By Anthony De Marinis, CDBC, CBATI, VSPDT, TTWC, VSA-DT
What is Resource Guarding?
Resource guarding, also known as “possession aggression” is a behavior a dog displays to control access to a valued resource. What is a valued resource? It is something of value to that particular dog. Just as people value different things, so do dogs. A dog may feel the need to guard food, a bone, a toy, space, another dog or even a human. It is important to point out that some dogs will only resource guard one thing, while others may resource guard multiple things in their life. When a dog is resource guarding, he might display defensive behavior to keep another dog, person or animal away from his valued resource. Some dogs may also display overt aggressive behavior, which is aggressive behavior with intent to cause harm.
Resource guarding is a normal, natural survival behavior that all animals, including people, will display. However, the severity of the guarding behavior will determine how normal, or abnormal and even how dangerous this behavior can be.
What Does Resource Guarding Look Like?
Many of us know it when we see it! The dog that has a bone and as you approach he stands over it with his head held low. Other dogs may be very quiet and just stare at the threat very intensely. Some dogs might growl, bare teeth, lunge and even air snap (aka air bite). These behaviors are used as a way to get the threat to move further away from the resource. Some dogs (often because their warning signals have been ignored) will choose to bite to move the threat away from their resource. In more extreme cases, dogs become so aroused, threatened, anxious, conflicted and/or angry, that they will not stop with just one bite.
Here is a list (in no particular order) of just some of the behaviors and warning signs that a dog who is resource guarding might display.
- When a threat approaches they may stop, freeze or display slow body movements.
- Intense staring and/or wide eyes
- Lip licking, flicking the tongue out or nervous or agitated movements with the mouth
- Hovering over or near the item, sometimes with the head low and eye’s focused on the threat
- If a dog is eating or chewing on a bone, you may find they will eat a lot faster or chew a lot harder.
- Growling, low or deep growling, baring of teeth, lunging forward or air snapping (biting the air)
- Biting: Biting comes in many forms. As soon as teeth make contact this is considered a bite, regardless if the dog causes injury or not. Some dogs may bite, but may not cause injury. The fact the dog decided to lunge and bite, but shows restraint from causing injury does not mean the dog did not bite; this is still a bite. Other dogs will bite and nick the skin, cause a bruise or puncture skin. Some dogs do what I call a “snake bite”. This is where a dog bites and quickly releases. More serious and dangerous bites are those where the dog continuously bites and/or holds on without releasing.
- Muzzling Punching: This is when a dog will gently or very forcefully bump his nose/muzzle into the threat. This is known as a closed mouth bite and in some cases can be a very serious warning sign.
- Fixated or intensely focused on a threat. Typically, the dog’s eyes might be glued to the threat and will be very aware of their every movement. Some dogs might follow the threat around in a very intense way when guarding. I find this occurs when a dog may feel very concerned or conflicted.
- Body Blocking or Body Positioning: This typically silent behavior is intentionally used by dogs to block others’ access to their valued resource. For example, you might find they will stand over or in between their resource and other people or dogs. If a dog is guarding a human, say their owner, you may find that they may lean against that person they are guarding, usually while staring at the threat. Or they might position themselves by standing in between the threat and the resource.
- Some dogs will even do things like vigilantly looking at the threat, then look back at the resource, then again at the threat and again at the resource. This is also a silent behavior that is often missed.
- Touching/Body Handling Issues: One thing that I have observed in resource guarders is that many of them may not enjoy or just tolerate touching and body handling. Trainer and behavior expert Jean Donaldson in her book Mine! (2002), and assessment and behavior expert Sue Sternberg, both share that in their experiences dogs who resource guard have a higher likelihood of not enjoying or just tolerate being touched or handled. There is no clear answer as to why this is but it is an observation worth noting.
- Some dogs will resource guard things that are not in their possession. I had a dog who would resource guard from across the house. If he saw another dog or person approach me, he would very quickly rush over and position himself in between me and the other dog or person. If he saw someone walking towards a part of the house he found valuable, he would rush over towards that person to guard that area. So it is important to note that in some cases, dogs can guard things that are not in their possession.
