Creating a Resource Guarding Issue

I often get calls from people whose dogs guard food, treats, toys and, sometimes, even people. Resource guarding isn’t uncommon, and it’s understandable. If a dog has a bone in his possession and another dog comes along, chances are the first dog will do what he needs to in order to keep it. In the canine world, possession is nine tenths of the law–but in a human household, some dogs must be taught that it’s not okay to play by those rules.

Although reported resource guarding doesn’t faze me, What does surprise me is something I hear all too often. It’s especially popular with puppy owners, and goes something like this: “To teach him that we’re in charge, we’re taking his food away while he’s eating.” Really? Because if you took my pizza away while I was biting into it, it’d teach me a thing or two about you, but that you’re in charge wouldn’t be one of them. Or, there’s the ever-popular, “We take his bone away while he’s chewing it.” The responses of the dogs in these scenarios ranges from not minding, to getting a bit growly or eating more quickly or determinedly, to snapping at or biting the owners. But are the owners really teaching the dog they are in charge? Or are they imparting another lesson: When people come near my stuff, bad things happen. I say it’s the latter. These owners are actually creating a resource guarding issue where one might never have existed.

As some of you know, three of the wolfy canines from the rescue center I worked with came to live with me, and were here for ten years. Sequoia, a low content wolf/Samoyed mix, had a severe resource guarding issue toward people and other animals. The boys, Phantom and Heyoka, learned quickly to give her space when she had something she valued. As the three lived in an outdoor enclosure that no one but my husband and me had access to, there really wasn’t a reason to address the behavior. Still, I didn’t want to be in the pen one day and mistakenly place my foot where she’d buried a marrow bone. Rather than implement a step-by-step behavior protocol, I started hanging out nearby while she had something she valued. I started with things like bully sticks that she felt so-so about, and kept enough of a distance that she felt comfortable. The variables I worked with over time were distance and the value of the item. I never, ever tried to take anything away from her. The end result, which I’ll admit took many months, was that I could sit next to her and even pet her while she chewed a marrow bone—her most prized possession.

Whether the dog in question is an adult or a pup, there are many ways to address a resource guarding issue. It can be as simple as walking past at a safe distance and tossing super-yummy treats into the dog’s bowl, hand-feeding, feeding by dropping food into the dog’s bowl bit by bit as he eats, sitting on the floor with the pup and holding one end of the bully stick while he chews the other…the list goes on. Some protocols are, of course, more complicated and call for progressing in very gradual increments, along with management to keep everyone safe. Not all resource guarding issues can be blamed on the owner’s behavior. But just think about how many fewer cases there would be if we just taught our pups to trust us in the first place, and that coming near them or their stuff always means something good is going to happen. Agree? Now step away from my pizza!


17 Responses to Creating a Resource Guarding Issue

  1. Nea says:

    Totally agree! I’d certainly smack someone trying to take away my food, so a dog lashing out in the same situation is only reasonable. I cringe when people talk about the “take away food/treat/toy while eating/playing” story as a way to “dominate” the dog, as you mentioned. We easily curbed resource guarding with our dogs the same way-working up to a point where they would let us pet them while chewing a favorite bone. Now we have dogs happily bring us special toys to chew, on our feet. So maybe it worked too well?

    For us, the “leave it” cue is crucial to being able to remove a valuable toy or treat, without any guarding issues. Otherwise, putting toys up would be a nightmare!

  2. D. Sakurai says:

    I agree with you totally. It is unfortunate that dominance or status oriented methods can actually reinforce the dog’s perception that the item needs to be guarded. The other one that I hear a lot is “my dog does not like it when I pet him while he is eating.”

  3. Jade says:

    When I was little, we had a rescue who was a big resource guarder. During my teenage years, that dog passed on and my mom got a puppy. We messed with her food to prevent her from guarding like the last one did. Guess what? Yep, it had the opposite effect! She developed mild resource guarding from people. We though that was how to train, it wasn’t out of a “I’m dominate, so there” mindset – although I guess that is where the advice came from. I’m so glad I am better informed now.

  4. Jen says:

    I always wonder about people who need to establish so very strongly that “they’re the boss” over their dog. I mean, okay, having an obedient dog may be kind of a power trip, but one must also take into account that dogs make inferences like “every time I have a bone, the Man comes and takes it, but if I growl, he goes away”.

    I can take things out of my dog’s mouth, literally, but I’m much more pleased with her if a “drop it” or a “leave it” gets the job done, and she’s much happier with the prompt rewarding that she gets!

  5. Karen Sanchez says:

    Yep. I teach my dogs (also conditioned to accept basic mouth handling for grooming, tooth brushing, medication, etc) that me taking something delicious out of your mouth = something even more delicious plus a party/fetch/tug/release to chase a squirrel/opportunity to follow a scent for miles/etc. It’s saved me from a few possibly nasty incidents with chicken bones and the like, and I always carry “emergency treats” so it’s always reinforced.

