MINE! Understanding and Working with Resource
Guarding, copyright (c) 2021 Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.
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, motivations 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 circumvent 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
- 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
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 Manage 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.
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.
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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copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
|" How owners deal with resource
guarders can add to the problem
...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...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."
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copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen