Resource guarding is how dog trainers often typically refer to aggressive behavior by a dog when it is in possession (or proximity) of an item that the dog perceives as an especially valued item and displays aggression when approached. Most people associate the prized item with the dog’s food, a treat, a found sock, etc. however it should be noted that the “item” can be and very often is a person. Many dog owners interpret the latter as their dog ‘protecting them’ and are only correct if they agree with the dog in that they are in fact a possession of the dog’s. It is rarely a legitimate example of a dog protecting its owner from a perceived threat. It is the dog protecting a resource they feel they own. Not quite as flattering in that context and an indication of an unhealthy relationship perspective that is also certainly impacting things like general obedience.
If you’ve ever watched any nature documentaries about carnivorous or predominantly carnivorous predators, particularly wolves you’ve very likely seen examples of a manner of resource guarding. What you are seeing when a haunch is snatched and carried away and later if the perpetrator is approached is very likely the genetic basis of what we see in some of our domesticated dogs. Watch here.
Resource guarding can take aback a dog owner as the werewolf-like transformation from domesticated dog to their wolf cousin is quite a visceral experience, particularly when compared to the loving dog they have come to know in every other context of their lives.
Many companion dog owners believe (because amateur dog trainers and veterinarians often parrot things they’ve heard that have no basis in science) that when their dogs were puppies, because they played with their food, took food away, hand fed, etc. that they inoculated against future resource guarding. Many amateur dog trainers recommend this sort of early training, but the reasoning is specious. To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence to support its efficacy. There is certainly a whack of anecdotal evidence to suggest it’s either nonsense or perhaps not the best use of time if one wants to discourage resource guarding.
Based on the number of resource-guarding dogs I have worked with that have had owners pursue the above-described resource proofing puppy ritual I don’t believe it to have any positive impact and may even depending on how they went about the ritual, have the opposite effect. For instance, removing food could very well trigger tension in a puppy that at that point in its development might tamp down an assertive or aggressive response as being the wisest self-preservation course. However, later having lived with the person for a while and got their measure might be less inclined to inhibit their aggression.
If people continued with this puppy activity, I would suggest it better to teach a puppy to wait on a mat while their owner fills their bowl with ¼ of the usual ration. When the puppy finishes, lead (leash on) the still hungry pup back to the nearby mat and in front of the puppy add another ¼, etc. At least in this context, the pup sees a person approaching their food with more food rather than taking some away. Either way, many resource-guarding dogs do not resource guard their dinners but do resource guard around things they perceive as treasures.
I believe that all dogs are born as potential resource guarders to one extent or another and depending on a variety of variables resource guarding develops or does not.
In some infrequent cases, it seems as if that whatever distances a particular dog from its wolf cousins when it comes to resource guarding, didn’t make the trip and no amount of training is going to extinguish the throwback nature of the behavior. In my experience, this level of resource guarding is much more the exception to the rule.
A pup’s position in the litter can influence their attitude around food as a resource. If one pup has difficulty competing with litter mates when their mother is their source of nutrition, and/or later after she’s weaned them and repetitively comes up short subsequently left hungry, and the situation repeats itself enough, meal times become linked to stress and anxiety. This stress and anxiety can carry over later when the dog has been purchased and is living without competitors.
In other cases, particularly with larger breeds, the number of puppy feedings during the period of the tremendous growth of their lives was insufficient. Feeding a puppy once or twice a day as you might when they are adults can put some dogs in a heightened state of anxiety before meals. Done for enough meal times results in a conditioned response even after one or two meals would suffice.
I believe the most common cause of resource guarding is due to the perceived relationship between dog and owner from the dog’s perspective.
One question I ask dog owners with resource guarding dogs is whether the dog resource guards when a dog or cat that the resource guarder is familiar with is in proximity that would typically trigger a reaction around the people that the dog lives. When the answer is no – and it often is no, I ask a follow-up question. Outside of the resource triggering aggression situations, has that dog or cat ever given the resource guarder clarity as to who should be listening to whom? Typically the answer is yes. They get along but to the resource guarder, it is clear as to how their status compares so ‘it’s my resource, stay away’ behavior is either not triggered or more likely, is suppressed.
