Have you ever tried to get close to your dog while they’ve been eating and noticed they growled and bared their teeth? Invite a friend’s dog into your home and your dog refuses to let them play with their toys?
It’s a strange thing. Your dog can be so nice in all other aspects of life, from being a total cuddle bug to nothing but smiles, but all of a sudden they become a little greedy monster.
What’s the cause behind this? It’s a behavior in dogs known as resource guarding, and there are many different things that can cause it. But how do you work the behavior out of your dog, getting them to be nicer when it comes to their things?
From rewarding good behavior with long-lasting dog bones to teaching them that it’s nice to share, here’s all you need to know about resource guarding and how to treat it.
Resource guarding is a natural behavior in dogs. It’s part of the pack mentality. While dogs enjoy being part of a pack, wandering with a cadre of other dogs they can trust, they enjoy having things of their own.
You’ve probably seen this before when giving out treats at the dog park: the dogs don’t just sit down with their treat and eat it right there. Instead, they’ll take their treat and run off to another side of the park, where no other dog can take it from them.
It’s an inner feeling that they have a personal possession and they don’t want it to be taken from them. They want something that is theirs. Part of it is survival, and the other aspect is having things they consider to be their own. It’s no different than you becoming upset if you saw a house guest using your master bathroom or your toothbrush. It’s unsettling and upsetting, and you’d prefer an amount of privacy, secrecy, and ownership.
But while it’s a common behavior among animals, it can come across as unfriendly, especially when inviting new people into your home or taking your dog to the dog park. Suddenly your happy-go-lucky dog is acting aggressive, growling and barking, ready to fight over what they consider to be theirs.
What triggers resource guarding? And how do you limit your dog’s reactivity to said triggers?
The most common triggers in resource guarding in dogs comes down to nutrition and personal things. For nutrition, that includes food, treats, their food bowl, their water bowl, dog chews, and more.
For instance, if you have two dogs, you’ve probably seen one of them get upset when the other tries to reach for their antlers for dogs. That’s theirs, and how dare your other dog try to take it from them!
Similarly, dogs will get upset when another dog or person begins to intrude on things they believe to be their own. This includes: toys, personal spaces, things they’ve taken that they shouldn’t have (e.g., socks), and you.
The latter is a common one, but it’s one that can be confusing to some owners. It makes sense, though. Chances are you spend the majority of your time with your dog. You’re their pack, their leader. If someone else encroaches on you or your home, your dog is going to become reactive. They want to make sure you’re safe! Even if you’re not in harm’s way, they want to do all they can to ensure you’re protected.
You probably know some of the warning signs of resource guarding, but what are the primary ones you should look out for?
The most common signs of resource guarding are ones in which your dog reacts aggressively towards others, like:
These signs are the most aggressive ones. Why more aggressive? Unfortunately some people and animals do not notice and heed the earlier warnings a dog might give – noticeable signs that they are uncomfortable, frustrated, or are going to do something. These include:
If you haven’t seen your dog give these warning signs before, it can be terrifying when they first do. You’re suddenly thinking, “What happened to you? Why are you acting like this all of a sudden?!”
But it’s not necessarily relative to them. There’s much more to resource guarding than you may think.
Resource guarding is caused by a number of issues, all of which are relative to resource guarding seen in humans. For instance, a human who grew up incredibly poor will be defensive over their personal items and food due to growing up with a history of scarcity. Similarly, a stressed individual will be more likely to guard their personal possessions, especially if they grew up in a home where that behavior was treated as normal. The stress heightens the likelihood they’ll become reactive.
It can be for other reasons, too: a person may be hungry, so they want to protect the food they purchased for themselves; another person may have upset them, so they’re becoming defensive of the things they consider to be theirs; and they may be overly protective of someone they love, such as a significant other, especially if they feel as if someone is hitting on them.
The behaviors are the same in dogs.
So when you notice your dog acting out, becoming triggered, and resource guarding, don’t treat it as if it’s something out of the blue or as if they’re wrong for doing so. Deep down, they have a valid reason for doing it.
The trick of rectifying the behavior isn’t to make them feel bad for guarding their things. Rather, you need to show them that they don’t have to guard their things, especially when they’re with you.
What can you, as a dog owner, do to lessen the chances of your dog guarding their resources?
