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— February 24, 2015 —
Resource Guarding, Causes and Cures.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Some dogs never learned to share. Here’s how you can help.

Resource guarding is a condition where a dog will guard, sometimes aggressively, an item like a toy, treat, bone or food. It can also relate when a dog guards a person, like their mom or dad. It can be pretty serious and some dogs can do real damage when they bite over these items. Resource guarding is much easier to prevent than it is to fix. We recently had a litter of rescue puppies here at my home. You can bet that I spent a number of the puppies’ feedings with my hands in their food bowl and petting them while they ate. This is the first step in dealing with resource guarding. Teaching the dog that your approach to their resource is not a bad thing.

There are a few competing thoughts on how to deal with this issue in adult dogs. I will say that the level of severity will dictate the approach that I take with any particular dog. Today, I’ll describe the work we are doing with one of our rescue dogs to help with his resource guarding.

Before I go any further, the standard disclaimer applies. If your dog is prone to resource guarding, see a professional! Any behavioral issue that includes a dog biting a person needs to be evaluated by someone with experience dealing with it.

There are a number of techniques that we can use in teaching a dog to be less possessive. I like dogs to learn to drop things on command just as a matter of training. Teaching a dog to drop lower-value items, like toys or ropes, might help when trying to get the dog to give up a chicken bone that they shouldn’t have. For some dogs, however, toys are pretty high value. If this is the case, teaching the dog to “trade for a treat“ can help them give up something like a toy. For some dogs, having a second, identical toy can be a sufficient trade. The key is to experiment and see what will get the dog to drop the item. Then, by practicing regularly, the dog will learn to drop on command even if you don’t have a trade for him.

Toy resource guarding and food bowl guarding are similar, but they each present their own challenges. The rescue dog we are working with is a resource guarder when it comes to food. On a scale of 1–10, he’s probably a 4. His most serious incident was one where he stole a treat pouch then nipped the employee who came to take it from him. No broken skin, some bruising, etc. I think it’s workable, but needs to be addressed before he can be adopted out.

Our program for this particular dog starts with obedience training. After all, obedience is a communication system that you teach the dog, right? If there is no obedience training, we don’t have any way to “talk“ to the dog. We used food treats throughout the obedience phase and have started working on the food bowl issues. We have started giving him a bowl with a few kibbles in it and letting him finish the bowl. When it is empty, I have our rescue volunteer add a few more pieces of food. When he got comfortable with that, I had the volunteer start adding a higher-value item to the bowl as he ate from it. Finally, I held a handful of food in my closed hand in the bottom of the empty bowl. He sniffed and nuzzled my hand for a bit, then I let the food go and took my hand out of the bowl so he could eat it. I have not reached the point that I feel comfortable leaving my hand in the bowl while he eats the food. We’ll get there.

The next phase will be teaching the dog to walk away from a bowl of food that is not yet empty. We’ll work on this by giving him dry food and having him leave that bowl for a better treat using a come command. Finally, we will have him back away from a bowl while someone approaches him and his food bowl. In this case, the higher-value treat will be added to the bowl and he will be allowed to go back to the bowl and finish eating. The point is that the dog needs to understand that the food is not going to be taken away, just upgraded.

Overall, the process will take a few weeks, maybe longer. I also plan to have a few different volunteers work with him so he generalizes the lessons to more than myself and our current volunteer. He needs to understand that all humans will feed him and no one is after his kibble.

Notice that I haven’t talked about making him give me the food or taking his food away from him as an act of “dominance.“ I am quite confident that I could do this, but the problem could reoccur after he get’s adopted. If he goes to someone who is less experienced or confident, they would struggle with forcing him to surrender his resources. This would teach him that the guarding behavior is the right one and he would probably go right back to it. I think it would be preferable if he learns to willingly give the item up. After all, if he’s concerned that he will get his food stolen, then I go ahead and take his food, that just reinforces the guarding behavior.

There are many ways to work with resource guarding. Obviously, a pound of prevention would have been great in this case, but we didn’t have him as a puppy, so that option is out. Since he’s pretty low-level about the whole thing, I think this approach will do the trick.

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