MINE! Understanding and Working with Resource
Guarding,
 All rights reserved (c) 2020 Frania Shelley-Grielen

Resource Guarding: “the use of avoidance, threatening, or aggressive behaviors by a dog to
retain control of food or non-food items in the presence of a person or other animals.”
(Jacobs, Coe., et al.)

Gulping food at breakneck speed, playing keep away with the ball, growling at anyone
near the food bowl, barking when somebody gets too close to their person on the couch,
whining when the other dog gets the treat first; the list goes on.  Sounds familiar?  What
do you call it?  Resource Guarding?  Possessive Aggression? Food related aggression? Why
does it matter?  And can you fix it or at least manage it? All of these terms have been
used to define behaviors dogs display to gain or keep access to or control of something of
supposed value in the presence or approach of another dog or person.  Depending on context
or what is going in the environment when this is happening, these may be totally different
things.  A very hungry dog may gulp food to satisfy that hunger, a dog with a history of being
deprived of food around others may gulp food to protect the opportunity to eat, and an
anxious dog may gulp food as part of their general disposition.  Emotional states, motiv-
ations and environments set the stage for much of what we are looking at with behaviors.
We do know that what we call something is important, it colors how we think about it and
from there how we respond to it.  

Putting the aggression label on to this or any behavior can muddy the waters unless we are
in fact talking about
true aggression here – the intent to cause harm as opposed to bluffs,
threats, stare downs and the like.  Highly ritualized distance increasing behaviors serve
dogs in
avoiding aggressive interactions.  Fighting is costly from a biological standpoint
and most, if not all animals would rather the other party go away instead of engage in
violence.  We can be both misinformed and careless with the use of “alpha” and “dominance”
when discussing dog society and forget that dog society is mainly a society of deference of
“no, it’s OK – you go first” in response to a warning or threat rather than “let’s fight.”  And
if that’s how dogs “talk” to each other, if a growl is a warning to a back off and if the other
dog hears that and responds, what happens when we get it wrong? A 2018 study reviewed
expert opinions on what to call those avoidance and guarding behaviors of protecting
perceived assets and the expert consensus was to drop the aggression label (unless that is
actually what is seen) and to use “resource guarding over possessive aggression due to the
potential for motivation to be interpreted more accurately by owners.” Here, study
participants mentioned concerns not just with the use of the word “aggression” but also
with using “possessive” for fear of additional misinterpretation that resource guarding
behavior might be viewed as challenging an owner with the potential of owners resorting
to force in retaliation – a strategy that makes things worse not better.

No matter what we call it, how do we assess, manage and work with it?  Researchers De Kuster
and Jung write:

“competitive disputes over resources (including puppies) may occur with family
members of all ages, but tend to occur with children more than adolescents, with
adults being least frequently involved.  The disputes may also occur with other
familiar animals in the home, including other dogs and certain pets, such as less
fearful cats…the dog feels threatened and potentially frustrated and so the under-
lying emotion is negative.  The choice of strategy (whether or not escalating into
a bite) will depend on many factors, including actual mood state, perception of the
situation, and previous learning experiences (aggressive episodes) and their
outcomes…Dogs displaying aggression over resources should be screened for
signs of generalized anxiety”

Motivations for this behavior may vary from territoriality, uncertainty over place in the
group dynamic, fear, health issues, etc. Canine behavior experts agree that aggressor dogs
are also found to have high anxiety levels and benefit from routine, schedule and owner
predictability.  In our homes we tend to admonish the aggressor dog and support the victim
which may increase tensions between the dogs.  Free ranging dogs are better able to circum-
vent conflict because they have the space to retreat successfully.

Jacobs, Coe, et al in another study, also looked at what factors are frequently associated
with resource guarding around both other dogs and around people and found that when it
came to the presence of other dogs this was a relatively fixed pattern and high impulsivity
and fear increased the chance the behavior would occur.  When it came to resource guarding
around people they found this to be a more flexible behavior and that removing the food dish
during meals was associated with increased resource guarding.  Adding more palatable
(yummy) food during meals when people were around was found to reduce the behavior
and teaching dogs to drop items (please make it “trade” instead, more on that later) to reduce
resource guarding both around dogs and around people.

Dr. Petra Mertens writes that research shows that the majority of fights between dogs in the
home occur under states of high arousal/excitement, next to food or toys or next to the
caregiver.  Confined spaces, defending favored resting space and responding to threatening
postures such as hard stare, tensed and leaning forward, growling, etc., close off the list. In the
same home; younger dogs or new additions to the home are the responsible parties for
aggressing first.  Female-female pairs represent the majority of most physical conflicts.  
Fights occur more frequently when owners are present or close by as opposed to when the
dogs are alone.

Working with resource guarding behavior and/or possessive aggression whether with a
single dog or in the multi-dog home is possible (there are never guarantees) -for it to succeed,
it requires a strong commitment to managing the environment to prevent the possibility of
conflict, strict adherence to a consistent, every day, behavioral program of counter
conditioning, desensitization and retraining and the time to do it.  Even with the best of
scenarios there are latency periods – when things stay the same, such as conflicts between
dogs and opportunities for human injury, before they change.  Well educated and qualified
behaviorists and trainers can help. Chances for success are compromised by the problem
persisting for an extended period of time, if fights lead to injuries, or if fights are not
predictable for the owner.

