Resource Guarding, also called possession aggression, is a common behavior problem for many pet parents. Your dog suddenly becomes defensive over his food bowl, a toy, his favorite bed, maybe even a favorite person. He hovers, with his chin held over his prized possession. He may show his teeth and growl or snarl or even snap at you. Or he may just stop eating and freeze, or the reverse and start gulping his food even faster than usual. And if pressed, he may actually lash out and try to bite you.
It can be a challenge and, in some cases, even dangerous, depending on the intensity of the dog’s guarding behavior. As humans, our instinctive response when a dog growls or snaps at us is to scold them and take away the item they were guarding. But what if I told you that this response is very likely to make the whole situation worse?
What Causes Resource Guarding?
Let’s walk through this. Resource guarding is a behavior that is motivated from a place of fear. In other words, the dog believes the object in his possession is a prized possession that is worth guarding, and he tells us to back off by using his best, most diplomatic communication skill – growling, showing teeth, air-snapping.
If we then scold, yell or otherwise punish him and then take away the thing he was guarding, what does this accomplish? It teaches the dog that he was absolutely right to feel threatened by our approach. We did take away the thing he felt worth guarding. So next time, he’s likely to increase his defensive display. He may growl when you’re further away. He may shift from snarling to biting. This cycle can escalate quickly and result in a very tense relationship and possible injuries to the humans.
Managing Resource Guarding
So how do we address resource guarding if not by punishing the dog for doing it? It may feel a bit counter intuitive, but it’s often a fairly easy process. Instead of challenging the dog over his prized possessions, we want to reassure him that we are not a threat to his things. We set up training sessions where we let the dog enjoy his possession and then we approach the dog, making sure we stay far enough away that we don’t upset him. From that distance, we toss him a bite of his very favorite treat and then turn and walk away.
After repeating this step many times, you will see the dog starts to anticipate our approach. Many dogs will even walk away from their possession to meet us for the tasty treat. At that point, we give the treat and then escort them back to their possession, drop another treat and walk away. As the dog begins to trust that we are not going to steal their prize, we can begin to build to a point of engaging the item, for example, picking up the object, giving a tasty treat and then handing the dog his prize again.
By working slowly, at the dog’s pace, we can help him learn to trust that we are never a threat to his things. Further, our approach reliably and predictably predicts wonderful extra goodies!
If your dog is showing signs of resource guarding, please work with a professional force free/fear free trainer as there is some nuance to the timing of these exercises in order to ensure success.
Author - Jody Epstein
Jody Epstein is a certified behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and holds a master’s degree in animal behavior from Tufts University. She has been training professionally for more than 12 years and is pleased to be part of the Academy of Pet Careers team, teaching the next generation of trainers. Look out for her blogs on all things dog training and animal behavior.