- Dog to Dog Issues: In homes with multiple dogs, it is normal and common for dogs to resource guard things from other dogs. Just like people sometimes have minor disagreements or need to set clear boundaries, so do our dogs. If a dog growls or bares his teeth at a dog or even lunges toward one of the other dogs in the home, he is trying to set clear boundaries. As long as this is not happening often and no one is getting bullying or injured this is not a bad thing. However, if a dog is constantly being bullied, is feeling very threatened or stressed, misinterpreting communication signals or resource guarding is increasing between one or both dogs, this can become a bigger and more serious issue.
Why Do Dogs Resource Guard?
Again, resource guarding (in all animals, including humans) is a normal, natural survival behavior which appears more in some dogs than other dogs. Dogs may resource guard for a number of reasons.
Some of these reasons include:
- Feeling threatened, which may be due to insecurity and an inability to cope
- Changes in the environment (Including but not limited to: new baby, visitor, new dog, someone entering or exit a threshold or doorway)
- Competition of resources
- Feeling like the resource might arbitrarily be taken from them, which could cause a dog to feel conflicted, vigilant, concerned, or angry
- Feeling the need to control the outcome of the environment
Additionally, dogs may also resource guard due to lack of socialization, genetics, imbalance of brain chemicals and/or the influence of human behavior. I have briefly touched on these topics below as I feel they are worth pointing out.
- Lack of Socialization: Dogs that were not socialized or not socialized appropriately during the socialization period (which starts at approximately 3 weeks of age and last approximately until 16 weeks of age) have a higher risk for behavior issues. Socialization is the process of introducing and exposing a puppy to the world. Socialization includes exposure to people, animals, sounds, sights, textures, things and new environments. This is the most impressionable time in a dog’s life. Lack of socialization can contribute to behavior issues and development. These dogs can become more overwhelmed, frustrated, conflicted, anxious, stressed and/or fearful, which can cause a dog to display resource guarding behavior. It is also important to note that dogs in high volume shelter or puppy mill environments can develop resource guarding behaviors as these places can be stressful.
- Genetics: A dog’s genetic makeup can determine specific behaviors and tendencies. Behaviors such as resource guarding can absolutely be influenced by a dog’s genetic makeup. Dogs from parents who are resource guarders for example, may have a higher likelihood of also being resource guarders. Poor breeding, such as puppy mills or backyard breeders, can also contribute to this problem as these dogs typically do not come from the best gene pool, they live in stressful environments, they are over bred and they are not socialized well.
- Imbalance of Brain Chemicals: Imbalance of brain chemicals and hormones is said to occur when there is too much or too little of specific chemicals in the brain, which can affect animals behavior.
- The Influence of Human Behavior: Often times when I go to homes that are having resource guarding issues, the owners behavior has contributed or exacerbated the issue. I have listed out some of the more common issues.
- One of the biggest reasons is the lack of understanding canine body language signals and behavior. I highly encourage all my clients to take the time to learn about canine body language signals as this can help drastically improve many situations.
- Another common reason is because some owners feel that they need to overpower their dog or show them who is boss. Many owners and even some professionals are under the impression that we should stick our hands into the dogs food bowl while they are eating or reaching over and grabbing a bone out of the dogs mouth. However, this is false. In fact, this can actually cause resource guarding to surface or get worse over time. This is because a dog can learn that when they have an item in their possession (such as a bone or food in their dish) and a person approaches them, they need to guard the item because it was taken away from them in the past.
- When a dog growls, shows its teeth or lunges towards their owner, some owners will get loud with their dogs or will physically reprimand them such as Alpha Rolling them. This can cause a dog to defend itself and can make the behavior worse over time.
- In other situations, owners might tease, provoke or chase their dog before or during a resource guarding incident.
- The way an owner plays with their dog can, in some cases cause resource guarding. This is because when some people play with their dogs they may tease or provoke them, or not train them to play appropriately. Some owners might play with a dog very rudely or may use their hands and body to much which may be to forceful or threatening to some dogs.
- Training or Lack of Training: The way a dog is trained can influence and cause behavior issues. This includes the use of aversive tools and harsh training methods. Practicing outdated protocols like sticking your hand in a dogs bowl while he eats or taking a dog bone that the dog was chewing can cause or increase resource guarding. Lack of training basic skills such as drop it, leave it, impulse control and boundaries can also contribute to these issues. And finally, lack of trust and forming a strong bond between dog and owner can effect behavior.
