Resource guarding in dogs, also called "possessive aggression," can be quite alarming and scary for a dog owner to experience. You go to grab a chew that your dog has whittled down to a tiny piece, so they don't swallow it — but are confronted with teeth-baring, growling, or even lunging and biting. Or perhaps you go to sit down next to your dog on the couch and get a hard stare and a low growl. This can — and should — send a chill down your spine.
Resource guarding can happen between pets as well. A dog may show food aggression if another dog walks by. Or they might even guard you from the other dog, especially if there are food items or toys involved. If you've recently brought home a new puppy or adopted dog, your other dog might be showing some new aggressive behaviors around their toys and food.
What should you do if your dog is guarding their food bowl, chew toy, or space? Your reaction to the behavior can either help resolve your dog's resource guarding or make it worse. Let's look at why resource guarding in dogs happens, what you should do to prevent it, and what to do if your dog exhibits resource guarding.
What is Resource Guarding?
Resource guarding is when a dog reacts when they perceive a threat to a valuable resource in their possession. The dog feels they are about to lose something and takes action to keep it. Resource guarding does not always have to end with growling, lunging, biting, or fighting. Patricia McConnell defines it well, as "any behavior that discourages another to take, or get too close to, an object or valued area in the dog's possession." This behavior could be as simple as a look, head turn, or slight baring of the teeth.
Guarding resources is a natural dog behavior. It's a natural animal behavior — humans included! Access to resources like food, water, and a safe space is essential to survival. It's hardwired into animal nature to protect the things we believe we need to survive.
While resource guarding is a normal dog behavior, it's not a desirable one. Resource guarding becomes a dangerous problem if a dog is willing to bite or fight to keep an item. Aggression around food, toys, or space, can result in dog bites to humans or fights between your pets. This is especially worrisome in a home with young children, elderly family members, or if the dog is not predictable in what items they decide to guard.
Common Items That Trigger Resource Guarding in Dogs
While most often seen around food items, a dog can develop resource guarding with any item that they deem "valuable." This might be something we don't consider very important, like a sock, but that sock could be your dog's most beloved possession. That sock might be the Ring to their Gollum. In one behavior case, a client's dog would guard the open dishwasher, and react whenever the owners tried to close the dishwasher door.
Food and Treats
Food Bowl (filled with food or empty)
Bones and Edible Dog Chews
Stolen "contraband" (tissues, socks or laundry items, shoes)
Space (dog bed, crate, their position on the couch or bed, their feeding area)
Their owner (from other pets in the home or even from other people)
Signs of Resource Guarding in Dogs
These are the most obvious signs of resource guarding. Unfortunately, too often it isn't until a dog is doing these things that I get a call for help from the dog's owner:
Lunging and Air Snapping (a no-contact bite)
Chasing you or another animal away
In developing and "milder" cases of resource guarding, a dog might show less intense (and therefore less obvious) signs of guarding behavior. A certified dog trainer, veterinary behaviorist, behavior consultant, or someone with experience reading dog body language, will often see these more subtle signs prior to the actions described above:
Taking an item and moving away
Braced body position over the item
Subtle shifting of body weight to "block" the item
Side eye staring or tracking of the person or pet approaching
Raising lips and baring teeth
Ears pinned flat against the head
Sharing our lives with our dogs means that we need to make sure they feel okay with us approaching things they find valuable. There's no need to guard food, toys, or space if we teach them that our removing an item, such as their chew, results in something equal or better than what they had. Giving up something to us willingly and happily needs to be trained and rewarded for our dogs so that resource guarding doesn't become an issue.
Unfortunately, the collective human response to a dog who is resource guarding has been the wrong one for too long. Using punishment and aversives as a response to resource guarding can result in MORE resource guarding.
What Causes Resource Guarding in Dogs?
You may feel confused by why your dog is exhibiting food aggression or guarding other items, especially if you've worked hard on early socialization and feel like you always provide more than enough resources for them. Remember — resource guarding is a normal and natural dog behavior!
Resource guarding in and of itself should not be surprising. However, the intensity with which a dog guards their food, items, or space can be affected by other contributing factors, such as:
History of resource scarcity
The added value of specific items based on how we present, interact with or take certain things (have we made a big deal about this thing in the past?)
