What is Resource Guarding?

When your dog has something he values, he may growl, snarl, lunge, or even bite when you or another animal try to take it from him or even walk near him. Many people interpret this as a sign that their dog is being dominant and think that moral, good dogs, should just let others take their stuff without complaint. But what if it has nothing to do with your dog being submissive, compliant, or good? What if he’s just being a dog. If we look at wild dogs, the dogs that don’t guard their food, don’t eat. They go hungry and die. While our dogs get regular meals, that doesn’t mean the instinct to hang on their food doesn’t have a legitimate basis grounded in instinct. Resource guarding is normal behavior. Your dog isn’t trying to take over the household. He’s not trying to be the boss of you. He’s just wanting to hang on to his stuff! Imagine this….
You’re really hungry. You sit down at a restaurant. The waiter brings you a plate of delicious food. It looks great. It smells even better. You pick up your knife and fork. You can’t wait to dig in! And then some stranger walks over to your table and grabs your plate of food and takes it from you. Maybe it’s worse. Maybe he grabs it out of your mouth! What do you do? You might yell. You might go after them. You might even punch them.

But My Dog Guards Stuff that isn’t Food

Many dogs guard non food items including stolen treasures from the laundry basket, pieces of tissue (even better if a human blew their nose on it!), and other assorted things that are not edible. Many dogs also guard their person. When they’re near you, they may snarl, snap, or even bite any humans or other dogs that come near you. While it may be harder to wrap our heads around this, it comes from the same instinct as snapping at someone taking their food. You can think of it as a misfire. Wild dogs who don’t guard, when they should, may die of hunger. Dogs who guard when they shouldn’t, are not causing themselves any harm.

How to Stop Guarding Between Dogs

Sometimes you don’t need to do anything.

Curiously, this isn’t a problem that always needs to be fixed. If your dog is guarding against other dogs in the household, and the interactions are like arguments, you may not need need to do anything at all. Just like it’s normal for people to argue sometimes, it’s also normal for dogs that usually get along, to argue. When dogs argue, it can look and sound terrifying. Teeth flashing, lunging, growling, and even screaming can all happen in non-injurious dog arguments. It can sound like they are literally killing each other. And when it’s all over, there’s not a scratch on any of them. Isn’t that interesting?!

Sometimes you can use management.

You can also manage resources so that when dogs have high value stuff, they can enjoy the item in the privacy of their own crate. Don’t distribute high value items when the dogs have access to each other.

When to seek help for dog-dog resource guarding.

If your dogs are injuring each other to the point of needing stitches at the veterinarian’s office, seek help from a qualified trainer.

When to Seek Help for Guarding Against Humans

Keeping in mind that guarding is normal dog behavior, even if not all dogs guard, how do you know when you need to intervene? Do you have young children in the house? Children should not approach dogs who are eating or have possession of other resources that the dog values. How many things is your dog guarding? Dogs that only guard a few things can sometimes be dealt with by management. In an emergency, you can trade up, meaning, you give the dog something that he will value even more highly, in exchange for the thing you want him to give up. Has the dog bitten anyone? Obviously if guarding has reached this point, seek help from a qualified professional. How disruptive is it to the household? For some dog owners, it’s so intolerable that they need help even if the dog isn’t actually endangering anyone. For more information, I’d recommend Jean Donaldson’s classic book on resource guarding Mine. Be aware that only the mildest guarding is a DIY. (Relevant aside: I’ve been bitten exactly once in my life. It was years before I became a professional dog trainer. I was trying to DIY fix serious resource guarding between two dogs, by using this book. I ended up with a redirected bite. I strongly encourage dog owners of resource guarders, seek professional help.) Most resource guarding is very treatable with excellent outcomes. I love working with resource guarding dogs. If you need help, I offer a free phone consultation.