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Resource Guarding: A Guide

Updated: Jun 27




“Resource guarding” is the fancy-shmancy term used by dog trainers to describe any aggressive or defensive behavior exhibited by a dog to maintain possession of something. This possession can be literal, such as a ball in the dog’s mouth, or it can involve the possession of an idea like territory or the opportunity to access something. 


Guarding behavior can be strengthened or weakened by the environment, but most trainers would agree that the predisposition to guard is at least to some extent genetic and thus part of a dog’s temperament and personality. 



Is a Guarding Dog a Bad Dog?


Guarding tendencies do not inherently mean that a dog will be problematically aggressive in every area of their life. In fact, it is not uncommon to see a working line breeder (such as shepherds bred for protection sports, etc.) bragging about their little puppies' guarding behavior - the idea being that if the dog is passionate enough about resources to guard them at such a young age, they will likely have more drive to “work” for those same resources once they are taught to channel their feelings into appropriate outlets through training.


I myself have met plenty of puppies and newly adopted rescues who dabble with food guarding in their first few weeks home, but with some lifestyle adjustments and simple exercises (to be discussed below), they grew up and no longer had issues. 


Similarly, many shelters in recent years have completely stopped conducting assessments where resource guarding is intentionally provoked in order to see “if the dog will do it,” because the intentional provocation of guarding in a stressful environment - where resources are limited - has been seen to not represent how the dog will act in a normal home. (Sources cited below.) 


That being said, an adult dog who has spent a lot of time rehearsing guarding can be scary. Additionally, a dog who escalates quickly - giving minimal warning signs for only a second or two before lunging and snapping - is significantly more dangerous than a dog who does lots of “warning” behaviors such as prolonged freezing and growling. There is also the factor of bite inhibition - meaning if the dog does bite, do they intentionally exert very little force in order to simply make a point without hurting anyone, or do they bite down hard and/or multiple times? In addition to what exactly triggers the dog (see below) and whether or not those triggers can be predicted or controlled, these are all factors I take into consideration when assessing the severity of a case of resource guarding. 



Who is the Victim? 


Firstly, it's important to know that not all dogs who guard will exhibit the same guarding behavior towards everyone equally. Behavior directed at a stranger or a child might differ from behavior directed at the primary caretaker, for example.


Guarding can also be directed exclusively at other dogs and never toward people. I have met plenty of dogs who will start fights with other dogs but would never think to aggress towards a person. Of course, there are dogs who do both. 


I've noticed that dogs who guard toward humans are typically willing to also guard toward other dogs, although this may not always present a problem due to a lack of opportunity. If the dog is generally not social with other dogs, the issue of dog-to-dog guarding isn’t focused on because it's simply not a situation that arises in their lives.




Potential Resource Guarding Triggers  


This is not an exhaustive list! 


  • Food and other consumables (bones, rawhides) 

  • Potential access to food (a begging scenario) 

  • Toys 

  • Stolen objects (socks, paper) 

  • Smells

  • Water

  • Beds, couches, corners of the room that are associated with rest 

  • Crates, under a table, under the owner

  • Human affection/attention (or perceived access to it) 

  • Human in general (1 particular human or not)

  • Other dogs (attention from playmates, housemates) 

  • Thresholds (doorways, hallways)

  • Other areas that represent access to something (thresholds, windows, a place where food is prepared) 

  • A home or backyard


Some dogs only have 1-2 triggers on this list, and their guarding behavior is isolated to very specific circumstances. But the more triggers on this list that the dog has - let’s say if they definitely check 3-4 of these boxes - the more likely they are to exhibit guarding behavior across most, if not all, situations, at least when the conditions are right. In other words, if the dog is frequently considering guarding, they are more likely to expand their concept of what is worth guarding.



Stress and “Trigger Stacking”


Even though some dogs might “hide” some of their guarding tendencies in a new environment because they are feeling shy or distracted, it is important to note that in general, stress is likely to bring out guarding tendencies. This is because guarding behavior serves as an outlet for excess energy and emotions, and it also provides dogs with a sense of control over a situation.


So if your dog guards, you should consider what other triggers they have recently been exposed to, and assume that the compounding of those experiences might make the guarding scenario more intense than it would be otherwise. Common compounding factors include body sensitivity (being touched), stranger danger, dog selectivity, general overarousal/excitement, misplaced herding instincts. 


Health issues and pain can likewise exacerbate guarding, so if there is any question about the dog’s physical health, that needs to be addressed immediately. 