How Should Resource Guarding Be Addressed?
If your puppy or dog is displaying resource guarding behavior you should hire a qualified behavior professional to help provide a behavior modification plan. You can check out behavior professionals from these organizations. You can also check out my website as I provide in-home consultations and online video consultations for those who live far away.
- International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
- Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers
- Victoria Stilwell Licensed Positive Dog Trainer
- Pat Miller Certified Trainer
- De Marinis Dog Training & Behavior
What NOT To Do:
Until you get a professional to help you, here is a list of things you should avoid doing.
- Don’t punish your dog for resource guarding. Certain forms of punishment and confrontation could cause resource guarding behavior to become worse, more dangerous and possibly even more violent.
- Don’t try to steal the item from the dog. If your dog stole your shoe, sock, or other item that might be yours, do not try and take it back. This could cause your dog to learn to protect the item more or it could teach your dog to run away from you when you approach.
- If your dog starts learning to run away or play keep away with an item that they shouldn’t have, avoid the temptation to chase them. Some dogs run away with items because they are not only resource guarding, but they are trying to avoid confrontation. However, don’t be fooled! Some dogs will protect that valued item that they.
- Don’t yell at your dog as this could increase confrontation between you both.
- Do not stick your hand in your dogs bowl during meal time. If I was out to eat, the last thing I need is some random person walking over and sticking his fork in my plate. Its not only annoying, but it is rude!
- Do not tease or provoke your dog as you could be asking for trouble.
- Do not pet or touch your dog when guarding as this can come across as more threatening to your dog. This is especially true when a dog is eating or chewing on a bone.
- Knowing what you are doing with your body language is also very important. Dogs can learn the differences in our body language which can cause them to feel nervous or concerned. This can cause a dog to avoid us or to defend themselves. Training Expert Chris Bach always says “Dogs are body language communicators”. This means they not only use their body to communicate with others, but they read body language from others as well. Avoid looking threatening and forceful so that your dog does not feel the need to defend himself.
Things TO DO:
- Hire a qualified and credentialed behavior professional to help you address and modify the problem behaviors.
- Trade out with food when appropriate and safe to do so. Instead of chasing your dog, trading out can be a better solution until you hire a professional.
- Teach your dog important training and obedience skills which include but are not limited to: Drop it, Leave it, Its Yer Choice (by Susan Garrett), Focus, and maintaining a position.
- Build a relationship with your dog through fun and enjoyable experiences like going for a hike, taking up a dog sport, or playing games or activities your dog loves.
- Prevent access from specific items your dog resource guards (if and when possible)
- If you play tug, learn how to play tug with rules (only play tug if safe to do so). You can play using two toys so that you can trade out. The same can be done when playing games such as fetch.
- If you have gotten yourself a new puppy or adult dog, I suggest puppy proofing your house so that your valued items and your dog are safe. This can also prevent a dog from practicing resource guarding behavior. Click here to check out my puppy proofing blog and checklist.
- Take the time to educate yourself in canine body language and communication signals. Here are some helpful credible source:
Resource Guarding Prevention For Puppies
For those of you who are trying to prevent issues from occurring with puppies, here is the link to my blog post on Possession Prevention for puppies. Included in the blog is a video of a helpful exercise I demonstrate with my puppy who was having some possession issues.
About Anthony De Marinis, CDBC, CBATI, VSPDT, TTWC, VSA-DT
Anthony De Marinis is the owner of De Marinis Dog Training & Behavior on Long Island, NY. He provides private in-home training and behavior modification solutions using positive reinforcement-based methods. He also provides video consultations remotely as he has many clients across the United States. Anthony has 6 professional certifications which include: Certified Dog Behavior Consultant from the International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants, Certified Graduate of distinction from the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior, Certified Behavior Adjustment Trainer, Certified Victoria Stilwell Licensed Positively Dog Trainer, The Third Way Certified Trainer and is a Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer. Currently, Anthony has a young Australian Kelpie named Journey. They are learning about agility and nose work together. You can visit Anthony’s website and learn more about him and his services at: www.demarinisdogtraining.com