Why do dogs guard food, toys, people? It comes down to trust. When a dog doesn't feel safe, or mistrustful, they can exhibit resource guarding behaviors. Some signs of resource guarding are flatting their ears, lowering their head or "coveting" an object when you or another dog approach. You may also see teeth showing and hear a growl. Your dog may also move away with the object.
Resource guarding in puppies can begin when we constantly take things they shouldn't have, away from them. They start to learn that they don't trust us because we are always taking. the way to counter this is to start giving. I have also seen resource guarding in puppies when they aren't being fed enough. If your puppy is showing any signs of resource guarding it's important to get help for them NOW.
The goal of resource guarding training is to teach the dog that they are safe with the item they value as a resource. This is how we can help dogs to stop resource guarding but it's important to do so carefully. We do this by adding value on approach. We add value on approach by offering something great when the dog is near the guarded object. We do this safely by tossing treats, using verbal praise and even petting if the dog finds that valuable and, it’s safe to do so. If you are unsure if approaching your dog is safe, do not attempt to, toss treats from a distance to them instead. For the sake of this article I will assume that your dog is protective of something but will not bite (if they will do NOT attempt any of this).
It's important that you know what your dog likes best before training – whatever that is use lots of it (you can combine rewards, too. This could be treats, play, petting and verbal praise or any combination).
If you have children in your home and a dog that resource guards this is a dangerous situation and you should seek professional help from a certified professional (do NOT use an e-collar for resource guarding – more on this below). These tips should not be used for dogs with mild to moderate resource guarding. If there is a history of actual biting you should muzzle train before attempting.
To help your dog with resource guarding:
Management this is the first step for resolving your dog’s resource guarding. We want to try our best to eliminate any resource guarding from here on out so the behavior is not practiced regularly (this will cause an increase in resource guarding). Start by limiting access to the location where the guarding happens most by changing the environment or, eliminating access completely.
Some examples of management are:
- If your dog guards a chair, couch or place you normally sit, try sitting somewhere else for now. I usually recommend a dog be trained “off” or not be allowed in the couch at all if they guard it.
- If your dog resource guards chews or toys, remove them from the area for the time being or, only offer them if your dog is in a crate or confined area (however this could pose a risk if for some reason your dog gets it stuck in their mouth and you have to reach for it so I say it’s best to skip them all together for now if there is any chance your dog may bite you).
- If your dog guards against another dog or pet in your home use barriers to keep them separate (especially during training) with a gate so they can still sniff and see one another. I would also recommend training them to wear a muzzle so you can safely work with them or, at the very least, condition them to wearing a light leash at all times when you are with them (never leave them unattended with a leash on) so you can grab the leash in the case of a fight and not risk getting bit.
- If your dog resource guards their food or water bowl, keep it up on the counter until feeding time and plan to feed them in a secured area, uninterrupted. This could be a gated area, bathroom or any place where they can feel safe to eat without being challenged. Challenging your dog will not solve resource guarding!
- If your dog growls when someone approaches your bed or the couch they should no longer be allowed there, the leash could help you remove them if it’s not safe and you can use it for training.
Food & Water Resource Guarding:
If your dog guards their food or water bowl and it is safe to approach them, here are some tips for different types of resource guarding in dogs:
- Practice training in a room where resource guarding doesn’t normally occur, then transition to where it does when all is going well (carefully and thoughtfully).
- Start with an empty bowl in your hand (if your dog guards the bowl itself you would work with having it on the floor then stepping towards your dog, tossing a treat and retreating for safety).
- Wait for your dog to look up at you and, when they do, place one piece of kibble in the bowl and offer it to them (keep the bowl in your hand until the end of this practice). Continue to add a little more kibble each time while only lowing the bowl to your dog’s level then back up to you. When you have just a few pieces left, place them in the bowl, put the bowl down and release your dog to enjoy. Do not pick the bowl back up OR place your hand in the bowl. We want the dog to feel safe and we should never try to touch or take their food, this is how resource guarding starts.
- Next, have the empty food bowl on the floor, place a few pieces of kibble in the bowl. Once your dog eats, wait for them to look up at you for more. When they do, add more kibble. Continue without doing anything else, build trust by ONLY adding value. Keep your movements slow and steady, retreat slowly after placing the kibble. If your dog is stressed DO not approach, toss food to them and retreat. Practice this a few times a week. You should notice your dog is more relaxed with your approach over time. If it's safe move closer each week.
- Continue to teach your dog(s) “go to your mat”, “stay” and “leave it” in addition to the resource guarding training because all of these can be useful for resource guarding later. Not to mention, these are great skills for all dogs anyway.
If it is NOT safe to approach your dog you can still do this exercise. You will need to stand back and only take ONE step towards your dog, toss the treat to them and retreat. Repeat as many times as you need, until your dog is relaxed. Add one step at a time and always retreat after presenting the food. You would do the same if your dog guards toys or any other objects. Approach to a safe distance, toss a reward, retreat. This is how you build trust.
Dog-to-dog resource guarding:
If your dog resource guards against another dog I first urge you to seek professional help but not with a trainer that recommends a shock or e-collar. When we punish our dogs for aggressive behaviors we are suppressing their emotions and the minute that collar isn’t on or the batteries die you will still have an unpredictable dog.
Always reward your dog for good behavior! Anytime you see your dog look at the other dog (or cat) without tension, say “YES” and reward (use treats if your dog is safe around them – you can toss them on the floor if not). Do this 5-10 minutes a day.
- Leash and/or tethering the dog that is the aggressor (or both if they both resource guard) if you are in a situation where they might lunge or attack during training sessions. Be sure the tether is short enough that they cannot access each other. If you ever see either dog freeze, interrupt quickly with a “leave it”, make a sound that will get their attention or sending them to their mat. The freeze signifies the moment before the dog reacts/attacks.
- Manage access to the each dog carefully. If your dogs have a history of fighting they should be separated, period. If you can’t manage that they should be conditioned for being in a crate or somehow separated safely while you work with them.
- Here is a game to help with dog-to-dog aggression (dogs should be tethered, in crates or separated by a baby gate for this!). Say one dog’s name in a happy voice and give them a treat. Say the other dog’s name and give them a treat. As long as BOTH dogs seem relaxed and comfortable, keep playing for a bit. If the dogs are food aggressive you can toss treats to them to avoid any danger – even if they have to be far apart for training. You can make great progress not matter the distance between the dogs and you can even slowly work them closer and closer. This game will help your dogs to begin to understand that sharing and taking turns is ok and they don’t have to fight for food or resources. It will also help them to relax near each other and hopefully help with their relationships all around.
- Also use plenty of verbal praise whenever one dog is near the other.
- If the dogs are aggressive over food you can work with them separately using the food and/or water bowl protocol above. You should still plan on having them eat their regular meals separately at all times.
If you have a dog that guards resources by snarling, curling their lip or biting please consider muzzle training. Dog muzzles are helpful, powerful tools and have such a bad rap, unfortunately. Think of it like wearing a helmet when you ride a bicycle or motorcycle – it’s a layer of protection which will also help you be more calm so it’s a win-win! Here is an article to help you better understand the purpose and use of muzzles. You can also visit the Muzzle Up Program for tips and support.
To recap dog-to-dog aggression:
- Implement management with barriers, tethers and leashes.
- Reward BOTH dogs for being near and/or looking at each other.
- Practice rewarding BOTH dogs by name, in turn.
- Test (if safe) leashing one dog and walking them past the other while rewarding BOTH dogs (a helper will come in handy here). Continue practicing as long as both dogs are relaxed.
- Always make it beneficial to each dog when the other enters the room.