Your dog is happily chewing away on a favorite bone or stuffed toy. You reach a hand down to move the toy, and your dog growls, bares their teeth, and snaps at you. What happened?
This behavior is known as resource guarding. It happens when your dog has something of high value to them — food or a toy, in most cases — and they don't want it taken away. Resource guarding is a natural behavior for our four-legged friends. That's because wild animals must protect their valuable resources in order to survive, and this trait remains built into your dog's behavioral makeup. But that doesn't mean it's a great trait for domesticated dogs to display.
Because resource guarding can be aggressive in nature, it can pose a threat to dog owners. And young children may not know to leave a dog alone when they're eating or playing with a toy. When a dog's behavior is presenting a risk to human family members, it's time to take action. Plus, resource guarding could keep your dog from making friends at the dog park or prevent other dogs in your house from getting their fair share of food or toy time.
If your dog's resource guarding is a problem, there are steps you can take to resolve the issue. There are also ways to prevent resource guarding behavior from developing, ideally when your dog is still a puppy. Let's take a closer look at resource guarding in dogs and find out how to fix it.
What Resource Guarding Looks Like
Resource guarding in dogs can take a variety of forms; it all depends on the dog. (And some dogs never get possessive with their things at all.) Food bowl aggression, in which a dog displays food guarding behavior while eating their kibble, is the most common form. Other dogs will guard things they're physically holding with their paws, like a toy or bone.
Some dogs guard stolen items, like a food wrapper taken from the trash can. A dog might only guard things around strangers, or they might guard things in their general vicinity even if they don't seem very interested in them. Occasionally, dogs might even guard spaces, like their bed or their favorite corner of the yard. Remember: This kind of behavior benefits dogs who live in packs or have lived in a shelter for a long time; they need to guard their resources to survive.
Resource guarding can vary in severity. It's usually characterized by stiffening of the body, widened eyes, growling, snarling, and bared teeth at first. As the perceived threat increases, aggressive behaviors like lunging or biting might occur. However, be aware that some resource guarders might not give body language warning signs at all, then escalate right to aggressive action including biting.
Putting a Stop to Resource Guarding
Clearly, you'll want to put a stop to resource guarding behavior if it presents a risk to you or members of your family. Even if it doesn’t, it can scare guests or strangers, so you’ll want to correct it as soon as you can. Here's the first thing to remember: If your dog is showing possessive aggression and bites or lunges to protect high-value items, it's best to ask for professional help. You don't want to get hurt while trying to correct your dog's behavior issues.
A dog training expert, like an animal behaviorist or professional dog trainer, will know how to deal with serious aggression safely. A veterinary behaviorist is also an expert in canine behavior and may be able to clue you in on particular triggers that set your dog off (approaching the dog from behind, for example). Ask your veterinarian to put you in contact with a professional if your dog's behavior is aggressive.
If your dog is only an occasional or low-risk resource guarder, you can try to resolve the problem on your own. The idea is to train your dog to willingly give up an item when you want them to. This is done through a combination of desensitization to your presence around high-value items and counter-conditioning to change the dog's emotional response.
An exercise to stop resource guarding in dogs might look something like this:
- Step 1: When your dog is eating or playing with a toy that they commonly guard, stand outside of your dog's reaction zone with a few tasty treats or some other high-value item, like small chunks of hot dog.
- Step 2: Toss a few high-value treats to your dog. Try Native Pet’s Relief Chews, as they’re delicious for our canine companions and offer health benefits including reduced joint pain and increased mobility.
- Step 3: Move forward slightly and continue to toss the treats. Stop if your dog displays signs of resource guarding, like stiffening or snarling.
- Step 4: Continue this process over weeks or months until your dog is more comfortable having you approach while they're guarding a high-value item. Slowly transition to approaching without any treats and monitor how your dog responds.
- Step 5: Over time, you'll work your way up to standing next to your dog and taking away the valued item without eliciting any aggression from your pet.
If your dog is the type to get aggressive quickly, or if lunging and biting is a part of their resource guarding behavior, exercises like this may simply be too risky. Contact a professional and ask about private training classes or sessions to work on changing your dog's behavior.
Preventing Resource Guarding Behavior
If your dog is already a resource guarder, or you've recently adopted an adult dog from a shelter, you may not be able to prevent the problem. You'll need to work with a professional dog trainer or try exercises like the one described above. But if you have a new puppy or a young dog who hasn't displayed resource guarding yet, you can take steps to avoid it in the first place.
Some dog trainers recommend hand-feeding your puppy. This lets your dog make a positive association between people and getting good things. It also means your puppy grows up thinking that human hands near food is perfectly normal behavior.
Another option is to wait until your pup's mealtime and then drop a tasty treat like a piece of cooked turkey or chicken into your dog's food bowl. Do this during every meal, and your dog will learn that humans approaching them while they're eating is not a bad thing.
Training your dog to respond to a release cue, such as "drop it" or "give it," is another good option. That way, you can use it whenever you want your dog to give up whatever they have.
Living With Resource Guarding
In some cases, dog owners might choose to simply live with their dog's resource guarding rather than try to correct it. This may be the easiest option depending on your situation. If your dog only displays minor food aggression when eating, for example, it may be easiest to simply feed your dog in a separate room from other family members and pets, leaving them alone until they're finished their meal.
Ask your veterinarian about choosing to live with your dog's resource guarding behavior. Together, you can decide whether or not it's worth taking the professional behavior modification route.
However, if resource guarding is part of a pattern of aggressive body language or behavior and this concerns you, it's not something you should ignore. Ask for help from your veterinarian or a professional dog trainer.
If your dog is displaying other behavioral problems like anxiety, talk to your vet. Avoidance of triggers at home, behavior modification and/or training, and even medication might be useful. You can also try Native Pet's Calming Chicken Chews, which can help reduce general anxiety and even improve your pet's sleep.
Resource Guarding in Dogs: Points to Remember
Resource guarding in dogs happens when your pet is eating or in possession of a high-value item, like a toy. This behavior is characterized by stiffening, wide eyes, snarling, growling, or even lunging and biting when humans or other pets approach.
Minor resource guarding or food aggression can often be dealt with at home using a technique approved by your veterinarian or a professional animal behaviorist. Some pet owners choose to live with their dog's resource guarding and take precautions to make everyone comfortable. And you might be able to prevent the behavior from ever developing if you have a young dog or a new puppy.
If resource guarding is severe or if you believe that you, family members, or other pets are in danger, call your vet or a dog trainer for help right away.
To learn more about your dog's behavior, health, and wellness, check out the Native Pet blog.