Does Your Dog Guard Things From You?
Toys, bones, tissues, paper, trash, shoes, remotes, etc…
Resource Guarding Things
Resource Guarding Food
Resource guarding is when a dog avoids surrendering an item, a.k.a. “sharing”. A dog may run off with an item to maintain possession of it or they may have found this is a reliable way to get someone to chase or play with them, or get attention. Attention seeking or playful behavior is a very different from a dog that resource guards. Guarding possessions from humans and guarding things from other animals are two differing problems. Resource guarding is a serious issue that needs to be handled appropriately. Guarding from other animals requires management, and the animals and context will determine if this behavior can be improved, and if so in what circumstances. The more serious problem is guarding behavior with humans. The good news is we are in a better position to manage this situation since we should have more control over how people respond and interact with the dog while we work to improve the behavior.
A dog may hold an item in their mouth, or cover the item with their paws, head, neck, or chest when approached. This can be followed by a stiffening or freezing and a hard stare, or a dog may look away avoiding direct eye contact. If someone is too close for the dog’s liking they may react by escalating to a growl or snap. Dogs will often (but not always) issue a verbal warning to those who have either missed or ignored their previous signals letting you know they may be serious about biting if you continue in the same manner. When “reaction” will not accomplish the goal of getting someone to back off, “action” almost always will. It’s important to understand that all reactive/aggressive behavior is caused by the need to establish control. The tactic or approach we use will depend on the dog we are attempting to work with. It’s important to understand not every method or tactic is appropriate for every dog. By using the wrong method you may be creating the very problem you were hoping to prevent.
There is genetically driven behavior and learned behavior. Many dogs were developed to “guard” in some manner, while others their role was to work with us and share, a.k.a. “retrievers”. Another group of dogs were never breed to share because we never desired them to share their possessions with us. (a.k.a. terriers) If you look at the breed standard for some dogs you can see it will likely be easier with some to create a dog that will be possessive.
"Dignified and aloof, with a certain keen fierceness"
“fearless courage if threatened”
“fearless with a well developed protective instinct.”
“on the tip-toe of expectation at the slightest provocation”
A dog’s personality is a combination of temperament and character.
Temperament = pre-disposition (heritable propensities)
Character = disposition, (learned style of coping or navigating the world)
Character develops through the interaction of temperament and environment
Character emerges as one matures and has more life experience
Patterns form habits
Just about any dog regardless of the breed can be taught or prompted to guard resources to one extent or another. We can develop this behavior by commission or via omission during the first few months of a puppy’s life. A common reason this behavior develops is due to limited resources or repeated encounters with people that are not considered trustworthy. Genetics and previous learning gives opportunities for the guarding behavior to develop, but the environment we establish gives the dog the opportunities to develop and practice this behavior. Those things practiced become habits that are hard to break. How does the dog perceive their role within the environment and what are the dog’s expectations of how to behave?
Maintaining possession of things is a normal puppy behavior that can start before 8-weeks of age. A puppy will often take a toy or novel item and move away from littermates to go to a location that offers the best chance of maintaining possession. Whenever items are perceived to be in limited supply they can become a scare resource that is guarded from others. Dogs like humans generally believe they are entitled to possessions like food, toys, and other things under their control. A dog that resource guards items from its human family members is displaying a lack of trust and/or respect. Dogs do not accept boundaries and control from those they do not respect. Those with the strongest relationship with their dog will have the most influence and control over the dog’s behavior. You don’t need to establish an authoritarian relationship nor do you need to be a dictator with your dog to be in control and gain their respect. Dictators are feared, not respected. Being pleasant with your dog does not make you a pushover; it only makes you enjoyable to be around. We should be exercising the most influence and control in the relationship but styles of leadership are not limited to just two choices; permissive or harsh. Leadership starts by being in control, not fighting for control. In short you need to be a “leader” not an “alpha”. Leadership is not obtained with aggression or intimidation. Leadership is obtained by others desiring to follow. Leaders have followers, not prisoners. The focus of leadership should be about taking care of those in your charge, not being in charge.