First and foremost, think of how your dog interacts with your home and all that’s inside of it. Are there things that your dog has become possessive over? If so, set aside time to teach them that it’s okay to share. For instance, if they’re showing aggressive guarding over one room of your house, block entrance into that room. You can get in, but they shouldn’t be able to. While this is sure to upset them, you can slowly show them that it’s okay for them to be in there, only if they’re willing to share the space with you and others.
Similarly, slowly introduce people into your home. Chances are your dog will be on edge if a new person comes in – even more so if it’s a brand new dog. Make the introduction slow. If anything, introduce them just outside of your home first, say in your front yard, and then work your way indoors. This way, your dog won’t feel as if their space is immediately being intruded on. Once indoors, slowly show the other person or dog around your home. Your dog is bound to be protective of a few things, but don’t scold them for doing so. Instead, try to calm them and show them it’s okay to let others into their space.
You can always work with a professional dog trainer, too. While you’ll know your dog’s personality firsthand, they’ll be able to better assess why your dog is reacting the way they are. They’re trained in identifying such behaviors, after all. It’s best to have these trainers come into your home, as they’ll be able to see your dog in their environment – rather than reacting in a brand new space. They’re bound to be more protective at home, so a trainer can see just what it is they’re reactive towards and provide potential training fixes that could improve your dog’s overall behavior.
The best thing a professional trainer can show you is where your dog’s “reaction zone” is. Consider this your dog’s personal bubble. When you cross this area, they feel as if you’re infringing on their space and are worried you might try to take their things from them.
Rather than infringing on their space, instead, stand right outside of it. It’s a simple way to show you’re respecting their space without intruding on it. Moreover, you’re showing them that someone can be nearby without interfering with what they’re doing, whether that’s enjoying a bully stick, playing with their favorite toy, or eating dinner.
If they show no signs of reactivity while you’re standing next to them, reward them with a high-quality treat. Collagen chews should do the trick, showing them how appreciative you are of their good behavior.
Over time, you’ll want to slowly move closer and closer to their personal zone and whatever it is they’re guarding. However, this shouldn’t be done in one day. Instead, you should work on this over the course of a few weeks. It’s a simple way to build trust with your dog, all while showing them that they have nothing to worry about — whether that’s with you or with other people.
And if they’re still showing signs of reactivity while other people are around, just let them know to take their time while introducing themselves to your dog. While they might feel compelled to immediately say hello, it’s in their best interests to act slowly, instead letting your dog make the first moves – say hello, ask to be pet, or share a toy with them.
Similarly, keep small, high-reward treats nearby when introducing a new dog or person into your home. Reward your dog every time they show no signs of reactivity. It’s a simple way to show them that you appreciate them showing care when interacting with others.
When it comes to handling resource guarding, there are some things you shouldn’t do. In particular, you need to be mindful of how you’re interacting with your dog. First of all, don’t punish them for growling.
Your dog is growling as a signal that they are upset with something you or another dog is doing. It’s no different than you telling them “stop it!” when they attempt to jump on the counter or try to steal your socks. It’s not a sign of aggression, but a sign that you’re doing something they see as displeasurable. To them, this is a warning sign. Once they growl, give them their space and then work on the situation.
Second, don’t treat the things they guard as toys. That includes personal toys and their food. It doesn’t make it funny if you play with it — rather, it comes across as if you’re mocking them, which can just make their resource guarding even worse. Instead, treat it with respect.
Lastly, if you have guests coming over, don’t leave out items they might guard. This is especially true when bringing another dog into the house. A great way to avoid resource guarding is to not allow your dog to do it in the first place. If you want to introduce them, do so with time. Let your dog take hold of them and determine what is done with them – whether they want to share or not.
Resource guarding happens. There are ways to counteract it, particularly through desensitization and counterconditioning. But most of all, you need to understand that your dog has their own personality and emotions. There are days where they’ll be stressed, others where they want to be left alone. And that’s okay.
However, they shouldn’t be acting aggressively towards others. If their resourcing behaviors ever seem heightened, consider giving them space, letting them cool off, and trying again later.
Once they’ve cooled down, work at it again. If they perform better, provide them with a special treat, like long-lasting dog bones. After long enough, they’ll learn that they have little to worry about and that they don’t have to resource their items so dearly.
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