TAKING THE GROWL OUT OF RESOURCE GUARDING
Making drool-worthy dinners that dogs love is what we're all about at THE PACK. There's nothing better than watching our pups enjoy their food! But what happens when they become overprotective of their No-Cluck Casserole or baked PACK breakfast? Behaviourists call this ‘resource guarding’: when your hound tries to keep you or someone else away from something they value, often by growling or barking, and sometimes progressing to a snap or bite. While we can’t blame our pooches for wanting to keep their delicious dinner all to themselves, resource guarding can be a stressful issue for both pawrents and pups so the sooner it’s addressed, the better. And that starts with understanding why our dogs become ‘aggressive’ around food, toys, people or spaces.
Why do dogs resource guard?
First of all, it's important to understand that resource guarding is a totally natural behaviour for your dog, based on anxiety not aggression. Before they were domesticated, to survive in the wild, dogs would need to guard their precious food, shelter or puppies from predators and rivals. Even in modern day safe homes, your pup may worry that their treasured things are going to be taken away: if your toddler plays with their favourite toy, for instance, or if an unfinished bowl of food has been removed early. Maybe a new dog or baby has come into the household and your pooch is nervous that you’ll have less time and affection for them, leading them to guard you from the ‘intruder’. Or perhaps your rescue dog has spent time in kennels where the freshest food went to the fastest and more boisterous eater, so they feel the need to defend their bowl or chewy treat to get their share.
Unfortunately, some outdated training methods encourage pawrents to deliberately interfere with mealtimes or invade their pooch's personal space to show them who's ‘top dog’. The effectiveness of this dominance-based training has been debunked time and time again, but misguided trainers still tell pawrents to put their hand in their dog's food while they're eating or even sit in their dog's bed! Does this discourage resource guarding? Just the opposite! Imagine if somebody brazenly put their fingers in your food mid-meal, or deliberately sat in your designated train seat. Rather than earning your respect, you’d be more likely to shout at that rude person in protest and you’d be understandably protective of your dinner around them in the future.
So what should we do to prevent resource guarding?
Keep an eye out for signs of defensiveness and anxiety around valued things: most obviously growling, but also body language like backwards-pointing ears, lip-licking, stiffness and hyper-fixation on an object, dog or human. If you have two dogs or a child, notice if your pup is becoming hyper-aware of the other dog or toddler’s presence, staring at them during dinnertime, for instance.
The starting point is then reassurance. Let your dog know that they don’t need to become defensive by making sure they always have full, uninterrupted access to their valued resources. Allow them to eat without interference, only removing the bowl or treat when you’re sure they're finished (when it comes to THE PACK food, that’s likely when the dish is licked clean!) If you’re lucky enough to live in a multi-dog household, make sure you feed your four-legged pals in separate areas with a clear barrier between them. Keep baby and dog toys separate, and make sure to play and fuss your dog as much as normal throughout any periods of disruption or change. Allow your dog's bed or favourite spot on the sofa to be a safe space, to which they always have access, and avoid messing with them when they're settled there.
If your dog’s showing early signs of guarding, you can actively nip this in the bud before it escalates with a basic technique. As with any good training method, you’ll need to be armed with a full bag of treats! You could use pieces of THE PACK kibble or any plant-based nibble your dog values. Remember that when your pup’s enjoying a meal or toy, their default reaction to an interruption will be to perceive it as a threat to the thing they’re enjoying. So the aim is to change that instinctual response by showing your dog that, actually, a person approaching is only going to make things better.
Wait until your dog’s finishing their food or happily chewing their toy, then calmly drop some treats nearby and quietly retreat. Your dog will likely eat the treats, then return to their dinner or toy. If you repeat this enough, getting gradually closer (even eventually dropping treats into the bowl) your dog will learn that the appearance of a human on the scene means they’re going to gain something good rather than lose their resource. Which means they won’t feel the need to guard their bowl or ball. You can even practice this technique before your dog starts resource guarding, preventing it from ever happening.
You can also use treats to reward your dog’s relaxed attitude around food and toys, reinforcing the behaviour you want to see.
What can I do if my dog’s already resource guarding?
Safety first! Make sure all your family, children especially, and any visitors know never to approach or interrupt your dog if they’re engaging with the triggering resource, whatever that might be. If it’s possible to hide or remove the resource, do so secretly when your dog isn’t around and make sure they’re given a replacement. Obviously, this is much harder to do with food! If you’re trying to exchange a triggering resource for something else while your dog is present, encourage them to move from the danger object with high-value treats so they’re a good distance away - ideally in another room - when you make the exchange.
The Humane Society warns pawrents to be especially alert in new situations which can bring out resource guarding tendencies: if a new dog or human visits, for instance. Try to create a neutral environment free of triggering items like toys and food. Don’t bring toys out on walks with you, where other dogs might try to take them, or to doggy daycare (make sure you ask dog carers or walkers to report any guarding behaviour to you).
It’s also never too late to teach ‘Leave it!’ This is a really useful command to have in your toolbox, not just at home. After all, we've all been there; you're strolling merrily along with your pup when you realise they've snaffled something they shouldn't. Whether it be a discarded chicken bone on a city pavement or a piece of sheep poop on a country lane, the odds of your dog happily relinquishing their forbidden feast are zero to none! Training your dog to let go of a dodgy food item while out and about, or of a triggering toy at home, is challenging but possible with patience and a lot of pawsitive reinforcement. Battersea Dogs Home have some fantastic step-by-step advice, with videos, on teaching this important cue.
It’s not working! What now?
While it may take some time for your dog to realise that they don’t have to protect their things, sometimes the guarding behaviour or anxiety might not improve at all. If you've tried all this for a week or so and your dog isn’t showing any signs of positive progression, don't hesitate to contact your vet. Aggression is often an indicator of pain and it may be that your dog is guarding his food rather than eating it because he's lost his appetite, or she’s protecting her toy instead of playing with it because she’s uncomfortable. There may even be deeper emotional issues at play, in which case you should consult a qualified behaviourist.
Finally, most importantly, never punish or reprimand your dog for resource guarding. The last thing you want to do is add more stress to an already stressful situation! Remember that your dog is behaving protectively because they’re nervous of losing something important to them. Punishing them for that is only going to make them more insecure and wary of you, and consequently make the resource guarding worse. It’s our job as pawrents to teach our pups that we’re their friends, and friends don’t steal each other’s things!
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