Behaviourist advice: resource guarding

Carolyn Menteith is a behaviourist at with over 25 years of experience working with and training dogs.

Maybe one of the most misunderstood of all behaviour problems is resource guarding. People are not sure what it is, why is happens, and are somehow offended when it does! Resource guarding most usually occurs over food, treats, toys, space – and even their beloved human’s attention. Anything the dog values highly and wants to keep for themselves.

Guarding things of importance is a natural dog behaviour – and for your dog’s ancestors, protecting resources was quite literally a matter of life or death. In a feral dog population, mortality rates are extremely high – all a bitch has to do to keep the population stable is to replace herself and her mate and so raise two puppies to adulthood. Most areas will have as many dogs as the available resources will support and so puppy mortality is around 90%. In other words, 9 out of 10 puppies will die before reaching adulthood. 

The ones that survive and pass on their genes are the smart ones, the ones who can quickly learn how to feed themselves – and the ones who are skilled at protecting things that are important to them, such as food, water and shelter. This instinct to protect resources runs deep in dogs and so we shouldn’t be surprised that it still lurks in our canine companions.

It’s a natural behaviour

So, the first thing is ‘resource guarding is a natural canine behaviour’ – and it is important we understand that if we want to prevent it. 

The second thing to remember is that dogs are more likely to guard resources if they fear they are going to be taken away. This means that dogs who may have had to compete for resources, either as puppies or in their previous life before coming to you, are more like to resource guard – as are dogs who are insecure or lacking in confidence in either their owner or life in general.

So, the old-fashioned thinking that you should take your dog’s food away from them regularly ‘to show them that you are the boss and to teach them to ‘get used to it’ is just teaching them that you have to guard your stuff because people take it away! I mean I am fairly easy-going but if I was in a restaurant and you tried to take my food away from me, I would stab you with my fork! Even worse, it you did it once, I’d probably threaten you with my fork any time you came close to me – just in case you did it again. That is how behaviour problems quickly exacerbate! And why I get banned from restaurants…

It is important that owners work to build their dogs’ security and confidence in them and in life in general – and this comes through working on the relationship and the trust – and not on stealing their stuff! 

And lastly, many of our most popular companion breeds are gundogs (or crosses of gundogs) – this includes the Labradors, Retrievers, Spaniels and many others. They have been specifically developed to pick things up and carry them in their mouths – sometimes for long distances over rough and unforgiving countryside. This means they have to be highly possessive – otherwise they’d just give up and drop it when the going got tough. Gundogs are then taught to happily give up their prize to their handlers but many owners of these companion breeds don’t actually do this bit! Even worse, they chase their dog to grab things that they shouldn’t have – and so in the dog’s mind, just make them even more valuable! 

How to teach your dog not to resource guard

The only way to teach a dog to happily give up their prize or valued resource is to swap it for something better so the dog feels good about giving it up – and this is a skill that should be taught to all dogs from puppyhood but especially those for whom carrying stuff around in their mouth is part of their genetic make-up.  

There are always going to be times when you need to take things away from your dog. This could be because it is dangerous, valuable or just doesn’t belong to them. All dog owners need to teach this skill but it needs to be done in a way that understands the instinct to keep things that are important to the dog, that makes it fun and that is safe and doesn’t give rise to conflict.

So, stop thinking of resource guarding as being a sign of an aggressive dog – and start thinking of it as a natural behaviour. Like all behaviours, once you understand it, it becomes easy to work out how to prevent it.

Note: If your dog is already resource guarding or you fear they could injure someone, consult an accredited behaviourist for help.

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