Resource Guarding: Why does it happen and what are the next steps?

A dog standing in the grass over a toy

Taking and keeping items is a common behavior pattern for many species, humans included. Resource guarding has a place in our lives — from protecting big things like our family and our homes to small things like the last piece of our favorite dessert in the fridge.  

We need to remember that, like to us, resource guarding makes logical sense to many of our dogs.  

Historically, dogs were scavengers. It was necessary for survival to search, hoard, and control resources that were important. This ranged from territory to food sources to even favorite enrichment items they found (sticks, bones, sunning spots, etc.). If they were not prepared to communicate through body language, vocalization, or more to keep something, they ran the risk of losing it, thus threatening survival.  

But my dog is a pet now. How does this apply to today’s life? 

Resource Guarding happens in today’s pet dog world for a few reasons. First, genetically, some dogs are more prone to resource guarding due to the jobs they were originally bred for.  

For example, gun dogs need to be tenacious in holding on to their retrieves for their hunter’s benefit, and guardians are often driven to protect their charges against potential outside dangers (often including strange people).  

Secondly, some dogs feel driven to protect items because their environment is unpredictable. For example: kids running into a dog’s space when they’re eating causes worry about things being taken, or a human sticking hands in their food bowls consistently makes them wonder if their food will disappear. 

Another possibility is that a pattern of losing items has been established from the dog’s point of view. Dogs learn best with patterns, so if they routinely lose items they view as valuable, our very presence can accidentally predict the loss, even if we have no intention of taking it at the time.  

So, what can we do about resource guarding? 

Because resource guarding is a complex and potentially dangerous behavior, you’ll need to seek help from a professional who specializes in the “whys” and can guide you through the “hows.”  

Not every professional is created equal, however. When seeking guidance, ask the professional what methods they typically utilize for this behavior. Seek someone who takes the dog’s previous learning history, their possible genetics, the environment and the dog as an individual into account when working on this problem.  

Avoid any punishment-based training plans, as these can cause further distrust from your dog, and you run the risk of a sudden escalation in future situations that could have dangerous consequences.  

It can take time to find a professional to work with. What can you do in the meantime? 

While you’re finding a professional, you want to set up everyone for safety in the household. Manage your dog’s environment so they can’t practice guarding items.  

A dog playing tug with a pink toy

If your dog is stressed around mealtime, set up a feeding area, like the kennel, where they can be left uninterrupted and completely blocked off from the rest of the household (other dogs included). Follow an established pattern for mealtime so your dog can rely on what’s happening around them and not have to worry. Trade them for the food bowl when they’re done, so they receive something in return. 

Avoid leaving items around the home that your dog has previously found interesting enough to guard. 

If your dog accidentally gets something they aren’t supposed to have and guards it, instead of trying to forcibly take the item, get some stinky, tasty treats (real food like shredded chicken, cheese or turkey goes the longest way!), and trade them by tossing the food a little bit away from the item so they get something in return for you taking it from them. Then, be sure to put that item out of reach or behind a closed door to prevent future incidents.  

And finally, the fun part: play with your dog! Strengthen the foundations of your relationship by adding fun to your interactions. 

Playing tug, sniffy games (examples are hiding their meal/some treats around a room for them to find, putting food under cones and they sniff to locate it, or scent work), or doing some classes with your dog can build up trust and strengthen your bond. 

Do you have questions about your dog’s resource guarding?  

For pet parents local to the Twin Cities, our Animal Training and Behavior team can help answer management questions via the FREE Behavior Helpline, and they can guide you on how to find the right professional for your individual situation.  

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