“That is MY Food!”: Ten Ways to Help Your Dog Get Over Their Resource Guarding Issues

1. What is Resource Guarding?

Resource Guarding is behaviour shown by your dog in an attempt to keep others away from something that they perceive as theirs.

It is not a sign that your dog is just nasty. He just wants to keep something he thinks is worth something to him and he has learnt that by behaving the way he has, that he invariably gets to keep it.

It is a more common problem than you may have imagined and it is something that can be fixed.  You just need time, patience, management, clear guidance and lots of treats at the ready!

2. Understand what your dog might guard

Dogs guard things that they view as a prized possession.  Some of the things your dog may guard include:

  • “Their” people.  Your dog may not allow other dogs or people to approach you without getting defensive
  • Objects.  These could be their toys, your child’s toys, household items (remote controls, shoes etc) or it could be, seemingly, more random items too.  I have heard of dogs guarding toilet rolls or the trash bin.
  • “Their space”.  Their own bed, sofas, your bed, the car, their crate, that space under the table.
  • Food.  This is probably the most common type of resource guarding.  They may guard their bowl when eating, when the bowl is being taken away and/or with chews and treats or with items that have been scavenged.

There is nothing wrong with letting your dog on the sofa if you are comfortable with this, you just need to ensure that they don’t start guarding it.  Ask them to get off with a treat rather than a push

3. Learn to recognise the signs

Sometimes a dogs guarding may start out mild and if you don’t notice the signs it can escalate to a much more aggressive reaction.  By being able to spot the signs early, you can take swift and proactive action before things become more difficult to manage or remedy.

Some of the more subtle signs may be that your dog gobbles their food down extremely quickly (they want to make sure they finish it all before someone tries to take it).  They may go very still when a person or another dog approaches them when they are in “their” space or with the item that they are guarding. When this happens they often give a very hard stare too.  They may try to hide their object, they may take it into another room or shield it to try to prevent the chance of it being removed.

Usually, if these signals are ignored your dog will soon start to exhibit some of the more dramatic behaviours such as growling, snarling, snapping and then possibly even biting.

Don’t let things get to a stage where your dog feels they have to snap or bite.  Look out for the subtle signs that they are uncomfortable

4. Prevention is better than cure

If your dog is already exhibiting resource guarding behaviours obviously you need to work on dealing with this.  You may have taken on a rescue dog that has had to “fight” for its food or that has had a traumatic incident in their past that means they already have guarding issues.  Perhaps you got a dog as a puppy and you just didn’t realise the signs that guarding was beginning to become an issue until it is already in full flow.

If your dog is not showing any signs of guarding, there are lots of things you can do to make sure that it is not a problem that starts to develop.  Whilst some dogs will never exhibit resource guarding behaviours, we often create guardy dogs without realising it.

There are lots of strategies that you can use in everyday life to help decrease the chances of your dog becoming guardy:

a) Teach your dog to trade

Your dog loves your slippers.  He loves the smell, texture and chew factor.  You don’t like that so much. He really wants to keep hold of them but has found you will often chase him around the living room trying to get them and then you yank it out of his mouth, give him a row and leave the room.  You are not teaching your dog anything other than that he will have to try harder to hold onto what he wants to keep.

Instead, teach your dog that when he trades something with a “give” command (or something similar), that he will get something else he loves instead.  So, next time he picks up your slipper, ask him to give it to you and offer a super tasty and smelly food reward instead. When he lets go of the slipper in exchange for the food reward he gets another and lots of praise.

Trading is a much more positive way of getting your dog to surrender the item.  They learn they are getting something they like even more than the slipper, they are happy and are receiving praise and it does not turn into a battle that leaves them feeling frustrated.

For certain items, you may decide that you will give the item back to them after they have given it to you.  So, if you actually don’t mind your dog having your slipper, this way he learns that even if he releases something it won’t always be permanently taken away, but giving it up temporarily will result in something rewarding.

If you are wanting to avoid guarding of food bowls, you can try offering a bowl jackpot.  When you walk close to the bowl you can drop a super tasty extra bit of food into it, maybe a piece of chicken.  That way he starts to associate you coming close to the bowl with yummy things. When you are picking the empty bowl up, give your dog a tasty treat then too.  That way, the bowl being lifted becomes something positive too.

Teach your dog to trade the item they have for something super tasty 

b) It is important to teach impulse control

Dogs that are very impatient and get over excited when they are anticipating something they want, can be the types of dogs that may develop guarding issues.  They get themselves worked up, they may barge in, they may accidentally nip when trying to get to their food bowl. If they are already worked up and their nip causes you to jump out the way in fright, this can then gradually morph into something they may guard.

