Resource Guarding: What is it, and what can you do about it?

  • Post category:4-Paw Posts

We all have resources that we value, whether it’s our cup of coffee in the morning, our favorite armchair, or quality time with our best friend. This is true for dogs, cats, and other species as well! A valued resource is something that we’ll seek out deliberately, and be reluctant to give up if someone tries to take it away. (How many of us would respond with a snarl if someone grabbed our morning coffee out of our hands? I sure would!)

Resource guarding stems from this basic reluctance to give up a valued resource. Here is a great graphic from That Dog Geek showing the classic early signs of resource guarding in dogs:*

This image and more information can be found on That Dog Geek’s website.

These behaviors can develop and escalate over time if they’re not caught. The good news is, even in cases where animals respond to percieved threats to their resources with growls, snaps, or other agressive moves, resource guarding typically can be ameliorated. It’s not always possible to “completely fix” these behaviors, but please don’t be discouraged – you can definitely take action to make things a whole lot better for both you and your animal!

Beloved trainer and veterinarian Dr. Sophia Yin (1966-2014, RIP Dr. Yin) has an excellent summary of resource guarding and the most up to date information about how to deal with it here at her website.

Resource guarding can be something you see starting when your dog is a puppy, or it can show up later. If you’re adopting a shelter dog and you don’t know their history, it’s best to be mindful, particularly in the first few weeks your new dog is in your home. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you get to know your new dog:

  • Focus on developing a trusting relationship with your new dog. They just had a major upheaval in their life – while they may generally be willing to share “their” things, right now is not a good time to push the issue!
  • Don’t ask your new dog to eat in the same space as another animal – dog, cat, your pet chicken, etc. This is especially important in the first two weeks. Your new dog is busy trying to learn about their new social situation, and it’s asking a lot to expect them to share their space at mealtime during this process!
  • Don’t ask your new dog to eat in the same space as a child, either – even if they are child-friendly! Your new dog may not know whether the child can be trusted to leave them alone… and the child may not realize how much space the dog needs to feel comfortable, even if they otherwise interact well with dogs.
  • Be mindful when introducing toys. If it’s just you and your dog, make sure to choose toys that are safe for your dog to keep for a while. This way, if your dog doesn’t want to give up a toy, it’s ok – they can keep it until they feel more secure! If you want to encourage safe games of fetch, a great trick is to have two (or more!) identical fetch toys, and play a game where you won’t throw the next toy until your dog drops the first one on the ground.
  • In a multi-dog situation, don’t introduce toys until you’ve observed at least a few days’ worth of good social interactions. You want both the new dog and your current dog(s) to feel comfortable with their new buddies before introducing a valued resource that could trigger guarding behavior. It doesn’t hurt to make sure everyone has a leash clipped to their harness or collar that can just drag behind them when you introduce toys.  This way, if something happens or you see behavior that concerns you, you have a handle to help you catch the dogs safely.

Do practice giving your dog something better than whatever they have! Find a really good treat that your new dog is reliably interested in. The rule of thumb for dogs is 1. soft, 2. stinky, and 3. small. Tiny, smelly tidbits of cheese, hot dog, chicken, etc. tend to be very valuable items for dogs. Practice giving your dog one of these really good treats when you see them laying on their bed, or chewing on a toy.

At first, you don’t even have to offer the treat with your hand, or be standing next to them – it’s ok to just say their name and toss a treat from a distance. Don’t reach for whatever they’re engaged with; just give them the really good treat and let them go right back to whatever they were doing. Over time, this will help develop trust, and you can be closer and closer when you offer the treat. This basis of trust helps immensely for your Leave It training.

Remember, resource guarding is a natural behavior that stems from fear – your dog depends on your help to feel safe. Resource guarding is not a sign that you have a bad dog – it’s a giant neon sign that you have a fearful dog. And you have the power to show them they have nothing to fear.

If you’re fostering or have adopted a dog from the SPCA of Hancock County and you are worried about resource guarding, you can give us a call at (207) 667-8088. Sometimes a simple change in your routine or home environment can help your dog a great deal, and we can also refer you to trainers and other resources so that you don’t have to go it alone.

*Resource guarding can occur in any species, not just dogs! Although much of the information about resource guarding is specifically geared toward dogs, much of it can be applied to cats, horses, etc. as well.