Ask the Trainer | Watch out for resource guarding
August 19, 2014
Max loves his food. If anyone walks near him while eating, he eats faster.
For Rosie, a bone is her top prize. If a human family member comes near her while she's working on a juicy one, watch out! She will immediately tell them to back off with a snarl and growl, but if that doesn't work she won't hesitate to snap.
Duke doesn't care one bit for bones or food, but if another dog approaches his owner he will tell them in no uncertain terms to go away.
All of these dogs are exhibiting resource guarding behaviors. A resource is anything the dog decides is important and worth protecting. Valued items are often food or food related like bones, bully sticks, rawhides or food-stuffed toys. However, it's common for dogs to guard toys, beds (theirs or yours), crates or sofas. Guarding simply means that a dog gets uncomfortable when someone gets near their stuff. It's very important to identify these behaviors and follow an appropriate treatment plan. A dog who is repeatedly pushed or punished for guarding is highly likely to bite.
NOTE: Children run an especially high risk of being bitten by a resource guarder. Please seek help immediately if you have kids of any age in a home with a dog who guards things.
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Resource guarding is a survival skill that allows smaller, weaker animals to keep possession of food or other important object. If a dog had to fend for himself in the wild, a guarder would have an edge over a non-guarder in terms of survival. It has nothing to do with dominance. In addition, many dogs who display guarding behaviors also have problems with submissive urination, shyness and lack of confidence; not traits we associate with a "dominant" dog.
Guarding behaviors can range from very mild to extreme. The levels listed below will help you determine the severity of the problem. Often a dog will move through these levels quickly and you may not even notice some of the steps.
If someone approaches while the dog is eating or playing:
Level 1: He is relaxed and happy with no perceived threat.
Level 2: He may look up, but continues to happily eat, chew or play with the object.
Level 3: His body tenses slightly and the tail may wag faster.
Level 4: He becomes still and freezes, stops eating but stays close to the resource.
Level 5: He is very tense, eats faster and pushes his face into the food bowl. He may lift his lip, freeze and give you a "whale eye" where his eyes move but his head doesn't.
Level 6: He offers a low growl or can remain frozen in place and quiet. He may try to take the resource away and hide it.
Level 7: He snarls, exposes teeth.
Level 8: He disengages from the resource and snaps.
Level 9: He bites without breaking the skin.
Level 10: He bites multiple times and breaks skin.
The treatment for resource guarding consists of management combined with counter conditioning and desensitization (CCD). Management means keeping highly valued objects away from the dog so they can't practice the guarding behavior.
This might mean keeping toys picked up or feeding in a private place. If rawhides or bully sticks are the problem, stop buying them. This doesn't teach the dog, but helps keep stress level low and prohibits practicing bad behavior. The important part of the process is CCD, where we replace a dog's involuntary response (like fear) with a better one.
We do this through gradually increasing the exposure to a trigger paired with a high value treat. If done correctly, the trigger will become a sign the treat is coming and create a positive response. This process has to be done systematically to work.
Correcting resource guarding behavior takes time and patience, but can work. If you need help, contact a qualified Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) or behavior consultant.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog in Truckee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.