Teaching your dog a “wait”, a “leave it”, a “down stay” can all be valuable tools in helping to prevent guarding issues surfacing.

They will be rewarded for calm, patient and polite behaviour so they will be more likely to continue offering this going forward, especially if you always work on reinforcing this good behaviour.

c) Help your dog understand that when you approach, good things happen

It is all about ensuring that your dog knows that your approach means something positive is about to happen, they are going to get something they love even more than what they are guarding, and that you are not just going to yank away their treasured item with nothing in return

5. Management is also crucial

Whilst you work on modifying your dog’s resource guarding habits it is important to manage situations carefully to try to minimise incidents occurring. Some people choose management as their way of handling guarding issues permanently rather than trying to address it.  If you choose this option then you need to carefully assess the level of severity and other factors within your home and with your lifestyle.

For example, if one of your dogs guards their food bowl against other dogs in the house, you could choose to always feed this dog in a separate room.  You could also use baby gates or crates when feeding chews.

This may not always work, your dog may also guard food that falls on the ground or that they find when outside.  If this is the case we would always recommend working to solve this issue.

Perhaps they guard slippers but they will give them up if you offer a trade for a treat.  This can be enough in some cases. However, if you have a child that may try to take the slipper from your dog, you will need to be more proactive in your approach.

In a multi-dog household or one with children, we would ALWAYS suggest working hard to resolve any guarding issues to prevent escalation and further risk.  It is much harder to guarantee that your child won’t approach your dog whilst eating or that they won’t try to take a toy of theirs back that the dog has taken.

If you have children, very careful management will be required whilst you are working to change your dog’s resource guarding behaviours 

6. Employ a desensitisation and counter-conditioning strategy to modify behaviour

If you are dealing with a dog that already has guarding issues, depending on how severe they are, you can employ a number of strategies.  We have outlined a suggested plan for a dog that has extreme food resource guarding issues but this can also be employed for guarding of a sofa, a household item or even a person.

So, if your dog has an extreme food resourcing guarding issue they may start to defend their bowl as soon as you, or anyone else, comes into sight whilst they are eating.

Initially try to ensure that no one else interrupts your training sessions.  This can spoil any good work you are doing to ensure your dog realises they don’t need to guard this way.

Start by being at a distance far enough away from your dog that they are not having an extreme reaction.  You may need to be on the other side of a threshold or across the other side of the room. From here you want to start throwing him EXTREMELY high value treats everytime you walk by.  Something that you know he absolutely adores. Keep throwing them for a few minutes.

If your dog is prone to lunging when they feel their item may be stolen, you may want to work on this from behind a baby gate as a barrier, as a precaution.  Keep your passing distance as far as it needs to be to avoid getting a reaction, if they do lunge or growl, you are too close and need to make your passing distance bigger.

Some people will tether their dog for safety, only do this if you are sure it is not going to heighten their anxiety.

Don’t pause when you are throwing the treat, keep moving on past to avoid them becoming suspicious that you are going to try to grab the bowl.

Repeat this exercise everytime that you are feeding your dog.  Once you start to see a change in their reaction to you passing them, to one where they are happily anticipating a treat being thrown you can start the exercise again having moved a few steps closer in passing distance.

You want to keep, very gradually, closing the distance between you and your dog/the bowl.  If at any stage, your dog starts to have a more negative reaction again you have moved too far or too fast and you need to take a breath and slow things down and make the distance you have moved less.

Once you have made it close enough to your dog that you can reach out to touch them you want to stop throwing the treat and offering it to them from your hand.  Be careful to observe body language at this stage, you want to ensure they are looking very comfortable and at ease so as to avoid any bite risk.

You can then gradually increase the amount of time you are pausing to treat them by a couple of seconds each time, being sure to always use high-value treats and praising in a gentle voice.

Remember, each step of the process needs to be built up gradually.  Be patient and don’t try to rush it. If your dog has a severe guarding issue, taking things slowly will be so worth it in the long run.

Once your dog is comfortable with you pausing to feed them treats for a decent amount of time (perhaps 15 – 20 seconds) and they are not showing any signs of anxiety, you then want to progress to bending down and drop the treat in or right next to his bowl or the item he is guarding.  Again this process must be repeated a number of times to ensure complete success.

The final step of the process will be to swap out their bowl for the treat.  You have reached the stage where you can work on trading out the item.

Once they are comfortable with this it is time to go back to start of the process but with another member of the household or perhaps if you have a dog sitter who has issues when looking after your dog they can be involved at this stage.

Depending on the level of severity of your dogs guarding issue the amount of time it can take to get to this stage can vary from a few days to a  few months. Just keep reminding yourself how worthwhile it is and how you are really building the bond of trust with your dog in a positive way.

