What is it?
Resource guarding is a behaviour that dogs perform to protect a “resource”. A resource could be a toy, food, any object and even you! The behaviour is designed to make sure that they do not lose this resource to someone or something else. The behaviour is shown in different forms and often owners are unaware that their dog is guarding until the behaviour become more obvious. For a dog to guard, they need to perceive some form of threat, either to themselves, or to a person/object they have or desire. The threat might be fear of loss of the object, or fear of the approaching target itself.
Some dogs may guard a person or object without fear of the approaching target. This behaviour relates more to anger at the potential loss of a valued resource/person.
Both may look quite similar but if a dog is fearful, they may try to retreat unless unable to do so, then the dog may use active aggression if retreat has been unsuccessful.
What does resource guarding look like?
This depends on the size and value of the resource
I tend to colour code these: Green is a low-level behaviour and does not involve active aggression. Amber is a slightly escalated behaviour where a dog takes active, but non- aggressive actions to protect his resource. Certain breeds are more likely to resource guard. I often see Working Cocker Spaniels that resource guard and see it very early on, even at 8 weeks old. Red is when a dog actively guards a resource by using aggression.
Examples of green, amber and red flag behaviours.
Green: Most people miss these signs as they are subtle.
The dog might calmly stand in front of a person or dog or object so that they come between the perceived object of threat and their “resource”.
The dog might become very still when approached whilst in possession of a desired resource.
The dog may simply walk away from the perceived threat carrying their desired resource.
The dog might place a paw over a desired object when approached by the perceived threat.
Amber: Often people mis-read as play or an invitation to chase.
Dog stands in front of the guarded person/dog facing the approaching “target”, hackles raised.
Dog growls at approaching “target”. Dog becomes agitated (goes into a state of freeze and dash) running away from someone approaching him when he has his resource.
Dog hides with resource under a chair, table or other convenient hidey hole.
Dog briefly pounces in the direction of target when in possession of a resource.
Dog growls at approaching target when in possession of resource.
Red: Most people recognise this form of resource guarding.
When in possession of his resource, the dog lunges at approaching "target".
When in possession of resource, the dog snaps at approaching "target".
When is possession of resource, the dog bites approaching "target".
What causes Resource Guarding in Dogs?
Certain breeds seem to have a pre-disposition to resource guarding. For example, Working Cocker Spaniels and Beagles feature prominently in my case histories. It seems retrieving breeds may also be more likely to resource guard. This is most likely because they pick up things as part of their breed specific behaviours and often get punished for doing so when it's not something the owner wants them to have. As a result they become afraid of humans when they have an item they perceive they should not, and use aggression to prevent the person from getting close to them.
I suspect that guarding behaviours could have a genetic element. Our last dog guarded aged 12 weeks with no history of punishment. If not genetic inheritance of these behaviours (epigenetics),
then certainly learning from maternal or paternal example. So pups can learn these behaviours by observing their parents doing these behaviours. Choose your breeder carefully and ensure neither parent resource guards.
How can I prevent Resource Guarding?
Right from early puppy-hood pups should be taught to drop articles on request using positive methods. If asked to drop with kindness, and making sure that the dog learns the meaning of the word through training using positive reinforcement methods, dogs will willingly drop articles when asked.
The more interest we take in an article our dog has taken possession of, the more we increase its value to the dog. It’s best that if they have an object we calmly ask them to drop it without becoming over excitable and scary.
We should also be teaching our dogs to leave items we do not want them to take. Again, use positive reinforcement methods to do this so that the dog is willing to oblige.
Pick your battles. If your dog has taken something that is low value to you (Kleenex tissue seems to be a common item), just ignore the fact that your dog has it. This way, you will not increase the value of the Kleenex and the dog will get bored with it and leave it eventually. It will also not do harm if your dog eats a plain Kleenex. However, if the Kleenex has something dangerous on it, like white spirit, you may want to use a treat to exchange the article. It is better to avoid using treats when your dog “steals” items as you risk reinforcing this behaviour. However, actively teach your dog to drop the types of item he is likely to “steal” so that he can learn to willingly relinquish these types of items. Then it will not matter if you do not give him a treat when he relinquishes a “stolen” item when asked.
What do I do if my dog is already resource guarding?
For any behaviour problems with your dog you should first ask your vet to check that your dog is fit and well. Many dogs’ tolerance to mildly annoying incidents can be reduced if they are unwell. Aggression is a common behaviour from an unwell dog.
If your dog is displaying green resource guarding behaviours, simply teaching your dog to leave and drop on your request using positive reinforcement ought to suffice.
If your dog is demonstrating amber or red resource guarding behaviours, it might be dangerous for you to try to resolve this on your own. It is advisable to consult a professional dog behaviourist. Your vet should be able to refer you to a professional positive reinforcement behaviourist so that your dog’s behaviour can be assessed and a suitable plan set for you so that you can resolve these issues. It is possible to change these behaviours.
DO NOT attempt to use any form of punishment to prevent these behaviours. Punishment increases anger and increases the risk that your dog will bite you or somebody else. Initially, punishment might appear to work by suppressing your dog's emotions, but after a while, many dogs manage to overcome their fear of punishment and can become extremely aggressive. This inevitably leads to the unnecessary destruction of the dog.
Resource guarding behaviours can be successfully modified when you seek the guidance of a properly qualified behaviourist. If harsh punishment has been used, it can be very difficult to safely and successfully modify this behaviour later.
Practice makes perfect. Do make sure you create an environment for your dog in which they are unlikely to get themselves into the position to be able to resource guard. Resource guarding often involves “forbidden” or “stolen” objects. Keep all of these out of their reach. The more they practice guarding, the better they get at it.
Denise Nuttall M.Res, B.Sc (Hons)
Member APBC, Member TCBTS. Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist and Accredited Training Instructor, ABTC.