What are Signs of Guarding? 


This is also not an exhaustive list. 


  • Stopping eating OR eating faster

  • Rolling on a resource

  • Whale eye/side eye

  • Closing mouth/tight lips

  • Hard stare/face muscles harden 

  • Slow/tense body movements

  • Anal plant/anal swipe

  • Freeze/stiff muscles 

  • Leaning, pushing, or sinking weight into a person

  • Jumping up onto something/gaining elevation 

  • Hovering 

  • Paw wrapping

  • Moving toward a resource when someone else approaches

  • Barking between the guardee and the resource 

  • Body blocking 

  • Body blocking combined with jumping up, nipping 

  • Lip curl/snarl

  • Lick lipping/tongue flips

  • Growling/vocalizing

  • Snapping (no bite)

  • Biting


None of these behaviors indicate that guarding is definitely happening. For example, some of them simply indicate possession, meaning the dog is strongly attached to something, and that doesn’t always mean they would aggress at someone else for competing with them - such as wrapping paws around a toy, or leaning into someone who is petting them. And most of the stress-related behaviors are also common signs of defensive behavior in general, regardless of whether a resource is technically involved - such as whale eye and stiffness. To determine if actual guarding is happening, you need to look at the whole picture - not just a snapshot in time. 



Examples


In addition to some pictures donated by friends and found online, I am about to put a bunch of pictures of my own dog displaying resource guarding behaviors, but just so you don’t think I’m a professional trainer with a dog who is a menace to society, I will tell you a bit about her. Mars is my now 8 year old blue heeler female who I would label as a moderate guarder. She will guard anything and everything on the list above against other dogs who are not Cupid religiously if allowed to. She will be tempted to guard anything on that list from her brother Cupid sometimes, if allowed to. She will guard food, toys, and other humans from humans who are not me sometimes, if allowed to. These tendencies are very ingrained in her temperament and tied to the rest of her personality. She used to guard food and bones from me when I first adopted her at 9 months old, but that is something we fixed quickly. Her saving grace is that she has lots of warning signs (pictured below!) and a very inhibited bite in most circumstances. Additionally, Cupid is extremely deferential to her, so genuine conflict between the two of them is rare. Mars’ compounding triggers are that she doesn’t really like other dogs, she has strong herding instincts and is triggered by fast/erratic movement from dogs or humans, and she has body sensitivities with strangers and other dogs. (They do NOT try to take her anal temperature at the vet anymore.) 


Mars has some very solid formal training skills. There have been many situations in her life where she is incapable of making a single good choice on her own in a particular environment (like being at a gathering with another dog), and so she has had to be in a down-stay by my feet for 3+ hours. I do not make her endure this all the time, but if it comes up, we can both handle it. 


That being said, here are the examples: 





















How Do We Fix It? 


For “basic” guarding of food and stolen objects, there are a couple of tried and true exercises (see below) that I like to employ that teach the dog to share their goodies. I also think it is important to let a dog eat or chew yummy things in a calm and safe space, and to not let other dogs or children go very near and thus harass the dog while they’re eating. I absolutely do not encourage manhandling a dog while they are eating.


Each case of guarding is unique and may require special recommendations in terms of your management and training plan, but I have some overarching themes that I’d like to still address. For more complex guarding, especially directed towards humans, I have what may or may not be a HOT TAKE. You tend to hear two polar opposite advices for guarding: 


  1. You need to show your dog that you are the pack leader and that aggression will not be tolerated OR 

  2. You need to show your dog that you are very friendly and only want to give them cookies in all of these guarding scenarios 


Which one of these lenses is right, in my opinion? Neither! 


The Right Answer: You need to show your dog that you are not looking to instigate conflict - meaning you should not be yelling “no” or showing the dog that there is indeed a dramatic fight going on. You need to be a calm leader who is able to direct your dog reliably away from trouble through a trained system of communication. 


Since we use so much positive reinforcement in our training, the stress of guarding scenarios tends to be counter-conditioned so that we start to replace bad feelings with good feelings. But the training also gives us reliable control. 


What I tell people who have dogs who think about guarding often is that even though we will succeed in reducing the intensity and frequency of these guarding events on a day to day basis, the dog will likely still have the thought to guard sometimes during surprise events, which means that it is imperative that we have high-level control taught through formal skills proofed under distraction. The dog needs impulse control training, because guarding is often impulsive. 


When you train your dog to respond while distracted, the instinct to guard can be treated as just another distraction.




