As any dog owner knows, our four-legged friends are a lot like humans – they have their favorite things, and will often go out of their way to protect what they believe is theirs. So it probably comes as no surprise that our fur babies will sometimes display signs of possessive behavior over their beloved toys, rawhide, food dish – and even people – as well as other items that they consider valuable. While this behavior may initially seem cute, it can quickly go the opposite direction when your pooch begins to growl, snap or bite to guard his “possessions”.
Although this is perfectly normal for your dog to act this way – remember, our dogs are the descendants of wolves – it doesn’t mean you should encourage this behavior or ignore the problem, as it can worsen over time and create a strained dynamic in your household. This article will explore dog resource guarding, including reasons why your dog may guard his belongings, signs to recognize, and behavior modification techniques to manage dog resource guarding owners and belongings.
Defining Resource Guarding: Identifying Possessive Aggression
Also known as possessive aggression, dog resource guarding refers to aggressive displays of canine conduct – such as growling, snapping, barking and even biting – intended to warn other animals and/or humans to stay away from a specific possession or “resource”, such as food or territory. In fact, this resource can be any number of items, such as a beloved toy, your dog’s food dish, a treat (such as a bone), a place (e.g., his doggy bed or favorite chair), and in some rare instances, a person.
Because your dog is protecting what he believes to be a valuable resource, it’s important to recognize signs of this behavior right away and know when it’s ok – and know when it might become problematic (or even dangerous) for everyone in your household, including other pets. There are different levels of resource guarding seen in dogs, ranging from relatively harmless to severely aggressive canine behavior. For example, if your pup begins to eat faster during mealtime when you approach his dish, or runs away with his chew toy when he sees another dog, it’s fairly safe to say you don’t have much to worry about.
However, in the event that your dog attacks other dogs over territory, or shows signs of possessive aggression behavior towards other people, places or things, it’s important to correct his behavior to prevent future aggression issues that may arise if left unaddressed.
Why Is My Dog Being Aggressive?
Reasons For Resource Guarding
While some experts subscribe to theories that certain breeds are more prone to resource guarding behavior, resource guarding is not a problem that is breed-exclusive. In fact, this behavior is quite natural, as dogs have evolved over thousands of years as opportunistic feeders. Therefore, it’s perfectly normal for them to guard what they consider “theirs” from anyone posing a threat. Since dogs cannot communicate with words, their physical and vocal cues – including barking, putting their paws over their possessions or other indications of protective behavior – are simply their way of giving humans and other animals a warning to back off.
Some of the most common reasons for resource guarding include:
- Multiple pets in the household (i.e., competition)
- Past traumatic events
How Possessive Aggression Affects Your Household
In the event that you have a household with multiple dogs, resource guarding can be a fairly common issue. As mentioned, if you have a dominant dog that expresses aggression and warning signs to another pet to back down, the dogs are merely communicating and eventually, one dog will back down. However, if you notice that your dogs are fighting over resources (or a more timid pooch shows signs of stress), experts recommend separating the dogs around desired items, such as food, toys, and bones. The easiest and most effective solution is to put them in different rooms so they can each enjoy their possessions and not feel threatened or stressed out; it can also prevent the fighting from escalating. In addition, it’s helpful to remove potentially guard-able objects when the dogs are together.
On the other hand, resource guarding can become a serious problem if your dog threatens to bite you or another family member when taking something away from him. Your dog should be willing to give up things they’d rather hold onto (such as a beloved squeaky toy or a slipper) without a struggle or a fight. Resource guarding is a major cause of aggression towards people, especially children. This can be particularly dangerous for small children, who are apt to carry around food and play things within your dog’s reach. What makes matters worse is that young children are less likely to understand the concept of respecting the dog’s possessions, and will likely grab them from an unsuspecting pooch. Additionally, because of a child’s diminutive stature, their height makes them the victim of dog-related injuries. Therefore it is of the utmost importance to break the cycle of resource guarding at the onset of any related behavior, especially in homes where there are young children. The best thing you can do is to teach your puppy not to bite before the problem escalates.
If you are unable to discipline your dog effectively or feel uncertain about canine training techniques, contact your veterinarian for advice, which may include referrals to a professional dog trainer or behavior consultant. Your vet may even recommend a routine check-up to determine if your pooch suffers from an underlying medical condition. You may also wish to contact the ASPCA, which can provide you with other helpful resources.
Signs To Recognize: How To Spot Resource Guarding
If you suspect your furry pal of resource guarding, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get to the root cause of his behavior. Below are several main causes as outlined earlier:
- Genetic: If you see your puppy guarding his food bowl even at a few months old, the chances are it’s an inherited trait from one or both parents. In addition, some experts believe there are certain breeds, such as the Cocker Spaniel, that are more prone to resource guarding behavior than others.
