Resource Guarding: Recognize the Early Warning Signs

Guarding food, toys, (and other objects), locations and people is a natural behavior among dogs.  Some dogs guard body parts where they do not like to be touched.  When a dog displays aggressive behaviors, if humans come too close to food, objects, locations, or touches him in “that” spot, it is time for intervention.  This is an especially risky situation in a home with children. DOGS DO NOT GROW OUT OF GUARDING BEHAVIORS; THEY GROW INTO THEM.


Practice preventive measures.  This is no guarantee, but it can take the edge off of a puppy’s insecurity about losing valuable resources.  Do lots of “trades”.  When your puppy is engaged with a chew, calmly approach with a delicious treat.  Place the treat at his nose, and say, “trade”.  Remove the chew while giving him the treat.  Return the chew to him.  Do this several consecutive times and every time he has a valuable object.  

When your puppy is eating, approach his food bowl and drop in a treat.  With many repetitions, he will learn that a human approach to his bowl is a contribution, not a threat.  A puppy who is comfortable with this exercise is ready to have his food bowl picked up.  Enhance the dog kibble with a yummy treat and give him back the bowl.

Desensitize your puppy to all manner of handling.  There are many crossover elements between body guarding and handling intolerance.  Brief handling paired with a treat changes the puppy’s conditioned emotional response.  Over time, petting on the top of the head, handling feet, and other areas of the body are tolerated and not perceived as unpleasant.

Sofas and beds are human resting spots.  Many puppies are brought up onto the furniture, then later when able, leap up when they wish.  This practice can set up for unrestricted launching (whether the human wants it or not) as well as location guarding.  A preventive approach would be to teach the puppy to “sit” and “wait” for an invitation onto the sofa.  The dog should get off the sofa when the human does.  If he doesn’t, teach a recall off the furniture.  Collar grabbing often sets up for an undesirable reaction from the dog.  Dogs can also guard their bedding.

Play games with rules that include an “out” release of the toy.  You can “trade” your dog for the toy as well as resume the game.  Because dogs change through developmental phases from puppy to adolescent to adult, it’s a good idea to practice these preventive measures until adulthood.

There is a continuum of guarding behaviors, ranging from mild to severe. Learn to recognize the signals BEFORE your dog growls, snaps, or bites. High-level guarders will, actually, leave the food or object to run a person off. If your dog snaps, but does not make contact, please do not believe that he “missed”. His intention was to warn, not bite. Dogs are very mindful of communicating their message via their mouths. Be humble. There is no human hand faster than a dog’s mouth when the true intention is to do harm.

Here are some insidious ways that dogs guard their possessions: covering the object with one or both paws or his head, leaning her body toward the object, and/or placing her body between you and the object. What happens when a person approaches? Does the dog increase his eating speed when a human comes close to the food bowl? Does the dog go under a piece of furniture with a toy or stolen object and/or cache (hide) it? With the prized object in the dog’s possession, she may become more intense. How do you “read” this? The body becomes rigid and the eyes, harder (or glazed). Chewing and mouth-grip can become excessive. The dog might “freeze”. You might notice a half-moon eye, aka a whale-eye/hairy eyeball. All of these changes can occur in seconds, so be observant.

Regardless of your adult dog’s guarding level, do not continue the approach to “show him who is boss”. The result of this action could be an escalated aggressive display – even a bite incident. No one wants the dog to learn that biting works. This is not a “win” for anyone.

As soon as you observe a warning signal that your dog may be a guarder, contact a behavior professional. Low level guarding is often treatable. Insecure dogs are more likely to guard, because they are reacting to a fear of losing something of value to them.  Counter conditioning treatment protocols work towards removing this internalized threat, while reinforcing an incompatible behavior.  Even if puppies display no guarding behaviors, use the preventive measures above. These exercises teach them to willingly release objects from their mouths and yield space. They are not competing with humans for resources, but rather, their trusted people share resources with them, as appropriate.  Adult dogs who guard require a plan of counter conditioning and management. Depending on severity, changes take time: four to six months. Many guarding behaviors can be fixed, and others must be managed.  Owner follow through is essential:  dogs don’t change their behaviors until owners change routines and habits

The plan to rehabilitate or manage a guarder is well worth the effort to enjoy the companionship of a safe dog. Key factors are observation, prevention, and early intervention.

©Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2018 All rights reserved
Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC