The primary emotional drivers of resource guarding are fear and anxiety.
It’s a reaction to a perceived threat to their prized possessions.
In the animal world, possession is ownership. There is very little room for sharing unless taught in a positive way.
Some dogs are better at sharing than others but when it comes to dogs from abroad, it’s likely that they have either had to fight for resources like food, or that they are the type to back down from another and just not gain access to resources.
In either of these scenarios, it creates anxiety around resources, especially in a home environment because it’s the first time they will have things that are theirs and consistently high value.
Commonly guarded items:
- Food (dog’s own)
- Food found or taken from the environment
- Beds (dog’s)
- Space/Area – usually one that the dog likes to rest
- Beds (human’s)
- Animals found/caught outside
- People/Affection from people
Common drivers of resource guarding behaviours:
- Medical issues (including allergies/intolerances, nutrient deficiencies and others)
- Breed Tendencies – some breeds are predisposed to guarding tendencies like hunters and guardian breeds.
- Feeding freely among animals (including with breeder/litter) – being surrounded by animals that are interested in, or take, food that is perceived by the individual dog as theirs. Food means life and survival and free feeding can cause animals to feel as though they need to fight for it.
- Neglect/Lack of food – animals that aren’t fed enough, or who are completely neglected when it comes to food, will feel a higher need to treasure and keep what they have.
- Teasing – keeping things away from a dog that is theirs/making a dog wait too long for food or causing anxiety around food through punishment or pressure during mealtimes.
- Distrust – anybody a dog does not trust can be a candidate to have things guarded from them
- Generalized anxiety – a dog with heightened anxiety in general can start to guard items and space.
- Forcibly taking items from a dog, especially when they are asking for space using their body language. This includes the outdated practice of “removing a bowl when being fed to test food aggression” – this, in fact, show a dog that that resource is not safe, therefore, causing the feeling of needing to guard in those, or other, situations.
- Allowing puppies to take/steal things (this is common because it is looked at as the dogs playing together and bonding, but this is rarely the case)
Resource guarding is not just a “dog” behaviour. Many animals, including humans, guard their treasured items. Guarding is a basic instinct of survival.
It is built from an anxiety or upset from having things taken; in human terms it is locking our doors to prevent theft. It’s having separate plates of food at the dinner table.
It’s especially noticeable in children, whereby they become upset when somebody takes something they are playing with. This can turn into a child being more upset and angrier when it happens a second time, perhaps escalating to screaming at, or hitting, the person that does this, usually other children.
Management is going to be the biggest tool in the box for preventing and managing resource guarding.
Prevention is always easier than managing, and especially reconditioning, a diagnosed Resource Guarder.
Preventing Resource Guarding with Proper Management and Training
Management Strategies for Feeding
- Keep barriers between animals when eating – this means doors, crates, or baby gates – physical barriers to ensure that they do not get to each other either during eating or afterwards before bowls/enrichment items/chews are removed.
Animals should not be allowed to crowd each other or go to each other’s bowls. Many see an animal approach another’s bowl and when the one eating leaves, it’s seen as a sign that they are done; however, they are much more likely intimidated by the one approaching.
- Do not allow animals to see each other when eating – this means covering baby gates with a blanket/towel or having animals in totally separate rooms.
Staring or even glancing sometimes, can be enough to set off anxiety in a dog eating. Prolonged glances/stares can be a very intimidating behaviour in canine body language and is often missed by humans as precursors to problems between animals.
- Remove the animals from the feeding areas – this can be done by letting them in another room that is empty of items or letting them outside to toilet, which is usually good practice after meals to avoid accidents, especially in younger dogs or dogs still unreliable for house training.
Once dogs are removed from the area, clear away the feeding items and any mess that has been made.
- When using a crate as a separation device for feeding, ensure that the crate is covered, and other animals are kept a distance away from it. It is the same premise as covering a baby gate, to ensure that animals do not see each other during mealtimes.
This is especially important when using a crate as the dog inside the crate can become more anxious due to being confined, especially if the loose dog is “taunting” them by being around the crate. This can possibly lead to guarding of not only the food but the crate as well. Lastly, this can lead to barrier frustration when a dog is inside the crate, wanting to get out, to, or away from those outside the crate.
- When it comes to higher value items, like bones and treats or enrichment puzzles, if a dog especially values them, then the same rules apply; feed separately, out of view of animals and take once the dog is out of the room.
These, due to their higher value, are more likely to be possibly guarded items.
Cats + Dogs Management Strategies for Feeding
Note: Cats and dogs are multi-animal/species households that generally need a lot more management and safety protocols, due to variables like; the difference in species’ behaviour, possible medical implications of anxiety and safety in case of altercations
Training around food in appropriate ways
Note: Although extremely popular, you do not have to have your dog wait a long time to eat once the bowl is down; however, working on waiting nicely until the bowl is on the floor and away from hands is always appropriate, so that overexcitement doesn’t potentially cause problems.
This is especially important if your dog is young, a jumper and/or a powerful breed that can inadvertently injure somebody through overexcitement.
Another reason is if you have children that ever help to feed the dog. A calm dog with a calm child – that knows the routine of feeding, the cue to say and can deliver clearly and quickly – is a recipe for success.
What Not To Do
- Not causing anxiety around food using punishment – this means that you are not using pain, fear, or intimidation to train. You are not scolding or shouting at the dog if they attempt to get to the food before you’ve put it down, or before you say okay. You are not physically manhandling the dog away from the food.
- Not causing anxiety around food by over-feeding from the hand around the bowl. Generally, if a dog has been given a bowl, having somebody so close and feeding from the bowl to the hand, to the mouth can cause anxiety. Dogs are best left alone in peace to eat if you are feeding from a bowl.
- Not causing anxiety around food by touching the food in the bowl once it’s been put down for the dog. Although this is marketed to prevent resource guarding, it is a way to cause it.
- Not causing frustration around food by making the dog wait for an unreasonable amount of time before allowing them to eat. Teaching a “wait” and “release” cue will come first, using meal allowances as a reward from your hand (no bowl) – then it can be generalized to the food bowl once the dog knows what they are doing, this helps to decrease overstimulation at this time but also avoid frustration. Impulse control is important still of course, there are just certain ways to do it without causing other issues.
Actionable Training Skills
Training “DROP” / “LET GO”
Training your dog to physically drop items on cue is important due to the fact that you can action this from a distance once the skill is learned, enabling you to start the process of getting something away from them before you are able to get close.
We are not as fast so mere seconds count when it comes to having a dog let go of something potentially dangerous etc.
Teaching a cue to drop/let go must be done with various items and also generalised to various people therefore, all capable members of the household must practice this cue with the dog.
It’s important to teach this with things such as household items too (remote control, coasters or items that the dog finds that need to be removed before consumption, like food wrappers and paper)
Give your dog an item like a toy of low value (one your dog doesn’t necessarily play with much to start with, and definitely not a ball as many dogs LOVE them) – using hand signals first when you are using your cue so they understand what you mean, the cue is something that gets taught during this training, they will not already know what it means.
Gesture for them to drop the item onto the floor, whilst holding up the reward (generally a piece of food)
Give them time to understand.
If they haven’t done it in up to 5-10 seconds, then do the same hand movements again.
Some people point from the item to the floor.
Once your dog lets go of the item, mark it (“yes/good”) and reward.
Repeat this until you can see your dog understanding it and dropping the item upon the hand gesture. This is where you add in your cue word! Repeating your cue word whilst still using the hand gesture will help your dog attribute the behaviour to the word.
– the cue word to use is whatever you are most comfortable with, preferably not something that’s used a lot in everyday life – “drop” “let go” “release”.
Then “proof” this with that same item in various rooms of the home and outside.
You can fade out using the hand signal once the dog associates the cue word with the behaviour or keep using it as dogs understand body language very well and you can then even do it silently if needed.
*Keeping hand gestures can be good for as dogs age because even if they start to lose their hearing, they can still understand you*
Training “LEAVE IT” / “LEAVE”
Teaching this skill is a very good tool for various things in the household and outside. If your dog is a particularly keen sniffer (which most dogs are) they are likely to pick up scents of things outside that they may want to taste/bite/chew/eat.
Teaching this skill will also require you to work on it with various items and the different people in the home.
This is an important skill for something that a dog has already dropped or, more preferably, has taken an interest in but not grabbed yet.
It’s important to teach this with things such as household items too (remote control, coasters or items that the dog finds that need to be removed before consumption like food wrappers and paper)
Start with a low value item, like a toy they don’t play with or a piece of kibble.