  6. Thaaaaank you! I don’t know if it’s true, but I once heard it explained that “dogs in the wild” are used to letting the group leader(s) eat a downed kill first, then all the subordinate pack members are allowed to eat. The leaders don’t come back later, say “Psych!” and take away their meal, so it makes no sense for us to give a dog something to eat and then come back and try and take it away.

    I always recommend the hand-feeding or dropping something yummy in the bowl technique as well.

  7. Richard Donahue says:

    I think the idea would be to eliminate aggressive resource guarding that could result in injury to people or other animals. If the dog is growling or attacking people or pets over food, items, etc. then part of the alpha role would encompass having the confidence to move in and take an item when necessary. Thats my view anyways.

  8. wildewmn says:

    Thank you all for your comments! And Richard, in the scenario presented in this blog, the dog is not growling or biting; people are simply creating a resource guarding issue where there was none before. That said, I would suggest rethinking the whole “alpha/dominance” paradigm. Yes, of course aggressive resource guarding is a problem. But simply teaching the dog that *you* are bigger and stronger and can take the item at will does not solve the underlying issue of the dog being possessive. What happens when your child (or someone else’s), or for that matter anyone else the dog does not see as “alpha” (your words) tries the same? It’s not pretty. It’s always best to solve the problem by treating the underlying issue. Jean Donaldson has a book called “Mine” that covers the subject in depth.

    • Yes we need to rethink the “alpha/dominance paradigm”..agreed. the paradigm that only believes that it entails bigger and stronger or somehow that it only involves ‘man-handling’. That concept is much the narrow mindedness of many. “Alpha, dominant, leader, guide, protector, charge, over-seeing, etc etc are all valid terms of the activity and vocation toward a well behaved dog. The well behaved dog gets more latitude because it respects you as the “alpha, dominant, leader figure, whatever. How we establish that is of factor, not by the fact that it is.

  9. Richard Donahue says:

    Thank you for the feedback Nicole! My dogs have never bitten a kid. But that is due in large part to the socialization tools you gave me in your two Wolfdog books and the availability of kids. They grew up with them and Little Miss is one of the most well socialized dogs there is at least around people. She loves attention from everyone. Thats saying a lot considering that her mother was a completely wild unsocialized wolfdog and her siblings are very skittish around people to say the least. I need a kindle out here so I can have access to your books, the Jean Donaldson ‘Mine’ book you mentioned and several others I would like to read and have for reference. Thank you again for your help!

  10. KellyK says:

    Thanks for that. It seems like a no-brainer that randomly taking a dog’s food would cause them to get really protective of it.

    I have heard the suggestion to take a dog’s bowl from them *and add something exciting to it*. (Like, you pick up their bowl of kibble, add some chicken, and give it back.) This is meant to teach them that good things happen when you take their bowl.

    This would be a horrible idea with a dog who already resource guards, and even with one who doesn’t, it’d probably be better to work up to in stages. But I can definitely see the value of getting to the point where your dog doesn’t mind having food taken from them. You might have to take away chicken bones they pulled from the garbage before they choke. Or you might drop a glass on the kitchen floor and have to yank the bowl out from under the dog’s nose in case there are glass shards in it.

    What do you think of taking the food but giving them something more & better? Still the potential for problems, or a good idea? My perspective might be skewed by the fact that our current foster Reba seems to be on a mission to poison herself, so being able to take a pill bottle or a chocolate cookie away from her seems like a really good thing. (She mostly knows “leave it,” fortunately.)

    • Nicole Wilde says:

      Hi Kelly,

      You are right of course that you would never start the “trading for something better” or giving back the item in an improved way with a dog who already has a resource guarding issue. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing it as a preventive measure (for example, taking a bully stick and smearing some peanut butter on it and returning it) as long as it’s done carefully by someone who knows what they’re doing.

      Hope Reba stays out of those chocolate cookies. See, now I’D resource guard those! 😉

      Take care,

  11. […] one for those training puppies: Creating a resource guarding issue (how taking food away from puppies may be teaching them the wrong […]

  12. I am currently working with a family whose 2 year old golden/lab mix bit the 8 year old daughter for trying to crawl into the crate with the dog who had stolen a chunk of Italian bread. The child went down on her belly, made direct eye contact with the dog and reached out to take the bread away. Although he bit her twice, the wounds were superficial. Still, not a behavior you want in general and especially when children are involved. The female owner did say that when he was a puppy she always took things away from him abruptly and scolded him. So I do believe that people can create resource guarding issues.
    I have been working on the leave it and drop it and he’s doing well so far – as a starting point. He steals tissues, socks, shoes etc so it’s not just about food. The dog also doesn’t have “good manners” and is a little nervous. I believe he might also bet hit as he is very hand shy. So there is work to be done here with the dog and the owners.

  13. Lylia says:

    Reblogged this on Wolfdog Education 101.

  14. […] Creating a Resource Guarding Issue: Trainer Nicole Wilde makes a good point about how people can create possessiveness issues by taking away bones, toys just for the sake of it. (Wilde about Dogs) […]

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