Resource Guarding Aggression, and How to Deal with it.

This post is part of the series Working with Aggressive Dogs

Other posts in this series:

  1. Monkey, 8 lbs of Aggression
  2. Types of Aggression in Dogs
  3. Fear Based Aggression in Dogs

Resource guarding is an instinctual behavior in dogs.  In humans too.  We like to protect our stuff, sometimes even fiercely so.  Well, so do our dogs. They can also get quite fierce when protecting their valuable resources. It can be a pain when they guard them from their humans, or from other dogs residing in the same place.

The key is knowing when their resource guarding is acceptable behavior.  And when it’s crossed the line into unacceptable behavior.  Knowing how to intervene, manage and modify their behavior is the next step.

Resource guarding instincts

In the wild, if dogs didn’t guard their resources from other dogs, they would likely starve.  It’s a survival instinct ingrained in them.  Ingrained in all living things, the desire to live.  It’s this survival instinct that triggers the aggressive behavior, from the warning stare and growl, to vicious fights over their resources.  Whether it be food, toys, beds, or their humans and attention from them.

Although we do occasionally have incidents of toy, or food guarding. I’m the most guarded resource in our house. I walk a fine line making sure each dog gets enough time with me everyday.  And they remind me of it daily.  They don’t want their “mama time” interrupted by the other dogs.  It’s rarely more than a warning growl in our pack.  But if we didn’t keep a tight rein on it, it could very well get ugly.  And it would most likely happen right at my feet, or over top of me, if I happened to be laying on the floor with the dogs.  As I often do with the older ones who can’t make it up onto the furniture anymore.

Knowing when resource guarding is becoming a problem

Before you can work on improving your dog’s resource guarding behavior, you have to know it’s happening.  Watch for the situations when your dog “warns” off another dog, or a human from an item, or place he’s occupying.  It’s hard to miss it, if it always turns into a fight, but the warning growl, or hard stare is a lot easier to miss.  You have to watch closely.

Once you know what usually triggers the guarding behavior, it’s time to start working on preventing, or discouraging the behavior. In other words, you have to teach your dog to share.  With people and with other dogs.

With a resource guarding dog, you have two options.  If the aggression has never moved past a warning growl, or the list of items that he’s likely to guard is short, you can probably just manage it.  If the aggressive behavior has escalated to more than a warning growl, or the dog guards everything, you need to work on some behavior modification.

Managing resource guarding

We feed our likely resource guarders, and the ones likely to try and steal from the others in their crates.  We use this system all of the time, because we don’t do always full food bowls.  Most of our dogs are older and on strict diets. They get fed twice a day, measured out meals.  And with the foster dogs coming and going often, it’s easier to keep track of everyone’s intake.

If the guarded resource is a toy, bed, etc.  Those toys should only be out under close supervision.  Or use those as the crate toys, that they only get when they are spending time in their crates.

We also like to use the “Nothing in Life is Free” program in which your dog has to earn all rewards, including attention and food. We make them at least Sit to get food, treats, toys, walks, and outside playtime.  If you haven’t tried this dog training method, you really should.  It helps to correct a lot of dog behavior problems, not just the resource guarding.

Behavior modification for resource guarding

To start with the behavior modification route, you first want to manage the environment until the behavior has been modified. Hide all potential guarding triggers. Food bowls, even empty ones, toys or anything else your dog is likely to guard. Provide them only in controlled circumstances.

If you use the always full food bowl, then pick it up for a while.  Spend a few weeks pre-conditioning your dog. Feed him 2 or 3 times a day, by putting his bowl in a confined area. Bring him to the space, and leave him until he’s finished eating.

Using a desensitization and counter-conditioning program, like we talked about using for fear based aggression.  Substituting the fearful stimuli with the guarded items, one at a time.

Even with behavior modification, you’ll still need some management.  Certain situations can bring out the urge to resource guarding, and you’ll need to stay alert for sign of it.

Resource guarding tips:

If you can’t remove an item that your dog guards, such as furniture, block the dog’s access to it, until he’s finished his behavior modification.

When it’s a human he’s guarding, try keeping him on a leash in the house, so you can more easily control him until he’s finished his behavior modification.

If he doesn’t yet know the “Leave it” and “Drop it” commands, teach him.  These are two of the core commands for a well behaved dog.  Your dog should know all of them really.

Exercise him more. A tired dog is usually a well-behaved one. Mental games also help engage the dog and improve behavior.

Don’t punish your dog if a food guarding or other aggressive incident occurs. Punishment usually elicits confusion and more aggression, and reinforces his association that someone near his food bowl is bad.

This post is part of the series Working with Aggressive Dogs

Other posts in this series:

  1. Monkey, 8 lbs of Aggression
  2. Types of Aggression in Dogs
  3. Fear Based Aggression in Dogs

Continue reading this series: