If you’ve found yourself in a situation where your dog has begun to growl when you approach them around treats, food, bones, toys, the sofa, another dog or even another person – This post will go into what you can and should do to help.
The behaviour we’re describing is categorised as resource guarding or possessive aggression. Resource guarding is typically defined as a display of negative behaviour to discourage the taking, or use of, an object or valued resource.
Resources that can be guarded will vary from dog to dog, the most common ones are typically food, toys and bones – in our experience, but this can also extend to random pieces of rubbish, another dog, a particular person in the household, the space under the dining table, water bowls, a raised area like the sofa and many other obscure things.
In truth we don’t know exactly what the cause of resource guarding is, although like most things there will inevitably be a genetic and an environmental component to the behaviour. Some dogs are simply born with a higher level of possession, commonly seen in your herding breeds, but also very common in Spaniels and now Cockapoo’s. The other component will be environmental experiences and adaptation, either from the size of the litter and accessibility to feed, early experiences interacting with objects in the litter up to being 8-weeks-old, handling from the newly appointed owners of the pup, or most likely a combination of all of the above.
What you should do about the problem will entirely depend on the level of resource guarding that you’re experiencing. If you aren’t confident in handling and have already been bitten we’d advise contacting and working with any trainer who’s experienced in training with resource guarders. Without the correct handling and expertise you should simply avoid putting yourself in a position where you may find yourself in conflict with your own dog.
If the level of behaviour isn’t very severe there’s a few small things you can do that may make a large improvement.
1. Hand feed all of the dogs meals. Don’t allow a disconnect between who is providing the dogs most valued resource (without food there’s no dog) and help them to understand you’re the provider, not the remover.
2. Remove all of the objects the dog guards if possible. Don’t leave things lying around that you know your dog guards. Don’t set them up to fail when you know how they are likely to behave. Do this when they aren’t in the room to avoid conflict.
3. Teach a reliable ‘out’ and ‘come’ command. If your dog is hiding under the dining table with a tinfoil ball from a Kit Kat they’re guarding, if you‘ve trained a reliable out and come command, they should be able to drop it and come to you. You can then play/train out of the room, separate them from the object and discard of it without unnecessary conflict.
Resource guarding comes in many forms but they all stem from the same psychology – that the dog (for whatever reason) perceives a particular thing(s) as highly valuable and decides they want it for themselves.
They may run away with it, or they may stand their ground and display aggressive behaviour to prevent you, or another dog, from coming close to it. We want to change that emotional state so the dog doesn’t feel like the valued resource is going to be taken away, or that the resource isn’t that great anyway so they don’t mind leaving it when asked.
Be safe when working with any form of resource guarding as it’s the most common cause of dog-owner bites and don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you need it.