One of the most common dog training issues we're called in to help with is resource guarding. This can encompass a broad spectrum of behavior, ranging from growling or snapping to very severe bites to humans and/or other animals, with the most common triggers being valued items like food, bones, or toys.
In order to properly treat dog resource guarding, you must understand why it's happening in the first place, and then follow a careful plan to modify the behavior.
If you have young children in a home with a resource guarding dog, or if your dog has already bitten, we strongly recommend consulting the advice of a certified professional dog trainer to help you with this training.
Why is my dog resource guarding?
To put it simply, dogs do what works. If dogs feel that their valued items are at risk of being taken away, it's completely natural for them to engage in various behaviors to avoid losing those items. They typically start with mild behaviors intended to avoid real conflict, such as stiffening up, hovering over a bowl and eating more quickly, or staring intently at the person or animal in question.
Often, these more subtle warnings are ignored or punished, so the dog begins to resort to more vocal protests, such as growling or snapping. When those are punished, the behavior can very quickly escalate to biting.
It's critical to note that a dog resource guarding an item or space from a person is not displaying dominance-based behavior. This might come as an absolute shock, as this long-standing misconception is still very prevalent in our society, but there is absolutely no evidence that dogs are competing with us in a hierarchical relationship.
Think of what your response might be if a person tried to steal your purse or wallet that contained your valuables; would you happily toss it over to them, or would you be upset about the invasion of your space and the taking of items that keep you safe?
Here are some of the common triggers we see for resource guarding in dogs (but by no means are any of these always present in every case):
- We tend to see this behavior more frequently in field-line gun dogs, such as spaniels and retrievers, but this behavior can occur in any breed or mix of dog.
- Poor genetics/breeding and/or lack of early socialization.
- A history of harsh training methods, especially when started at an early age.
- Well-meaning owners have repeatedly taken items away or put their hand in the dog's bowl from an early age in an effort to prevent resource guarding (please don't do this!)
- The dog has had limited resources in the past, such as a dog that came from a puppy mill or hoarding situation.
Why is the training I've tried not working?
The answer is simple: a guarding dog doesn't want to lose their valued item or space, but most dogs also don't want true conflict, which is why they move up that ladder of behavior only when their subtle warnings are ignored.
Why is this important?
Because if you treat this behavior with punishment-based training, such as using an e-collar, leash correction, alpha rolling, etc, the odds of the behavior escalating and someone getting seriously injured are very, very high. You may see the behavior stop in the moment, but then see a worsening of the behavior next time, or the dog may begin guarding more and more types of items.
You may also have tried reward-based methods and still not seen improvement, which typically occurs when the training is not done with the precision and timing necessary for success. This is complex behavior modification, which is why we recommend enlisting the help of a professional whenever possible!
So, how do I stop my dog's resource guarding?
For this blog, we're going to be focused on dogs that guard items from humans, but you can find a great blog on dog-dog guarding behavior here.
Consider starting by teaching "drop" using a very specific method.
This step is optional, but we find that for very mild cases, it can be extremely helpful in helping rebuild the relationship between a person and their guarding dog.
*If you have a dog with any history of biting, or you feel there is a strong chance they could, you should skip this step, and/or teach it only once you've seen excellent improvement in the guarding behavior.
The way we're teaching "drop" for this scenario is critical, because we are creating a very positive association with letting go of items. The video instructions must be followed exactly.
Here are a few important rules:
- Do not use your "drop" every single time your dog has an item. You've got to let them be a dog sometimes!
- When you ask for the "drop," you will be moving away from the item, not hovering towards it.
- Practice this with low-value items before practicing this with items your dog values.
- Reward your dog AWAY from the item you've asked them to drop. You can toss the food away from the item, and/or encourage your dog over to you to collect the reward from your hand.
- Sometimes, don't take items away after your dog drops them.
You can find our video on teaching "drop" below.
The Resource Guarding Protocol
An important disclaimer before we too much further: As mentioned previously, we strongly recommend consulting a certified professional dog trainer, who can read your dog's body language and best guide you through this protocol and minimize any risk of injury. When working with guarding dogs without a professional, there is always a risk of a bite occurring; we will not be held responsible for any injuries that occur as a result of following the training recommendations laid out in this blog. Every case is different and can require subtle differences in training; our goal is to provide you with a well-tested framework to help people struggling with resource guarding dogs.
This protocol is where the real change happens. To successfully modify resource guarding, you must change your dog's association with a person coming near a valued item. There's simply no other shortcut!
Here's how it works:
1: Put a layer of safety in place before you begin the training setup – typically the best option is to tether your dog on leash to a sturdy object like a staircase railing, column, or heavy piece of furniture.
2: Have a baggie of high-value rewards ready, such as cut up hot dogs, cheese, or deli meat.
3: You can begin by giving your dog (now tethered) an empty food bowl, or a low-value toy or other item your dog will show casual interest in. Then back away from the area.
4: Start at a distance that you see NO guarding behavior from your dog. This includes any stiffening, hard staring, or other subtle signals of discomfort. If you have a hard time reading your dog's body language, consult a certified professional dog trainer.
5. Walk past (at that safe distance) and toss several of those high-value rewards to your dog. Do not stop – continue walking past. If your dog shows ANY of the behavior described above, or any growling, snapping, etc. you are too close. Go to a greater distance.
6. Do this until you see a visibly excited or friendly response from your dog as you walk by. They may look up at you expectantly, and should not be showing much concern about the item or food bowl. Once you have this response, you may decrease your distance slightly, and/or add some food to the bowl, if using.
7. You will continue this gradual process over the course of several days or weeks, depending on the severity of the case and your dog's individual response to the training. There is no right or wrong answer as to how long this process takes. Your first goal is to get within reaching distance of the bowl or item.
8. Once you're close enough to the bowl or item that you could touch your dog, AND your dog is still loose, relaxed, and comfortable with your presence, you can encourage your dog to come over to you to collect the food from your hand. You are asking them to move away from the valued item to collect food from you.
9. If step 8 is going well, you can now repeat the same process but with an added step: drop a piece of food into the bowl or next to the item, then walk away. Watch carefully for any signs of your dog becoming stiff or uncomfortable, and do not rush to this step. Advancing through the steps too quickly can result in a bite.
10. You can gradually begin to move your hand lower and lower to drop the food, until you are able to touch the item or bowl just before you drop the food. Remember to drop a reward after you touch the item, not before.
11. Build up to actually picking up the item or bowl, then rewarding your dog, and then giving the item or bowl back. If your dog ever struggles with a step, see if there's a way to make the setup slightly easier or less intense.
12. The final step is generalizing this outside of a training setting. Have multiple people practice this setup, and practice at different times of day. You should find that your dog will gradually need less and less "warmup," and as long as they don't have a serious bite history, can be eventually trusted off of the tether. The "drop" we taught previously will come in handy for times that your dog may have something dangerous.
Struggling with resource guarding behavior in your dog? We offer private instruction, both in-person (in the greater Atlanta, Georgia area) and virtually, to work with you to resolve this issue. Please contact us with questions or for more information.