next steps. Any signs of your dog freezing, giving whale eye, tensing etc is signs your dog is feeling unsafe. Continuing at this point is a high risk for your dog escalating to growling or even worse a lunge/bite.
Do not lower your body down to put the treats in so that your face is near them while they are eating, we do not want to put ourselves in any direct risk of injury. Also make sure that you don’t involve young children in working with any resource guarding behaviour training.
Please note – The information provided here is not designed to take the place of seeking the advice of a qualified dog training and behaviour professional. For any aggressive behaviours it is always best to seek the advice of a professional in your area.