By Anthony De Marinis, CDBC, ADT, LFDM, FFCP, 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 that particular dog feels strongly about having. 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 recognize 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 other 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 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 farther 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 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 eyes 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 with skin or clothing, it is considered a bite, regardless of whether the dog causes injury. Some dogs may bite but not cause injury. Even if a dog doesn’t bite hard enough to cause an injury, it 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.
- Fixating or intensely focusing on a threat. Typically, the dog’s eyes will be glued to the threat and the dog 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 feels 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, for example their owner, you may find that they lean against that person, usually while staring at the threat. Or they might position themselves in between the threat and the resource.
- Some dogs will even do things like vigilantly looking at the threat, then 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 do not enjoy, or they 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 tolerating 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 toward a part of the house he found valuable, he would rush over toward 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-dog issues: In homes with multiple dogs, it is normal for dogs to resource guard things from each other. 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 bullied or injured, this is not a bad thing. Bullying can include a range of behaviors. One of the dogs may be constantly harassing or pushing the other around, body slamming into the other dog, even knocking or flipping the other dog over. Other bullying behaviors may include excessively chasing or being controlling in some manner that is more intense than in play. You might even see excessive growling, chasing or snapping behavior. However, if a dog is constantly being bullied and feeling very threatened or stressed, if either dog is misinterpreting communication signals, or if resource guarding is increasing between the 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 that appears more in some dogs than others. 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 a new baby, a visitor, a new dog, someone entering or exiting through a threshold or doorway).
- Competition over limited 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 some aspect of the environment.
Additionally, dogs may resource guard due to lack of socialization, genetic predisposition, 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 critical socialization period (which starts at approximately 3 weeks of age and lasts until approximately 16 weeks of age) have a higher risk for behavior issues. To learn more, check out the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior puppy socialization position statement. Socialization is the process of introducing and exposing a puppy to the world. Socialization includes exposure to people, animals, sounds, sights, textures, objects and new environments. This is the most impressionable time in a dog’s life. Undersocializeddogs can become more overwhelmed, frustrated, conflicted, anxious, stressed and/or fearful, which can cause them 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 and resources can be scarce.
- Genetics: A dog’s genetic makeup can determine specific behaviors and tendencies, so 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 overbred 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 an animal’s behavior.
- The Influence of Human Behavior: Often times when I go to homes that are having resource guarding issues, the owners’ behavior has contributed to or exacerbated the issue. Here are some of the more common reasons.
- One of the biggest reasons is the lack of understanding about canine body language signals and behavior. I highly encourage all my clients to take the time to learn about this subject as this can help drastically improve many situations.
- Another common reason is 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 dog’s food bowl while they are eating, or reach over and grab a bone out of the dog’s mouth. However, 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 his teeth or lunges toward his owner, some owners will get loud with their dogs or will physically reprimand them using maneuvers such as an “alpha roll.” This can cause a dog to defend himself 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, ignoring the dog’s signals and appearing as a greater threat.
- Training or Lack of Training: The way a dog is trained can influence and even cause behavior issues. This includes the use of aversive tools and harsh training methods. Practicing outdated methods like sticking your hand in a dog’s bowl while he eats or taking a bone that the dog was chewing can cause or increase resource guarding. Lack of training on basic skills such as drop it, leave it, impulse control and boundaries can also contribute to these issues. And finally, lack of trust and failure to form a strong bond between dog and owner can affect 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. If you live near me on Long Island and are looking for in-person help, contact me. If you do not live near me, but would still like my help, I offer virtual dog training and behavior modification consultations.
You can also check out the following organizations for a qualified professional.
- International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
- Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers
What NOT To Do:
Until you get a professional to help you, here is a list of tips to keep in mind:
- Don’t punish your dog for resource guarding. Certain forms of punishment and confrontation could cause resource guarding behavior to become worse, even more violent.
- Don’t try to steal the item from the dog. If your dog stole your shoe, sock or another item that might be yours, do not try to 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. Instead, try trading the item out with some high-value food such as chicken, cheese etc.
- If your dog starts learning to run away or play keep-away with an item that he shouldn’t have, avoid the temptation to chase him. 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 stole.
- Don’t yell at your dog. This could increase confrontation between you.
- Do not stick your hand in your dog’s bowl during mealtime. If you were out to eat, would you want some random person walking over and sticking their fork in your plate? It’s not only annoying, it is rude!
- Do not tease or provoke your dog as you could cause or increase guarding behavior.
- Do not pet or touch your dog when he is guarding. This can come across as more threatening to your dog. This is especially true when a dog is eating or chewing on a bone.
- Be aware of what you are conveying with your body language. Dogs can sense subtle differences in our nonverbal cues, which can cause them to feel nervous or concerned. This can cause them 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.
Things TO DO:
- Hire a qualified and credentialed behavior professional to help you address and modify the problem behaviors.
- Trade the item being guarded 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, It’s 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, playing games or engaging in activities your dog loves.
- Prevent access to specific items your dog resource guards (if and when possible).
- If you play tug, learn how to play tug and make it an enjoyable and relationship building experience (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. You can learn more about tug and how to play by checking out my blog on How To Play Tug Safely. You can also check out my blog on using play to create reward events.
- 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 about canine body language and communication signals. Here are some helpful, credible sources:
Canine Body Language Links:
- ASPCA Canine Body Language Webinar
- Understanding Canine Body Language- Positively.com
- How to Speak Dog- i-speak dog
Videos on Canine Body Language and Communication Signals:
Resource Guarding Prevention For Puppies
For those of you who are trying to prevent issues from occurring with puppies, read 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. Watch the Video on Possession Prevention for Puppies
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About Anthony De Marinis
Anthony De Marinis specializes in working with dogs with severe behavior issues, specifically with aggressive behavior. He provides comprehensive in-home and virtual behavior consultations, as well as dog training services across Long Island, NY. (Online Virtual Consultations for aggression and behavior modification are also available for clients who are local and out of state.) Anthony has several professional certifications which include: Certified Dog Behavior Consultant from the International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants, Accredited Dog Trainer by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Licensed Family Dog Mediator (LFDM), Fear Free Certified Training Professional (FFCP), Certified Graduate of distinction from the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior, and The Third Way Certified Trainer. Anthony currently has an interest in training and behavior modification in Working & Sport bred dogs. He is also learning about and currently competing in agility and sheep herding. Anthony has two Australian Kelpies, Journey and Quest, both of which are training in agility and sheep herding.