Resource guarding is one of the sets of behaviours that can often carries a certain amount of stigma with it. Aggression of any type is considered in today’s society as not acceptable under the majority of circumstances, yet we put an incredible amount of pressure on our dogs to conform to our own individual cultural and moral influences and standards. Resource guarding behaviours can develop into what could be considered as aggressive behaviours and as such people often feel embarrassed, frustrated, ashamed or to self-conscious to seek the early intervention treatment that is required for this behaviour. If we consider the evolution of dogs, resource guarding would have been a natural and necessary behaviour in order to survive, but surely not necessary for domesticated dogs? Behaviours can be influenced by many factors including, genetics, breed, early life experiences, personality, learning and cognitive styles. Resource guarding is not in my experience more prevalent in rescue dogs and I have three rescue dogs myself. Two of whom were starved and whom you may consider to be at higher risk of displaying guarding behaviours however, they do not. The third a Cocker Spaniel called Ralph was brought from a breeder by his original family and had a good start to life however, he developed an extremely high level of space and people guarding to the level that unfortunately escalated to biting his human guardians. I have worked with many dogs who have presented with resource guarding types of behaviour and in the majority of these cases a combination of early intervention measures, good environmental management, understanding the behaviour and a bespoke treatment program have provided positive results. Resource guarding can develop at any age, in any dogs whether they are from a breeder or a rescue, it does not distinguish between purebreds and mixed breeds.
Growling, stiffening, staring and tensing of the body, showing of teeth, snarling, barking, whale eye, lunging and even biting are all behaviours that are commonly associated with resource guarding and when you observe them can be extremely worrying. In your dogs eyes these are all perfectly natural and reasonable behaviours designed to communicate “Back off” and if you don’t back off I’m going to escalate to the next level. This is much the same as we may interact with somebody who was threatening us, we would start with a low level response and if that didn’t work we may escalate to the next level. Dogs can guard anything and some of the most common types are food, object, location, owner, or a combination of these. There are lots of methods that you can use to help prevent any guarding behaviour however, taking their food away whilst they are eating to ‘test’ the dog is in my opinion a totally unreasonable behaviour and one which would be more likely to encourage the behaviour then reduce it. Imagine you had sat down for your tea and as you were enjoying it somebody came up, pushed passed you and took your meal away, frustration and confusion, leading to emotions such as anger or fear developing. And then this continued every time you had a meal, every day. If I thought that everytime I had food somebody would come and take it I would naturally be on my guard at meal times and this may also develop into other areas, exactly the same as your dog may feel and respond. Resource guarding is not exclusive to dogs and in my work with vulnerable children in schools I have observed children getting upset when they have to share working with the dog, walking away, isolating, pacing, elevated breathing, showing hostility to others and verbally pleading to keep hold of the dog. These children may have never had access on their own to such a wonderfully stimulating engagement as with a dog and so for them this is a perfectly natural response similar to how your dog may respond who has resource guarding behaviours. But we don’t give up on the children and label them untreatable, and so we shouldn’t blame and give up on our dogs.
It’s not in uncommon to find that dogs with these behaviours may also show a higher tendency to be uncomfortable with certain kinds of body handling and sensitive to touch. Many of the dogs that I have worked with have shown symptoms such as submissive urination, shyness or lack of self-confidence, which gives you some idea of both the physical and psychological impact the behaviour has on your dog. Ralph my rescue Cocker Spaniel came into my care through a rescue that I worked with and to be honest I don’t think anybody who had previously met Ralph ever thought that he would be re-homed, and his future looked very bleak. Ralph is a healthy two year old male Cocker Spaniel and has no underlying medical conditions which may have influenced his behaviour. In Ralphs case stability, trust and security were needed, he needed to have a home where he was safe and with someone who understood him, his behaviours and whom he could develop trust and a bond with. Ralph wasn’t born with resource guarding behaviours which developed when he was approximately 12 months of age. So, how did a fit and healthy pedigree dog such as Ralph suddenly develop these behaviours?