The inherent value of the item
Context or physical needs of the dog (e.g. lack of enrichment, tiredness, hunger, thirst, etc.)
Underlying medical issues, such as pain
Actions of the person or other animal
Any dog may exhibit intense guarding behavior, whether they are adopted from a rescue or received from a breeder.
Resource Guarding Between Dogs
Dogs will guard resources from each other. This is called dog-directed resource guarding. Guarding behaviors could happen over a certain resting place, food bowls, or high-value chews and toys. When resources are limited, such as when there's only one chew but two dogs, we tend to see an increase in guarding.
Fortunately, most dogs will gauge whether a particular resource is worth enough to fight over. There's no point in risking injury by fighting with another dog for something of lower value. Many dogs will communicate with each other using body language and vocalizations to express their desire for the thing the other dog has, or to tell the other to leave them alone.
If you have a multi-dog household, you might see the ebb and flow of resource guarding "conversations" they have.
In multi-dog households or environments, resource guarding becomes a problem if the dogs resort to fighting over their resources, and the environment is not managed to prevent these conflicts from escalating.
Treating Dog-Directed Resource Guarding
Addressing food aggression or other resource guarding behaviors between dogs follows a similar plan as human-directed resource guarding treatment.
Management is crucial! Dogs who exhibit food aggression towards another household dog should always be fed in separate and secure areas. If a dog becomes aggressive towards another dog over toys, it's important to make sure that these toys are not just sitting willy-nilly over the house. For dogs who guard space from each other, blocking access to these areas outside of training and close supervision is imperative.
If your dog is food aggressive towards your other dog or pets, or guards toys, space, or even you, connect with a certified behavior consultant to start working on changing this behavior and creating a more positive emotional response in these scenarios.
What NOT to Do if Your Dog Resource Guards
Don't Punish the Growl
Never punish a growling dog. You can punish away a growl, sure, but all you've done is make a dog bite more likely. If your dog learns that growling to express their discomfort at your approach results in an aversive (such as yelling, hitting, a "tap" from a shock collar), and the loss of the item they were guarding, the next time you reach for it, they're more likely to skip the growl and go straight for a bite.
Ignored warnings will escalate behavioral responses, in both humans and dogs. You don't want to take away important warning signs that your dog needs to communicate with you.
Don't "Play" With Their Food and Chews
So many clients come to me for help with resource guarding and tell me, "We wanted to prevent resource guarding, so we'd always stick our hands in our dog's food bowl while they were eating, or randomly take away their chew. That way, they know who's boss and that the food or chew belongs to us." Instead of the desired result, they now have a dog who snaps when they reach for the bowl or a dog that lashes out even at just their walking by the bowl.
Without taking the necessary proactive and preventive steps, sticking your hand in your dog's food bowl while they're eating, or just taking away their chew toy will backfire. All you're doing is annoying your dog and teaching them that when you reach for something, they'll lose it. Not the association we want our dogs to make!
Don't Leave Out Items That Your Dog Might Guard
If your dog loves to grab socks from the laundry basket, and then growls or tries to bite when you try to take them away, set yourself up for success from the get-go (and avoid the possible surgery to remove the sock foreign body) by removing the opportunity. Don't leave items lying around that your dog might find valuable enough to guard. Keep your laundry basket up high. Pick up their food bowls between meals after they've finished eating and have walked away. Don't give them certain toys or high-value edible chews that they've become protective over.
What to Do If Your Dog Resource Guards
Connect With a Certified and Qualified Dog Trainer or Behavior Consultant
Before diving into ways you can start to address any resource guarding with your dog, I want to stress that working one-on-one with a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, or veterinary behaviorist should be your first step. Not only will your certified trainer build a trainer-client relationship with you and your dog, but they'll also be able to help you through the steps that I'll briefly outline below. Due to the potentially dangerous situations that resource guarding can create, it's important to keep safety first — both for you and your dog.
Manage the Environment
Make a list of all of the things your dog has become possessive over. Then think about how you can change the environment to remove access to these things. Obviously, this doesn't work with everyday necessities, like food bowls.