Your ultimate goal will be for your dog to happily trade out their chew for a tasty treat without showing any signs of being uncomfortable 

7. What about dog-to-dog resource guarding strategies

There is no doubt this can be a trickier situation.  It is much easier to control our own actions to help make any strategies employed more successful.  When working with dogs it is more unpredictable.

The first thing to recognise is that it is okay to employ management techniques.  Feeding dogs in separate rooms if they guard their bowls is fine. Don’t allow the dogs on your lap if they get jealous of this type of attention. Keep them out of the bedroom if they guard the bed from one another.

Trying to avoid issues before they begin is important. It can be a good idea to try to minimise situations that may cause jealousy, setting the dogs against one another. So, if you are giving one dog a treat in sight of the other make sure that you immediately give the other dog a treat. Even if you are working on training with only one dog if the other one is around always make sure you give them a treat every time you reward your dog doing the session.  If your dogs are already grumpy with one another around food though this is not a good exercise to do. It is purely a preventative measure.

If your dog displays guarding behaviour towards another dog when there is food around the best strategy is to teach them that food around the other dog means food for them too when they are calm.

It is always best to work on this with a second person if possible and, to avoid any mistakes, working on lead is better.

Start with the dogs at a distance from one another that is far enough apart that they are not showing signs of being tense.  Give the dog you are holding a treat and then immediately after this the other person should give their dog a treat too. This process will need to be repeated multiple times until you can see the second dog anticipating their treat after the first dog has received theirs.

In the next session, you will work with the dogs one or two steps closer to each other.  Again repeat multiple times until you see reliably calm, happy reactions from both dogs. Build this up over a number of days until the dogs are then able to take treats very close to one another.  Don’t push too hard or fast though. You really want to set your dogs up for success so, at every stage, make sure the dogs are not showing any signs of being uncomfortable. If they are, you need to go back a step and work more on that distance before progressing again.

You should only remove the leads from the equation once you are really comfortable that the dogs now do not feel threatened or anxious in the presence of the other dog around food.

Working on remedying dog-to-dog resource guarding with careful management and positive associations 

8. What NOT to do

a) Stay safe – don’t put yourself in a risky situation

If you have not managed to sort out your behaviour modification strategy yet and your dog is being extremely aggressive towards you when they are eating don’t push it.  Don’t try to quickly grab the empty bowl, you are asking for trouble. Wait until they have left the room and then pick it up. If your dog is so guardy that they are not wanting to leave the bowl unguarded and they sit beside it for hours, tense and growling when anyone approaches, this is an extreme case and one that you may want to consult a behaviourist for help with.

b) Don’t punish your dog

Trying to dominate your dog or scolding them for guarding behaviour can just make the behaviour worse.  They already feel threatened enough to guard their item and you telling them off can heighten that feeling.  If you scold them and then pull the item from their mouth, it may mean that they just have a more extreme reaction next time to try to prevent you from taking it.  It also damages any bond of trust you may have built up with your dog. Changing your dog’s reaction to that of a positive one is a much more effective strategy.

c) Put your hand in your dog’s bowl to get them used to you having contact with their food

This is asking too much of even the most patient dog.  It doesn’t teach them anything other than that you disturb them whilst eating.

d) Recognise they are not trying to show you who is boss

Your dog is not trying to dominate you by trying to guard the sofa.  They just don’t want to have to get off or be moved. Teach them that if they do move or let you on too, they will get an even better reward and they will, eventually, be happy to share!

e) Don’t free feed

This means leaving your dog’s bowl with food in it throughout the day.  If he is already guarding food, having a bowl full of food out all the time will heighten his anxiety, increase the chance of there being an aggressive exchange and you can’t be around all the time to manage a behaviour modification plan with a bowl that is out and full all the time.

9. Know when to seek help

If your dog has serious resource guarding issues and they are displaying very aggressive behaviour we would always recommend seeking the assistance of a qualified dog behaviourist that uses scientifically proven force-free training techniques.  With severe cases, if you are not doing things right, things can get out of control quickly and having someone to guide you and keep you right will be hugely helpful. Not only will it reduce the risk of injury but it can speed up the route to success.

10. Don’t stop the training

It is important that, once you reach a stage when your dog is no longer exhibiting the resource guarding behaviours they were previously, you keep up with the training.  Continue to swap things out for treats or other high-value rewards, don’t revert back to doing things that are likely to cause the behaviour to rear its head again.

It is important to continue working on preventing issues occurring.  If you want to take a bone or chew from your dog, trade it out for a tasty treat

Want to read more

If you have found this article useful and you want to delve even deeper into the complex world of doggy resource guarding we would recommend reading the book  Mine! A Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs by Jean Donaldson.  It is a really well written little book with lots of extra detail and training tips.

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