Place it on the floor in front of your dog. You can use a hand gesture to tell them to stay back, start with a small amount of time like 1-3 seconds.
Reward highly for the waiting.
You must repeat this and build up the time slowly. You are working with a brain that rivals only a toddler in their ability to regulate and rationalise, so a certain degree of leeway on impulse control training must be given.
Once they know what they’re doing (after a few repetitions) add in your cue for it (“leave” / “away”) – again, use the cue that most natural for you to use, this makes it easier for both of you.
Once they have waited for up to 5-10 seconds or so, reward them with MORE OF A DIFFERENT REWARD than what’s sitting on the floor, also a higher value one like chicken/sausage etc. – this means that if you leave 1 piece of kibble on the floor, have 3 pieces of chicken in your hand to reward afterwards.
This shows them that leaving the item is a good thing and teaches them to listen to you when you say this, in anticipation of something better, which solidifies the habit in their brain and makes a positive association with leaving something they may find laying around.
DO NOT REWARD with what you’re asking them to leave because the cue becomes a “wait” rather than a “leave.” You want them to leave that piece alone completely when told and then they get a better reward for doing so.
Once rewarded, remove the piece you asked them to leave.
Reset and start again to repeat until your dog knows what they’re doing.
You will also need to do this with other items of value and higher value pieces of food in different locations in the home and outside! This way you’ll create a “bombproof” cue for all situations.
Training “TRADING SKILLS”
This is the action of teaching the behaviour of swapping items for higher value rewards.
This takes practice; starting with lower value items, being traded for something higher value. You always reward with something of equal, or higher, value than the thing you want them to give up.
Once practiced with lower value items (kibble, tv remote etc) , then progress to items of higher value, like their own toys (BALLS), bones and chews.
First, give your dog a low value item.
Let them get a little play out of it first so that we avoid frustration from lack of that.
Then offer a treat while holding out your other hand toward the item they have. When they give you the item, mark it and reward.
It they simply drop the item, make sure you pick it up before you reward. (This is the difference between simply dropping an item and actually giving it you to trade for)
Put the item away (behind you/in a box) and swap it for another one to repeat the process.
Use 2 items to swap at first so you can physically remove the one you’ve traded for, to get your dog used to that item being away once you have traded, as this is the most likely scenario that will happen.
If your dog is more toy motivated than food, you can use a toy to swap for the one that they have, using the same premise.
You will need 3-4 toys for this so you can physically remove the one you are trading from them. This is especially helpful with teaching fetch. Many dogs like to chase and play with balls but don’t bring it back or give it to you.
Using 2 balls, throw one and let them retrieve it. Once they turn back around, recall them and show them the other ball.
Use your “drop” cue & hand signal.
Wait until they drop the ball and throw the second one as the reward.
Pick up the first ball when they are retrieving the second one and repeat.
Training “UP” and “DOWN” off items
This is the action of training a dog to get onto and off of items on cue.
First, stand/sit in front of the sofa (or your chosen item to get on/off) with your dog. Using your hand to gesture to them to get up onto it.
(You may already have a gesture you use for this, some pat the sofa, some move their hand in an “arc” type motion from the floor to the sofa) – when you are gesturing, use your chosen cue word of “up/on” – ensure you only do/say this every 3-5 seconds (if the dog hasn’t done it by then) so that you are being clear with what you are asking.
Once your dog has gotten on the sofa/item, mark the behaviour and reward it.
Now, do this in reverse. Gesture for your dog to get off the sofa/item, combining your chosen cue word of “down/off” and your hand signal, and once done, mark and reward that too.
Once your dog has repeated this 5-10 times in one session, then you can move onto the next item you would like to teach this. As stated above, sofas/chairs/beds etc are all items to do this with.
Why we need these actionable skills
The most important reason for this training is the emergency situations in which you’ll need to use them.
However, it is also about helping to prevent your dog becoming a resource guarder.
It is important that we can get the dog to give something up, have a positive association with moving and/or not swallowing faster or guard the item when it’s something that could potentially lead to a dangerous situation or hurt them.
- If your dog finds plants in the wild that are poisonous
- If your dog happens to take another dog’s toy in a dog park/public area (this is especially dangerous and generally toys should be kept out of dog parks/public areas near other dogs for this exact potential of leading to a fight)
- If your dog finds an animal carcass – due to possible disease contraction
- If your dog gets food from inside the home that is toxic/poisonous, or something that is just not for them!