Let Your Dog Eat (and Chew) in Peace
For things that you can't just remove from your dog's environment, think about managing the context. If your dog guards their food bowl, set up a separate area where they can eat in peace. Use a gate to block off this area during mealtimes, so that no one can approach and make your dog feel the need to react. This is imperative if you have young children or elderly parents in the home who might not understand that they can't pet your dog during mealtimes. Blocking off separate feeding areas is also important if you have more than one dog, and one shows inappropriate resource guarding behavior.
If your dog guards things like a chew or long-lasting treat, give these to them in their safe space, crate, or other areas where they won't be bothered and let them enjoy it in peace. Ensure that everyone in your home knows that if the dog is eating or enjoying a chew, they are to let them be.
Start Desensitization and Counter Conditioning Training
This step is the bread and butter of changing resource guarding behavior. Because it's easy for us to rush through the process, your dog trainer should be involved in every step. The goal is to change your dog's emotional response to your approach and removal of the item they usually guard. Instead of the dread and fear of losing it, we want them to think, "Oh goodie! She's coming over here, and that means something awesome is about to happen!"
Basics of Counter Conditioning for Resource Guarding
Find a high-value treat that your dog loves more than the thing they are guarding. Usually moist and smelly works best, such as small pieces of chicken, or turkey hotdog.
Know the distance at which your dog begins to resource guard. Some dogs don't get possessive of their item or food until you're a few feet away. Others get tense if you're even in the same room while they eat. The goal here is to find the distance at which they know you are there, but aren't becoming tense or reacting with guarding behavior. For example, if your dog begins eating faster when you're three feet away, start this exercise from six feet away. You're determining what their distance threshold is for guarding a resource.
Give your dog their meal or chew as usual, then walk away.
Approach your dog, but stop a few feet before their distance threshold. Toss a piece of chicken to them. Once they eat it, toss another. Do this a few times before leaving the area.
Continue this exercise any time your dog has something they guard.
After a few sessions, begin to add one more step towards them before tossing the treat, and then step back. This is where you're decreasing their distance threshold. Don't rush this step.
If your dog gets tense or shows other signs of resource guarding, take the training back a step.
Think about working in small "slices" when treating your dog's resource guarding. Don't rush through the process and just reach for their bowl — that's setting them up to fail, and you might get bit.
With practice and consistency, your dog will learn to anticipate good things when you approach them. In many cases, these dogs choose to leave their food bowl or chew to happily approach you. When before they might stiffen or growl at your approach, with treatment, they instead show loose bodies and happy soft faces in anticipation of something good. This change in body language is the gauge by which we behavior consultants know if the treatment is progressing as expected.
Teach Your Dog to Drop It and Leave It
Both the drop it and leave it cues are important skills for all dogs to learn, but especially those that struggle with resource guarding. Drop it means to let go of something that's already in their mouth or possession, and leave it means to turn away from something.
If your dog guards food items, start practicing drop it with toys and then move on to practicing food trades. If they drop a low-value chew, they get a high-value treat. Make sure you're rewarding with something equal or better!
Using a reward of equal or higher value to your dog will help speed up the training practice and increase your success with the leave it cue.
Teach Your Dog to Come When Called
Training a reliable recall with your dog is useful for preventing resource guarding behavior. You can call them away from something that they have, rather than approaching them and trying to grab it.
Teach Your Dog to Go to Place
If your dog guards a particular place, such as a spot on the couch or your bed, creating a go to place cue means you can ask them to move to another designated spot where they will not be disturbed. This is often termed "stationing" by trainers. Having a behavior like this on cue means you do not need to physically guide your dog to a different space – keeping you safe and helping to prevent your dog from practicing unwanted guarding behaviors.
Preventing Resource Guarding from Developing in Puppies
The process of preventing resource guarding isn't much different from the tips outlined above. Prevention is always easier than treatment!
Set your puppy or new dog up for success by:
Letting them eat or chew in peace. Don't put your hand in their food or pet them while they're eating.
Practicing positive-sum trades. They drop a chew, they get a high-value treat, and then their chew back.
Teaching them to drop it and leave it.
Managing their environment. If you don't chase after them when they have a sock, the sock will have less value.
Make sure to properly socialize your puppy. Socialization is crucial for preventing a variety of dog behaviors, such as resource guarding, fear aggression, and separation anxiety.