A dog’s temperament (per-disposition) is unchanging, and character (disposition) is consistent and generally if it does change it usually happens over time. You will not be able to change a dog’s temperament but we can influence a dog’s behavior! Behavior change is often motivated by self-interest. To achieve this, the relationship must be built on a foundation of trust, respect, and desire. This is accomplished by being fair to the dog, controlling and providing all the things that are important to the dog, and just as important being fun to be around and being your dog’s best friend.
(Leadership Basics by Suzanne Clothier https://suzanneclothier.com/article/leadership-basics/ )
Trust - You need to act trustworthy if you expect to be trusted. You must be safe to be around, not harsh, abusive, overbearing, etc...
Respect - The dog understands that you provide, and have control over all the great things in life – not in a domineering way, but the way a loving parent richly supplies all things to enjoy.
Desire - You’ve instilled in your dog a desire for the giver, not just the gift. You have a positive relationship; you are not a boss or food dispenser.
What to do?
The first rule is to only do what is safe and things you are completely comfortable doing. You are ultimately responsible for your own safety. Anytime there are behavioral issues it is always good to rule out any health issues that may be contributing to the problem which can result in irritability or anxiety.
The first place to start is to remove the opportunities for the dog to continue to practice the wrong behavior. Behavior that is practiced becomes stronger and opportunities/patterns create habits and expectations on how to act around others. So immediately remove anything your dog is likely to resource guard to remove any chance of further conflict or aggression. There are owners who are of the belief that they do not "want the dog to get way with that". If the dog grabs something that is not dangerous to them or of no importance to the humans, there is nothing wrong with letting them have it or at a minimum don’t get excited and turn this into a big ordeal. By owners ignoring the behavior the dog may lose interest in the object.
Teaching a dog a “leave it” and “drop” cue is important. “Leave it” and “drop” are great exercises to work on, but often times the owners have a history of over-reacting by shouting commands which can add to the dog’s level of arousal and commitment to maintaining possession. So once the dog has possession of the item for any length of time often that train has already left the station. When confronted there are dogs that will swallow almost anything that will fit in their mouths and this can start as a guarding behavior. It’s the only way the dog can keep possession of the item and this can be very dangerous when the item is a small bone, chew, or other potentially hazardous item. In many cases the owners gave the item importance, and started a conflict over something that is not important thereby contributing to the intensity of the guarding behavior. Most times these situations can be handled without creating a battle.
With some dogs it started as a way get attention and to get someone to play with them. Often times they have learned once they grab a sock or other item, the game is on! When a dog grabs something children will often run after dogs screaming with excitement and many dogs view this as a fun game, but some will find this threatening and respond accordingly. It’s better to express interest in what the dog has in a pleasant tone of voice that is inviting and encourage the dog to bring the item to you. If he willingly brings it, he should be greeted with lots of praise and petting the dog enjoys.
Many times it is best to ignore the dog and create a diversion that peaks the dog’s interest in what you might be doing. Once they leave the item to see what you are doing or what the diversion was, casually go over to where they left the item and get it.
When a dog has possession of an item that could be harmful or that’s inappropriate (chocolate, chicken bones, shoes, socks, remote, etc.) trading can be a viable option. For trading to work the thing you wish to trade must be considered equal or higher value then what the dog currently has possession of. In an emergency when time is of the essence by all means offer up whatever it takes to get the dog to relinquish possession. Excitedly tossing his favorite toy to chase, favorite treats, your dinner, pouring out a whole bag of chips or crackers on the floor; use whatever it takes to motivate the dog to leave a harmful item.
