Resource guarding may involve anything that a dog values highly. He may warn you away from his food or water, his favorite sleeping place, a rawhide chewy or a toy. The dog may show his discomfort at your approach in many ways. He may stiffen up. He may give you a hard stare (the good old “stink eye.”) He may curl his lips, wrinkle his muzzle, snarl or growl. His hackles may come up. Finally, he may snap or bite. A dog may not guard everything he deems his, but protecting even a single possession to this extent is behavior that must be changed. A dog exhibiting this behavior is a potentially dangerous character, and the problem must be taken seriously.
Resource guarding is a problem that is much easier to prevent than to cure. Two common forms involve food bowls and favorite toys. Every puppy should be taught that his owner has the right to handle or take anything it is involved with. To prevent food bowl problems, teach the puppy that your messing around with the dish may be a good thing. Put your hand in his bowl and hand-feed him a few kibbles. Offer the puppy something really tasty, such as chicken or cheese, from your hand while he’s eating his kibble. Take the bowl away from the pup, put something extra delicious in it, and give it back to him. Hold the bowl in your hands or your lap while he eats. Put an empty bowl on the floor. When your pup looks up at you wondering where the food is, add it to the bowl. Stay near him and occasionally toss in a treat. Make him look forward to your presence at meal time.
A puppy should also learn to give up anything he has in his mouth. When he has a toy, offer to trade a treat for it. Use a cue such as “Give” or “Drop it” in a pleasant voice and give him the treat. Then give back the toy. Start the process with relatively boring toys and work up to items the pup values highly, such as a rawhide chew. Trade an even better item or treat for what he has. Don’t do this every time your puppy is playing with something, but do it often enough that he understands that giving up one thing may mean he gets an even better thing. If your puppy decides to make a run for it instead of playing the trade game, don’t chase him. He really wants you to get involved in a good game of Chase Me, but this isn’t the time for that sport. Calmly walk him down and when you are able to corner him or he lets you catch up with him, make the trade.
If your puppy decides to stand his ground over a resource, you will have to remove the item while staying safe. One way to do this is to drop or throw something noisy (away from the dog, not at him) and take it when he’s distracted by the sound. If the item is a toy or a chewy, it must be removed from his environment. He cannot have a toy or chewy that is so important he’s willing to bite someone over it.
If you have a dog who is already exhibiting this problem, you must get to work on changing the behavior. There is a lot of good information written on how to work effectively and humanely with resource guarders. Keep in mind that violence from you is not the cure. Responding aggressively to a dog that is guarding food or a possession will most likely escalate the problem and it reinforces the dog’s feeling that having someone approach his treasure means trouble. Needless to say, if there are children in the home, correcting this behavior is a top priority. It can be a slow process and you may need the help of an experienced trainer or behaviorist who is well-versed in working with these dogs in a humane manner.
Dorothy Miner is a long-time dog obedience and tracking instructor, judge of canine events and author. She teaches weekly classes for the Allen Correctional Institution’s PETS Program and provides training and consultation under the banner of “Sidekicks” and “Training for Dogs and Their People.”