- If you need your dog to move from an item for cleaning, emergencies, or guests etc.
Resource Guarding of People
As something that can be seen a lot with dogs from abroad, they can easily become attached to one person in the household.
Generally, this is the person that undertakes the primary care responsibilities and is at home with the dog the most.
Prevention is the easiest way to ensure a happy dog and family when it comes to behaviour issues.
Primary care for a dog should be spread equally between the able members of the household.
This includes things like:
- Attention giving (when invited by the dog of course)
When it comes to walking your dog, it’s important to ensure that all members of the family can rotate either doing the walking or being present on walks.
Dogs can find bond building with multiple people easier when done outside, due to the close proximity and enclosed space of being inside a home can be a little anxiety inducing for a dog not used to it.
This is a good time to include children having time with the dog too. (Please note, children should NEVER have control over your dog on a walk.)
The best way to do this for your dog is to rotate who does what on various days but keep the routine.
Therefore, if you feed at 7am, ensure that everybody who feeds the dog, does so at 7am.
If you go for walks at 8am and 6pm, then everybody should stick to this.
Resource Guarding the Home / Anxiety of Strangers in the Home
There are subtle differences between guarding the home and simply being fearful of strangers in the home, however, the ways we deal with these are similar.
Many people believe their dog is guarding, when they are simply fearful of people coming close or being in the enclosed space that is the home.
Guarders generally do NOT let somebody in the home. They will place themselves between the visitor and the home and warn them to stay away.
They will not run from the person, nor hide at all (note, this by itself does not mean they aren’t fearful, some dogs to not hide when scared, it just doesn’t happen in the case of guarding)
Whereas dogs that are fearful exhibit simply reactive behaviour, without the added attempt to keep the people outside of the home, or away from the people within the home.
How to introduce dogs to people you would like to visit:
- Ask them to come for a few walks with your dog. These are simply about having the dog get used to this new person in the vicinity, with plenty of space to get to know them. It can help to have the new person to walk a little way in front of the dog, so the dog can smell them and get used to their scent.
- After a couple of walks, start to have the new person carry some treats and simply sprinkle them around for your dog on walks. They do not have to give the treats straight to your dog yet, only if your dog is more well socialised and wanting to interact, otherwise just scatter some treats (not directing at the dog, again unless happy to interact)
- Once the previous step has been repeated a few times, have the new person come back to your house with you at the end of the walk and go and spend time in the garden with them and your dog. Continue the scattering of treats and even let the new person throw toys around for your dog if your dog is happy with this. (Ensure the new person doesn’t just take toys from your dog, they still need to practice the trading premise or simply pick up toys the dog isn’t currently holding and throw them)
- Once the previous step has been repeated a few times, then bring the person into the house.
Have the person go inside first and sit down, then have your dog go in.
Continue the treating method. Hopefully, by this point, your dog should have enough of a bond build with this new person that they can either toss a treat near to the dog or even give the dog a few treats whilst there.
- This last part is quite important. As the enclosed space can make a dog feel less comfortable when a human moves around, take your dog in the garden BEFORE your visitor moves to leave. Standing up can change the reaction to the person, so you will have the visitor tell you before they are going to leave, and you will remove your dog to the outside or another room whilst they do this. The biggest point of all of this is to ensure all the interactions are positive, calm and happy for the dog and people present.
You can eventually have new people moving freely in your home, but you will need to spend dedicated time building a bond between your dog and these people, using gradual steps to get to the point of them being comfortable with people in your home.
Some dogs will bond faster with people while others may take longer.
If you notice uncomfortable behaviour from your dog at any point, simply give space and go back a step.
Diagnosing and reconditioning diagnosed resource guarding must be done under the direction of a professional and every care must be taken to ensure that the dog is comfortable in each step of the process before moving on.
This is much more complex than simply training behaviours.
If you fear your dog is already a resource guarder, contact the admin of the rescue so that Cleo can speak with you and assess the need for management or an in-person consultation to determine the course of action needed to take.
Our thanks go to Cleo Wiltshire (FF Level 4 Trainer/Behaviour Consultant) for writing this guide on Resource Guarding Guide for us.
We hope your have found this guide on Resource Guarding useful. You can see other help guides here: Dog Training Guides.