The Training


Prevention:

Prevention is the best medicine. Especially for dog-to-dog resource guarding, you should structure your dog’s life so that they do not feel like they need to fiercely compete for resources or defend their ability to eat and rest comfortably. 


Safety:


  • Tether - Training with the dog leashed & tied to a sturdy point might make sense to prevent them from getting into trouble while still being safely exposed to a trigger scenario. 

  • Baby gate - Doing training with the dog behind a baby gate might make sense to prevent them from getting into trouble (example: 2 dogs eat on 2 separate sides of a baby gate with plenty of distance between them). 

  • Dragline - Having the dog drag a leash on the ground that you can pick up and lead them away to de-escalate a situation might be a good idea. 

  • Leash in hand - Holding a leash in your hands might make sense as a backup safety (if the dog is not guarding FROM you, usually). 

  • Tone and body language - Your voice should convey calm, confident leadership. You can still sound bright and pleasant when applicable. It is also often wise to avoid body language that is confrontational such as leaning over or hovering over the dog, quickly walking directly at them and grabbing them, etc. 

  • Hands in dogs mouth warning - If the dog is consuming something and you put your hands in their mouth to take it out, you are asking to get bit. 

  • Muzzle - If the training dog in question is a moderate to severe bite risk, it is wise to train with a muzzle on, especially in the beginning of training. 



Overall Structure and Boundaries:

A dog who is regularly attempting to guard typically benefits from following rules, structure, and boundaries throughout their life. Does the dog regularly practice waiting at a door before going outside? Are they used to only getting on the couch when invited and getting off when asked? Are they regularly asked to ignore distractions and focus while on walks outside? Introducing all of these ideas involves impulse control, which I metaphorically describe as a muscle in the brain that the dog needs to make stronger in order to be able to control themselves reliably. 



Relationship: 

This is sometimes relevant and sometimes not. If there is a human or dog who is a main target of a dog’s guarding, it is worth asking and investing time into ensuring that the two creatures have a decent relationship outside of the context of the guarding. Is the guarder being pushy or bullying the guardee in general? Are they tense and distrustful? 


Many such cases benefit from bonding time that is structured and perhaps indirect, such as a side-by-side walk so that the two of them associate the other with something pleasant for once. Or perhaps a group training session would be the positive experience needed for them to bond.



Formal Skills: 


Think about “incompatible behaviors'' - meaning that a dog cannot really hold “place” on a bed 30 ft away from a resource and actively guard at the same time. This is a list of skills I will typically have guarders practice - to a high degree of reliability under a variety of distractions:


Sit stay for food bowl/other resource being given:

A lot of people do this one on their own, but sometimes they are sloppy about releasing the dog with good timing, so be mindful of that!





Basic food bowl counter conditioning: 

There are a few variations on this technique, but it is a very simple and effective way of counter-conditioning the stress from a human approaching the food bowl. 





Recall/call away from resource: 

This example shows calling away from a food bowl specifically, but this is an important skill for any version of guarding. 





Place or out/away:

Sending to a target or out of a room is an important skill to teach a guarding dog to move away from a problem situation without necessarily needing to come back to the handler. This is particularly important for dogs who guard the handler themselves, since calling them to lurk near you might make an owner-guarding situation even worse. 

(Video example coming soon) 


Off (or call off of furniture): 

Guarding the couch? (Politely) get off that dang couch! 

(Video example coming soon) 


Drop it/leave it: 

The importance of this one is probably obvious! 

Drop it - video coming soon

Toy play example - coming soon 


General stay: 

I showed staying for a food bowl above, but of course “stay” in general is important for a dog who is tempted to get themselves into trouble. 


Here is an example of using "stay" to take turns during toy play:




Follow leash pressure: 

For a dog whose guarding is compounded by body handling sensitivities, it might be very important to formally teach yielding to leash pressure so that we can forcibly remove them from problem scenarios while still minimizing conflict. 

(Video example coming soon)


And like all of the other lists… This one is not exhaustive! 




Consult a Professional 


My hope is that this guide helps people understand what is making their dog or their client’s dog tick (even when it’s more than the typical food bowl guarding) and also provides hope for their behavior modification journey if they have a dog who is growling and snarling. Of course, I highly recommend consulting a professional if you have a dog who is resource guarding. These cases can sometimes be straightforward, but they can also be complex and tricky, and the training plan for addressing guarding behavior can be easy to rush if you don’t have someone guiding you through the steps.


Now go train that dang dog! 







Sources 






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