How To Address & Prevent Resource Guarding

This blog provides step by step instructions on how to prevent, reduce or eliminate resource guarding in dogs.  Dogs resource guard many different things – it could be his food bowl, a toy, treats, space, a person or even furniture.  You should know the early warning signs of guarding and how they normally escalate; stiffness, standing over item with arms spread, head down but eyes on you, tongue flicks, lip lift, snarl, a variety of growls, air snapping, until full-blown biting, sometimes leaving the item to do so.

With resource guarders, if you try to take something from them, one of 2 things usually happens:

  1. The dog learns that people are in fact trying to take his stuff, he will increase his guarding behaviors, and will probably escalate since whatever he did didn’t work. Example:  dog growls, food gets taken anyway, next time dog doesn’t bother growling because that doesn’t work so he snaps.  This will escalate until a bite.  Some dogs move up faster than others, some skip warning signs. 

OR

  1. The dog will bite you or otherwise threaten you, you will yield, and the guarding behavior is reinforced. Check the yard for any toys left out, place them in baskets and know where the toys are if you are playing with them. 

Many argue that you need to dominate your dog in order to prevent or eliminate resource guarding.  We, of course, believe it can be done using positive method training.  Using positive reinforcement does take a little more time, but it builds a level of trust with your dog that significantly reduces the risk in the future.  This blog will address how to work with a more serious case of possessive aggression, but the process works for more minor cases and even prevention.

Let’s assume we are dealing with a food-aggressive guarder.  We have to first acquire high-value treats.  We are talking freeze-dried beef liver or boiled chicken or hotdogs.  It’s important to have something that your dog will value higher than whatever he is guarding.  In this case, let’s use the hotdog, and let’s assume that your pup is very possessive about his food bowl.  I recommend  you invest in a slow feeder food bowl – it has ridges in it that prevent your dog from gobbling up her food in a few seconds.  This will give you time to work the process below.

Resource Guarding the Food Bowl:

Day one: Approach the food bowl to 5 feet away (no closer), then toss a few pieces of hotdog toward or in the food bowl, then step back about 2m (6 ft). Wait for him to finish eating the hotdogs, then repeat 7 times.  Do this again a few hours later.

Day two:  Approach the food bowl to 3 feet away (no closer), then toss a few pieces of hotdog toward or in the food bowl, then step back about 2m (6 ft). Wait for him to finish eating the hot dogs, then repeat 7 times.  Do this again a few hours later.

Day three:  Approach the food bowl and stand next to it but don’t touch it, then toss a few pieces of hotdog toward or in the food bowl, then step back about 2m (6 ft). Wait for him to finish eating the hotdogs, then repeat 7 times.  Do this again a few hours later.

Day four:  Approach the food bowl, stand next to it and bend down over it, then toss a few pieces of hotdog toward or in the food bowl, then step back about 2m (6 ft). Wait for him to finish eating the hotdogs, then repeat 7 times.  Do this again a few hours later.

If you get to day 2 and your pup shows any sign of aggressiveness, go back to day 1 and stay at that level until you feel he’s ready for Day 2.  Same for days three and four.

The idea is that your dog will come to understand that only good things happen when you appear, and even better things happen the closer you get.  Your pup will come to trust you, which is what this exercise is all about.  It’s as slow a process as it reads above – please don’t try to speed it up as it could be dangerous, depending on your pup’s level of aggressiveness.

Usually, possessive aggressiveness is about food, but it can often be a toy.  Working with a toy or a chew stick/bone is slightly different in that we lead the dog away from the item by dropping a trail of high-value treats.  Once the dog is far enough away, pick up the item and then give it back to him.  Let 10 or 15 seconds pass and then start dropping a trail of treats again, repeating the above process.  Move slowly both physically and figuratively.  We need time and experience to set in over a period of days, even weeks.  Remember to keep your eyes on the signs your pup may be getting possessive – stiffness, standing over item with arms spread, head down but eyes on you, tongue flicks, lip lift, snarl, and a variety of growls.  The signs could be subtle or obvious – be prepared to identify both.  If/when that happens, it means you’re moving too fast, both physically and figuratively – take it back a few steps, sometimes even starting over. 

In this whole process, remember to stay calm and nonchalant.  In time, you should start to randomize what you keep and what you give back to your pup.  However, don’t make it a pattern or your dog will pick up on it.  Eventually, your pup will stop giving second thoughts to what you take, but again, don’t shortcut the process – it should be extremely repetitive for a good amount of time – weeks, sometimes months.  You will develop a feel for how your dog behaves as he builds a level of trust in you.

In addition to the above, you should train your pup with the “leave it!” and “drop it” commands.  Feel free to search our blogs for details on how to teach your dog those important commands.

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