Humans aren’t the only beings who tend to protect their valuables from others; indeed, in the fascinating world of canines, resource guarding is quite a popular behavior. It’s mainly an instinct based on survival, where scarcity is often a factor, but not always necessarily. Many believe that genetics may be also at play. When it comes to valuables, what sets humans and dogs apart for the most part seems to be methods employed and the type of items guarded. In the next paragraphs, the dog’s modus operandi along with commonly guarded items will be discussed.
Understanding Resource Guarding in Dogs
While humans protect their valuables by storing them in safes, opening bank accounts and erecting fences to keep other people’s noses out of their belongings, dogs must resort to less sophisticated strategies. A stiff body, direct eye contact and a lip curled to portray a candid set of pearly whites, talks millions to other dogs (and hopefully people) who should take the message and back off.
The types of items protected also seem to vary from dogs and humans. Humans may protect expensive jewelry, money, cars and properties, while dogs, on the other hand, tend to protect food, bones, toys, mates, certain areas, and sometimes, even people. This guarding behavior can often start as early as in puppy hood when the puppy is in the litter and feels compelled to guarding a favorite nipple from the other pups. Then later, as he grows, he may then upgrade from nipple guarding to guarding the food bowl, especially if the breeder fails to provide enough of them. Soon, the guarding behavior establishes since it’s reinforced by the other pups moving away upon noticing the threatening body language and vocalizations.
Do You Own a Resource Guarder?
While growling, showing teeth, lunging and barking are quite obvious signs the dog doesn’t want you or another dog to approach his precious possession, there are many more subtle signs that may not be recognized until they escalate. Following are typical subtle and less subtle tell-tale signs your dog is acting possessive towards some resource.
- A hard, direct stare
- Stiffening of the body
- Head kept low towards the protected resource
- Behavior that becomes more intense the closer you move towards the resource
- Behavior that becomes less intense the farther you move from the resource
- Deep growling
- Barking and lunging to send the person away
- Air snapping
>Note: More “innocent’ guarding behavior includes running to pick up an item and then running off with it with a strong reluctance to wanting to give it up. In some cases, this may be an invitation to play an innocent game of “keep away“, which is often unknowingly encouraged by some owners, but if the dog has a tendency to guard, he may grow defensive if you try to remove the item. This behavior may escalate into full-blown guarding if you threaten the dog and repeatedly attempt to remove the item from the dog’s mouth.
How to Deal With It
The most deleterious approach in resource guarding is scolding the dog and attempting to remove the protected item. The biggest fear in a resource guarder is losing the item guarded, and if you remove the item over and over, the dog will often feel compelled to escalate his guarding behavior. He may therefore go from a growl to a bite next time since you failed to heed his warning.
Instead, the best approach is to show the possessive dog that not only it’s not your intention to take the item away but you’ll be even adding to it. This is a resource guarder’s dream come true! Therefore, instead of getting frustrated and removing the bone to “punish” the dog for growling, you’ll be giving him treats each time you approach initially from a distance where he’s less likely to react. Repetition after repetition, your dog’s emotions towards you walking by will gradually shift from defensive to happy. With time, you may even see the occasional tail wag! Through desensitization and counterconditioning, you’ll be ultimately able to change your dog’s emotions in a systematic way.
Managing the Dog’s Environment
While seeking out the help of a professional, the best way to deal with the situation in the meanwhile is through management. This can also be an option for dogs that guard only certain items and the guarding behavior is very predictable. In this case, guarded items are simply kept out of reach, and if the item must be given at any time, it is simply crated so other dogs or people aren’t put in harm’s way. While management may seem like a good solution, it’s important to keep in mind that it really doesn’t do anything to fix the dog’s behavior; rather it just keeps it under control.
Training a Possessive Dog to Drop Stolen Items
So what can be done with a dog who steals an item that can be dangerous for him and you really need to take it away? In this case, chasing the dog, cornering him and forcing his mouth open can be dangerous and will only teach him that every time you come close, it’s to “steal” his possession. Soon, he may not also become more and more possessive but he may be also learn to very quickly to swallow the item so you can no longer take it!
In this case, it’s very important to train the dog the “drop it” command. This can be taught as a game using low-value items the dog doesn’t care much about at first and then upgrading to higher valued items. So if say the dog has a ball in his mouth, you would trade the ball for a tasty piece of cheese by saying “drop it”. Remember that as a regular rule of thumb, the item you give in exchange must always be higher in value that the item you ask to drop. Repetition after repetition, the dog should start dropping objects on command in anticipation for the tasty morsels.
The Bottom Line
Dealing with a resource guarding in dogs comes with risks. It’s always best to employ the aid of a professional to help you out. Please consult with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT) well versed in behavior modification.