When time is on your side you can use a combination of diversion and trade to get your dog to relinquish the item. Walking to the closet and opening the door where the leash is kept, or opening the cabinet door where treats are known to be kept can be enough to entice your dog to come in anticipation of a walk or a food treat. If your dog comes to you in anticipation of a walk or treat, smile and tell them how thankful you are for coming but don’t offer the trade yet. First with a smile and good attitude ask them to comply with your request to; sit, lie down, stand, shake, touch, speak, spin, wave, etc… Ask for a total of two or three behaviors. (Any time you do this ask for a different set of behaviors or at least in a different order.) If they comply smile and praise them and then offer the reward. The reason for delaying the reward is that we want to put a disassociation time between the possession of the item and the trade or reward. This way the dog is getting the reward for complying with your requests and not for trading up. You can practice trading games with your dog but be sure that you are initiating and in control of the game so the dog does not learn that things he takes possession of can be reliably used as currency to get better stuff. It’s important to play games with low-value toys but I would make the goal less trading games and focus on teaching dog’s to share.
Learning To Share
Every dog regardless of its age should learn the concept of sharing. How do you teach a dog to share? You teach them to retrieve, which is the concept of sharing something they have possession of with you. (The Dog Vinci Code by John Rogerson - Chapter 8, Early Training The Basics, page 40 “Teaching Retrieve”) This is especially important for owners of guarding breeds, and terrier breeds since we did not develop them to naturally share. There are numerous ways to teach a dog to retrieve. The number one rule is to be a fun playmate and make the game fun. The “toy” or item you use has no magic on its own. Rule number two is when the dog brings something back to you don't reach to take it from the dog. Wait for them to drop the item on their own without making a request. Once they do you can create excitement with the item and continue the game. Start with something the dog likely considers low value so they are less inclined to want to maintain possession. I’ve used everything from a plain sheet of paper, a dollar bill, and all sorts of dog toys. You must make it fun! Understand some dogs will only be entertained with the game for a few minutes and others will enjoy this game for hours. Here is a great article that includes instructions on teaching a retrieve. (“How Does My Puppy Learn”)
Prevention should start with the puppies in the litter when the puppies are 4-weeks of age. There should be a multitude of toys and other novel items that are rotated every day or every other day at most. By having a great multitude of toys and novel items for all the puppies we have reduced the chance of the puppies learning that things are a scare resource that need to be guarded from others. Toys can be as important to a dog’s development as they are for children. Toys can do more than keep pets entertained and occupied. They can assist dogs with their social and emotional development. The puppies gain more confidence exploring and interacting with new toys. They also learn to play with other dogs with toys, rather than using the other dogs as a toy. Use toys to play with your dog to strengthen the social bond between and to assist in training so that you are not limited to using treats.
Teaching “leave it” and “drop” skills are important for every dog. (Teaching Your Dog to "Drop" https://youtu.be/ndTiVOCNY4M ) This training should start when the dog is not in a high state of excitement/arousal. A mistake many people make it that they try teaching this with loud and forceful commands instead of making training fun and using a normal spoken voice. And when the dog does not comply with the command people generally repeat the command louder. When a dog is in a high state of arousal, loud and forceful commands serve to heighten arousal and can create a sense of competition for the item. When teaching and training is not made fun, the problem from the dog’s point of view is that the owners are competing and taking stuff away. Would you enjoy hanging around people when all they seem to do is take from you? Neither does the dog!
It’s important that every dog is getting all their needs met (attention, social interaction, exercise, mental stimulation, rest, food) and we are making their life more interesting. Variety can be the key to an enriching life for dogs. Engage all five of the dogs' senses, to make their days more interesting. Anything that is unchanging is no longer unique and loses its value quickly. Dogs engaged in enrichment activities are less likely to develop the inappropriate behaviors that are the result of boredom, stress, and frustration.
It’s also important that the dog be getting out of the home (unless there is a reason they shouldn’t) and getting good exercise. Part of enriching a dog's life is engaging in fun activities with the owner which helps build a good relationship that is the foundation for training. Regardless of age I want to use toys and activities the dog enjoys to strengthen the social bond.
I place toys in three categories and like for dogs to have three sets of toys. A toy for me is anything the dog considers fun as long as it is safe and large enough that it cannot be swallowed, or destroyed and ingested. Especially for young dogs I have one set available for them all the time to chew, investigate/explore and play with.