Boredom, lack of guardian understanding, breed inexperience, poor training and lack of mental stimulation are all factors that contributed to Ralphs guarding behaviours and could have been treated and managed better with early intervention. If you think that your dog is showing signs of resource guarding it’s important to seek immediate support from a behaviourist. Feelings of failure, embarrassment and frustration are common for dog guardians whose dogs show these behaviours and many people may wish to deal with it themselves for fear of being labelled a ‘poor dog guardian’ Resource guarding behaviours do not just go away, it’s not something that your dog will grow out of, it is in fact the very opposite. A common scenario is the dog that guards their food bowl and anytime that you walk near them whilst eating they growl at you, so you back off. From your dogs perspective this is exactly the response from you that they were looking for, creating and maintaining space between the guarded bowl and you. If as in this case your dogs behaviour strategy is successful then each repetition of the behaviour will reinforce it, and so your dog will naturally continue with the behaviour. The function of your dogs behaviour is to keep you, a potential threat to their resource ( food) away from them. All organisms including humans and dogs are biologically set up to repeat behaviours that provide positive outcomes and not repeat those that don’t, so if growling at you works when you approach the bowl, then that behaviour will continue to do so the behaviour is reinforced each time that they do it.
So, your dog growls at you when you approach their food bowl what do you do? The most common responses to this question are “Stand my ground”,”move away” or ‘I’m going to show them who’s the boss and walk closer and take their food away”. As a strategy for treating guarding behaviours all of these responses will reinforce and in the case of ‘showing them who’s boss’ escalate guarding behaviours. The most effective immediate measure if you discover that your dog is guarding is to give them space, avoid direct eye contact and back off. If you walk into your bedroom and your dog is on the bed where they are not allowed and they growl at you as you approach them, leave them and walk away, do not challenge them. Don’t say anything to them, don’t shout at them or show anger in your face just turn around and walk away. This is not a sign of weakness or defeat but a common sense approach to ensure the safety of both you and your dog. If your dog is guarding items that are safe then I would adopt the same strategy to begin with however, there may be circumstances where your dog has an item which is dangerous and you need to retrieve it from them. Remain calm, don’t shout or chase your dog and use a high level trade off to safely retrieve the guarded item. This is why early intervention is so important for a positive prognosis, you could very well be reinforcing the behaviours that you are concerned about and putting your dog and family at unnecessary risk. The bored Springer Spaniel who hoarded batteries, socks and shoes as this was the only way he could get any engagement with his guardian, resulted in the dog biting its guardian whom had taken the approach of challenging the dog when he had taken a shoe. “The dog has plenty of space to roam around the garden and has other dogs to play with” was in the guardians view sufficient activity for a young and healthy Springer Spaniel. This dog has with careful treatment and management reduced its guarding behaviours to the level that he has now settled into a fantastic and forever family home.
Dogs like humans are susceptible to behavioural changes throughout their lives, ageing, illness, change of environment and diet can all play a significant factor in the development of new behaviours. Whether you are rescuing a dog from kennels or purchasing a puppy you should all integrate some basic guarding prevention techniques into your new family members daily routine. These techniques are also a great form of mental enrichment for your dog. Drop it, leave and wait are three good exercises to begin with. I live in a multi dog household and management of the environment is key to maintaining a harmonious group, and this should also be applied to single dog households. Ensure you don’t leave food out, children’s toys or any other items on the floor or within reach of your dog, have a clean floor policy. Stop unsupervised access to high risk areas such as the bedroom or furniture. Chew or toy exchanges, food bowl bonuses, bone sharing, bite inhibition training, situational awareness on walks to avoid having to retrieve items from your dogs mouth are all techniques that could work as part of your dogs training program. I am a big fan of mental enrichment and a good mental enrichment and physical enrichment program will also help reduce the probability of your dog developing any guarding behaviours. Grazing style feeding or just leaving a bowl of food down for your dog to graze at throughout the day is a common method for delivering food. However, its a method that I do not recommend as it may lead to your dog guarding the food or feeding areas, it is also not great for your dogs digestion or bowel movements. If you have a dog that resource guards do not panic, there is help and support out there for you and I would recommend that you seek immediate help in the first instance from your vet to make sure their are no pain related issues and then a behaviourist, who will work with you and your dog. The sooner the intervention and barring any medical issues the better the prognosis in the majority of cases, the behaviour will not just go away. I am not aware of any specific data that records the number of dogs that have been diagnosed with resource guarding behaviours within the UK and any data would in my opinion not represent a true reflection due to the stigma attached to the behaviour and reporting it. From my own perspective I have had the pleasure of living with many dogs throughout my life and only two have shown resource guarding behaviours, one mild and one serious, and both of those dogs have gone onto live wonderful and enriching lives within a family environment.
Adam Dunn ISCP.Adv.Dip.Canine. Prac