How owners deal with resource guarders can add to the problem not lessen it, notes Dr.
Mertens.  Not punishing unwanted behaviors can be too much of a challenge for many
owners, and punishing aggressive behavior exacerbates it.  Resulting stress can impact
an owner’s connection with the aggressor dog which in turn may increase pressures
between dogs.  Mertens suggests providing the dog with the greatest resource guarding
behavior precedence to resources when they are not in conflict, is actually the best way to
satisfy the dog’s need to feel secure with those resources.  Following this advice is another
struggle for owners.  

Dr. Karen Overall, writing on treating what she calls possessive aggression with dogs offers
the following:

  •  “This condition is most easily treated by managing the environment so that the dog
  cannot gain access to possessions he or she might want to control
  •  No one should reach for anything the dog is guarding.
  •  Walking away from the dog and trading, when needed, are the preferred management
  strategies.
  •  There are very few dogs who are affected with possessive aggression alone.  
  Accordingly, teaching dogs to sit calmly and rewarding them for being non-reactive
  when people reach toward them, if this can be done safely, will benefit a treatment
  plan for reactive dogs.
  • If the clients have just noted that this condition is developing, teaching the dog to sit,
  take a deep  breath, and then “trade” could prevent the condition from fully developing.”

Having good information and cautions in place are necessary.  When considering working
with resource guarders or food aggressive dogs individually, in a group, even with appropriate
professional advice make sure your own knowledge and understanding include a familiarity
with the right approaches to be used and why.  Protocols should consider and include:

1) Removing all punishment.  No scolding or anger no matter what.  Dogs never, ever
understand a lecture they just act what looks like contrite so we stop scolding them. All
punishment creates fearful associations, interferes with learning, damages relationships
and needs to be escalated to be effective.

2) Managing the environment. Avoid access to those locations and situations where the
reactive explosions are taking place.  Redirect dogs from confined spaces, feed and play  
with toys and dogs separately.  It is key to remember that we too are part of the
environment; the most important part that our pets react to. Keeping our mood,
tone of voice, body language positive or neutral are important.  

3) Behavior Modification.  Become a keen observer of dog behavior and be able to identify
signs of
stress and how they escalate along with suitable mitigations.  Whether working
alone or with a professional make sure you can follow along with the why’s and how’s
of behavior modification protocols for resource guarding.  
Pat Miller’s “How to Mange
Your Resource Guarding Dog” and Patricia McConnell’s “Resource Guarding, Dog to Dog”
are good ones to learn.

- Adding in small bouts of positive, force free training can help anxious dogs through structure
and enrichment, build the bond and trust between dog and owners and encourage better
behavior to meet human expectations.  Teach alternate behaviors like "trade" when asking
dogs to surrender a valued space or item- have a just as good,  if not better, replacement
obvious and ready when asking.  Never forget that changing a behavior requires replacing it
with one of equal or greater value. Be generous and consistent with rewards when training
and reinforcing behaviors.  One of the best doggy day cares I worked with had a floor literally
covered with tennis balls.  More is more. Remember, always keep dogs at a distance they feel
most comfortable when  working with them.  

-  If it can be done safely, hand feeding is an excellent exercise for impulse control, reactivity,
affords structure, control and safety. Incorporating this into an exercise to teach "Off" and
"Take it" and use those cues for releasing objects or spaces or engaging with them. This is an
exercise that takes some practice to get the timing down.  Remember, the dogs cannot get it
wrong since they will only be following your behavior so work on your timing and keep it
loving the entire way through, this is very important.  (
More on what this exercise looks like )

Keep a diary of what is going on what is happening each day, make sure to note any small
conflict, behavior changes and around what resource they are happening in. It is far easier
to change an emotional state or redirect an agitated one before it escalates too far up the ladder.

References:
De Kuster, T and Jung, H. (2009). Aggression toward familiar people and animals.  In Horwitz, D.F. and Mills,
D.S. (Eds).
BSVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine , (pp. 182-210).  Gloucester, England:
British Small Veterinary Association

Jacobs, J.A..  Coe, J.B., Pearl, D.L., Widowski, T.M.,  Niel, L. (2018). Factors associated with canine resource
guarding behaviour in the presence of people: A cross-sectional survey of dog owners.  
Preventive Veterinary
Medicine
, 161(1) 143-153

Jacobs, J.A..  Coe, J.B., Pearl, D.L., Widowski, T.M.,  Niel, L. (2018). Factors associated with canine resource
guarding behaviour in the presence of dogs: A cross-sectional survey of dog owners.  
Preventive Veterinary
Medicine
, 161(1) 134-142

Mertens, P. (2004). The Concept of Dominance and the Treatment of Aggression in Multidog Homes: A
Comment on van Kerkhove's Commentary.
Journal of applied animal welfare science.  7. 287-91;

Overall, K. L. (2013) . Abnormal Canine Behavior and Behavioral Pathologies Involving Aggression, In
Overall, K.L. .  
Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats , (pp. 172-230).  St. Louis, MO:
Elsevier

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Understanding and
Working with
Resource Guarding


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BuzzFarmers
" How owners deal with resource
guarders can add to the problem
not lessen it, notes Dr. Mertens.  
Not punishing unwanted
behaviors can be too much of a
challenge for many owners, and
punishing aggressive behavior
exacerbates it.  Resulting stress
can impact an owner’s
connection  with the aggressor
dog which in turn may increase
pressures between dogs.  
Mertens suggests providing
the dog with the greatest
resource guarding behavior
precedence to resources when
they are not in conflict is
actually the best way to satisfy
the dog’s need to feel secure
with those resources.  Follow-
ing this advice is another
struggle for owners."
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