I encourage the owners to provide several safe toys that are rotated every day to keep the dog entertained. Example would be to place 2 or 3 toys out in the morning and place maybe 2 more down later in the day to help entertain the dog with safe items. Then every day a differing set of toys. The same toys can be rotated back in every third day so they stay novel. When a dog has resource guarding issues it’s important that we only give them access to low value items they are not likely to guard.
The third set of toys they only have access to when humans are playing with them.
Games with toys between people and dogs help strengthen social bonds, and exercise both minds and bodies. For me these “toys” range from a plain sheet of paper, junk mail, up to squeaky plush toys. This third set of toys is what I use to teach dogs to retrieve. It’s important to use low value toys/things with resource guarders to start. With many dogs you may need to find a way to make the toy interesting by being playfully with the toy and moving it along the ground or moving it like prey.
Owners often times need to be taught how to play with their dog’s, but this will not include tug games yet. Games of tug should not be played until the dog has learned to share a.k.a retrieve. It’s important to have good control over the dog before playing tug. We want to avoid the possibility of strengthening their possessiveness. This is especially important with guarding breeds.
I highly recommend “Finding A Balance” by Suzanne Clothier. A book won’t “fix” resource guarding issues but it can provide guidance on laying the foundation to start the process.
Resource Guarding Food
Just as is the case with guarding items/possessions, guarding food from others is the result of a lack of trust. This behavior can get its start before 8-weeks of age and is dependent on how the puppies were feed and given access to food. (see The Dog Vinci Code, chapter 4 “Feeding”) This behavior can also unintentionally be trained by placing your hand in the bowl or removing the food bowl when the dog is eating. Both of these approaches can teach your dog you are competing for the food and cannot be trusted. If you ultimate goal is to have a dog that does not guard its food/water bowls it would be far better before any bad behaviors develop to approach the food bowl while the dog is eating and toss in something far better (in the dog’s point of view) into the bowl. This way your dog anticipates good things from you rather then suspect the worst possibly motives of people near their food bowls. This will have a dog lifting its head with good anticipation of receiving something better, rather than feeling the need to lower its head over the bowl to guard it from people they do not trust.
A dog may guard a food (or water) bowl and/or any food items in or out of the bowl. Early signs of food bowl guarding can be a dog that eats faster, freezes, or covers the food bowl when someone is approaching or is in close proximity. At the other extreme is a dog that will leave its bowl and go after someone in the same room. Some dogs can be so possessive that they will go after someone if they walk by a single piece of food on the ground.
If a dog does not guard their food bowl but does guard stolen food (taken from the table, trash, or found while out walking) its likely an indication that the owners previous reaction (or over-reaction) has unnecessarily raised the value of such items. And the owners are not seen as providers but rather competitors and cannot be trusted. As with other possession guarding the first thing we need to do is fix the relationship and build trust and act trustworthy. People are often surprised I share almost everything I eat with my dogs' as long as it is safe and they do not have a food intolerance / sensitivity to it. Since I consider my dogs’ “companion” dogs I share what i’m eating with my dogs. But just sharing food with your dog won’t resolve the problem. Resource guarding issues have at their foundation a lack of trust. A lack of trust is a serious foundational issue.
Good leaders and trainers understand the foundation for training should not be confrontation, but rather understanding each dog and building a proper relationship while at the same time removing the opportunity to practice/rehearse the wrong behavior. I highly recommend you find a qualified trainer to evaluate and help with any food guarding/aggression issues for everyone’s safety.
John Rogerson’s book “The Dog Vinci Code” can provide guidance on how to work with food guarding. I recommend it be used as a compass to keep the process pointed north and steer the approach away from the dark side of confrontation when working with food guarding issues. Remember the overall goal is to build trust, not show the dog you are boss. chapter 47 “Food Aggression” The Dog Vinci Code by John Rogerson.
Understand that depending on how strong the behavior is any approach taken that is successful in changing behavior may need to be continued for the life of the dog.