- Competition: In the case of multiple dogs under one roof, competition and jealousy are a breeding ground for resource guarding. It’s natural for dogs to protect their “belongings” if there are other pets in the home that they view as a potential threat (even if they’re simply competing for your attention)!
- Trauma: Just as people experience PTSD, your dog can also be the victim of past traumatic events. One of the most frequent behaviors associated with trauma (often seen in older dogs or animals who have had multiple owners) is resource guarding. For example, if your dog was a rescue, he may have had to fight for his food in the shelter or on the street; in other cases, your dog may have been the victim of abuse, starvation or other unthinkable treatment. Such traumatic events can lead to possessive aggression and guarded behavior in our canine companions.
- Conditioning (Learned Behavior): Resource guarding can also be a learned experience; that is, a learned behavior that is the result from either their siblings, an owner or a breeder taking objects away from them at an early age.
Canine Food Aggression: Know The Signs:
As already covered,dogs can get possessive over nearly anything under the sun – from stinky socks to tattered toys, dogs love their stuff nearly as much (if not more) than their human counterparts. In some cases, they may even show aggression to anyone who approaches their owner. But food, by far, is the most common object of resource guarding. Due to your dog’s innate instinct to protect his food and hide it from potential predators, your dog has a natural knee-jerk reaction to get aggressive when anyone gets too close to his dinner dish.
Some typical signs of canine food aggression include:
- Attacking or growling at other dogs during meal time
- Defending bones or other edible treats
- Guarding food (but not eating it)
- Growling while eating
- Snapping, biting and/or growling if someone gets too close to their food bowl
- Eating rapidly when someone is near (the mildest type of food aggression)
While this specific kind of resource guarding is more problematic with adult dogs (who can hurt you or other pets in the household), food aggression observed in the puppy phase of development should never be ignored. As with nearly any other canine behavioral problems, it’s easiest to nip things in the bud and remediate the issue when your dog is very young.
Managing Your Dog’s Resource Guarding: Helpful Tips & Techniques
Whether you’re the owner of a new dog that doesn’t yet resource guard, a puppy, or an occasional (but not dangerous) resource-guarder, it’s essential to teach your pooch not to guard his food and willingly give up his belongings – without a fight or a scene. Below are some helpful exercises to practice regularly with your furry friend:
- Reinforce Positive Behavior With Treats: One of the most efficient ways to condition your dog’s behavior is through the reward system – while using treats to encourage desired behavior is a tried-and-true training method, it’s just as effective when tackling resource guarding issues. Once your pup has figured out that sharing his toys or refraining from growling during meal time equals a yummy treat, it won’t be long before his possessive behavior is a thing of the past.
- Teaching Your Pooch To Share: It cannot be emphasized enough – if you want to effectively break your dog from the resource-guarding cycle, he needs to learn how to share first. Try offering him his favorite treat while you keep one end of it in your hand. In order for him to access it, your pup will have to tolerate you being near (and touching) his food. This hand-feeding method not only establishes trust between pet parent and dog, but further reinforces the concept that your family is the source of ‘All Good Things’ as detailed in Donaldson’s aforementioned book. Once they’ve passed this initial ‘treat test’ without snapping or growling, you can move onto desensitizing mealtime as explained in the next step.
- Focus On Desensitization: Another core element of resource guarding, desensitization is an excellent technique to reduce feelings of anxiety or over-protective behavior towards your dog’s belongings or territory. Introduce ‘triggering’ elements gradually – such as the presence of another dog or touching their bowl during meal-time – in order to desensitize your pet to things that typically set him off. For example, if your dog growls whenever you approach his dish, drop his favorite treat into his bowl without bending down. This will teach him that people approaching his food isn’t a threat, but instead something good.
- Avoid Punishment: While it may be tempting to take away your pet’s toys or other favorite objects when he’s showing signs of possessive aggression, it is actually counterproductive. Because resource-guarding dogs are already anxious that their food, toys or other belongings might be taken away, you’re only reinforcing their fear, rather than getting to the source of the problem. Instead of punishing your dog when he shows signs of this specific type of aggressive behavior, you should withdraw and let him calm down. Further antagonizing your pet will only exacerbate matters, and likely lead to more resource guarding, thus perpetuating the cycle.
Although it may prove challenging and stressful at times, resource guarding is a natural behavioral condition found in dogs of all ages, genders and breeds. By routinely practicing conditioning-training exercises such as the ones outlined above, you can (with love and patience) break your dog of his guarding habits. If you continue to encounter behavioral issues with aggression or his habits become worse, discuss with your trusted veterinarian to ensure there are no underlying medical issues. Your vet can also recommend licensed behavioral therapists and dog trainers who can professionally assess and treat your dog’s problematic behavior. With a logical, consistent and pragmatic approach, you can ultimately curb your dog’s habits and instill good behavior for the duration of his lifespan – and enjoy his companionship for years to come!