You’ll often find as well that these same dogs may not resource guard around exclusive members of the household. Once again, the person that can move freely near the resource is typically someone the dog has learned through experience that in one way or another stands up for themselves in other areas of their relationship or through an experience around resources.
Some dogs are wired in such a way that a relaxed approach to living with them in the sense of the attitude of the owner regarding basic obedience (learning and ongoing maintenance) isn’t an option. If they want to prevent or reverse a resource-guarding dog they need the dog to be always clear that they and the dog are not roommates. They need to be clear as to who is the teacher and who is the student or they will set the dog up to fail with what often turns out to be deal-breaker behaviors. It’s not that they have to be mean or walk around with pockets full of treats. In fact, the amateur dog training advice that most get that falls either into the pseudo-scientific categories of ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free/Never Say No/R+…’, treat, treat, treat or ‘Might Is Right’, Alpha, Pack Leader, Dominant nonsense will either make things worse or create other problems.
These amateur dog trainers all too recommend as resolutions of resource guarding with workaround suggestions such as redirection, confrontation, rewarding good behavior while ignoring bad behavior, etc. without addressing the underlying relationship problem.
I believe it’s best to initially have the dog owner do everything possible to avoid triggering an episode and instead focus on learning how to influence their dog’s sense of who is the teacher and who is the student. The program I have designed approaches this peripherally rather than confrontationally by inserting multiple minor reminder moments throughout the day, day after day for about 30 days. What I’ve found is this accomplishes a few things. The main is that if relationship perception is indeed behind the resource guarding and using 30 days of gently reversing that outlook, some dogs simply don’t resource guard. This approach is easier on most dog owners then confronting the dog ‘in the moment’ without the “status” in the dog’s eyes to do so. One might very well escalate the aggression if they address it prematurely particularly if the dog sees them as more of a roommate than an authority figure.
More often than not, even after the 30-day program the dog still lights up around the resource but they are often doing so out of force of habit and are in a better position mentally to change as the reason behind the resource guarding has been addressed. It’s still not an easy fix but lasting resolution will be much easier than if the dog owner attempts to solve the resource guarding problem when the real issue is the relationship.
I believe throughout the eons shared between humans and dogs any dog that resource guarded around a human became an immediate candidate for culling. The risk that a child or an unsuspecting guest unfamiliar with a particular dog’s resource guarding trait might be victimized was significant enough to remove the dog from the gene pool. Our ‘modern’ fashion over function dangerous breeding (greeders/greeding) practices combined in recent time with the blurring of how dogs are valued vs how people are valued has resulted in far more cases of resource guarding dogs than what I experienced when my career training dogs started 30 years ago. We now see instances of Golden Retrievers resource guarding in numbers unheard of in years gone by with more often than not the root cause being ignorant or indifferent breeding practices.
If you have a dog that is resource guarding I would advise having someone with some experience assess the situation to determine how much is the behavior a throwback that is unlikely to go away regardless of efforts made or whether it is a natural but ordinarily inhibited trait being triggered by circumstances as outlined above (Skewed relationship caused by either the wrong approach (‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free/Never Say No/R+…’, treat, treat, treat or ‘Might Is Right’, Alpha, Pack Leader, Dominant amateur training approaches) or a lackadaisical attitude with regard to the maintenance of that training and as a result leading to a skewed sense in the dog as to whose resources they actually are.
It is important though to keep in mind that whatever a trainer may say regarding the potential for change, for behaviors where someone may be seriously hurt, a dog owner must balance how manageable the risk is during the period of rehabilitation. While it is true that taking on a dog is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly it is also true that responsibility does not absolve of our responsibility to family, friends, visitors, neighbors, etc.
If you can’t find someone you are satisfied has the experience to give your dog his or her best chance I am available for consultation via telephone or Skype. If you are interested, contact me and I will provide you with some of the information I require beforehand to assist best.