Preventing Resource Guarding

Resource guarding is defined as “the use of avoidance, threatening, or aggressive behaviours by a dog to retain control of food or non-food items in the presence of a person or other animal”. Now it is not just dog's that resource guard. I for one become very possessive over my food (generally towards my husband) if it is something that I don't often get and I am really looking forward to it. If his fingers so happen to even inch a little closer to that bit of chocolate I am enjoying he better watch out. And if he does succeed in stealing a piece, my heart breaks into a million pieces. To me chocolate is a delicacy because our son is anaphylaxis to dairy so I rarely get it and when I do get the fleeting moment to taste the creaminess, I want to hold onto every bit. Every animal on this planet will resource something at some stage. All animals are pre-dispositioned to resource guard. It is key to survival. 

 

Dog’s are opportunists and they don’t understand that when you take something from them, even just to move it to somewhere else, that they will get it again. That old wives tale of giving your dog food and then taking it away from them again to show them who’s boss - it’s a myth. Never ever take food away from your dog’s mouth, unless it’s for safety. All they will take away from that is A) that hands coming close when they’re eating means food goes away and that B) hey, I was really enjoying that marrow bone, and I’m still hungry. Next time I'm going to guard my bone a bit better to stop that from happening again. When in fact we actually want our dogs to associate our hands with being the best thing in the entire world.

Any dog can resource guard, but some breeds are more pre-dispositioned to it based on genetics. Over the years of training breeds such as Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Kelpies, Cocker Spaniels are common ones we have addressed it in. Poor training, situations and events, or how you have previously dealt with conflict can trigger it to happen, and so can environments such as multi-people and/or dog households. Resource guarding can also be over anything - a person, place, item, toy, not just food like majority of people think. E.g. a sock, an area of space or even a comfy spot on the lounge.

 

You can’t muck around with resource guarding as it can escalate and turn serious very quickly. Number 1 is safety. If they won’t hurt themselves by having the item or guarding the resource, use an activity to get them to do what you want, without them realising it, such as the 'Ooo What’s This? Game'. Never show interest in what they have as you will only instil more value into the stolen item. You never want to punish or discipline resource guarding as you’ll only make it worse.

To overcome resource guarding you need to simultaneously prevent the behaviour as much as possible, whilst working on training your dog to overcome resource guarding behaviours. Like parallel train tracks, we are running prevention and training at the same time. E.g. If you know your dog’s trigger/s, be smart and limit their access to those items or spaces. You also need to make sure that your dog’s history with the 'Ooo What’s This? Game' is very strong (work on building it if you need to but not on the resource guarding items just yet), to drive your dog off or away from the item, which will ensure you NEVER have to take an item off them or out of their mouth yourself. And, you want to spend time showing your puppy that hands coming towards them equals great things which we explain below with a really easy game to do with your puppy. Coming back from resource guarding is exhausting as trust has been broken and history is there. They can never unlearn what they know. I can not stress enough how important it is to spend the time and effort on preventing resource guarding. 

 

Preventing Resource Guarding.

This activity can be implemented across multiple things but we explain it through a food bowl so it is easy to understand the steps. 

  • Step 1: Get your dog’s food bowl and pop it on the ground. Put a treat in the bowl as they watch you and let your puppy eat it. The moment your puppy finishes eating it, they should look up at you for food as you were the last place they received it from, bridge the look and immediately put another treat in their bowl. Repeat over and over again. You are starting to teach your dog that you produce good things and that the only way you will get anything is through you.
     

  • Step 2: Wait for your dog to look at you. Bridge and put a treat into their bowl, but keep your hand inside the bowl or resting on the inside while they eat the treat. When your dog looks back up at you, bridge again and put another treat in the bowl and leave your hand there again. Repeat over and over again. 

 

*Troubleshooting: if puppy doesn’t look at you and wants to focus on their, that’s OK and is common. Just let them stare at the bowl. You’re looking for that hesitation - when they realise there’s no more food there. That is the moment you want to bridge and continue placing more food in the bowl. 

  • Step 3: Put a treat in their bowl and while they’re still eating it, you’re going to place another one in there - be sure to make an effort for your hand to go in the bowl to do this - as opposed to throwing it in. You should be grazing the side of their face as you come in. Continue to bring multiple in one after the other like a chain effect. Do not pat your dog during this, additional touching can be irritating to their concentration on the activity and counter productive to the positive association you are building. Repeat over and over again. 
     

  • Step 4: If you’re able to put your hand in while they’re still eating, now work on approaching. Go back to step 1 - approach, put treat in the bowl, take a few steps back while they eat it, wait for your puppy to look at you, and then come in and place another treat in the bowl. You’re going to work your way through steps 1-3 again but this time using approaching rather than your hand staying in the bowl. 
     

  • Step 5: Have food in your dog's bowl and let them eat. Approach their bowl, by now they should naturally pause eating and look to you as you provide the good stuff. When they look to you, bend down and move the bowl initially a small amount and then gradually build up the distance of the move. Bridge the moment you move it, reward your dog with something way yummier than what is in their bowl and then put their bowl down again and let them return to eating. 

This is a really easy game to do with them at mealtime. Initially I would recommend giving them half of their dinner, and once they’re half way through eating their dinner, you can work on the above steps with their other half. Your goal is to teach them that whenever you approach, you bring more not take away. If you do this correctly, your dog should love you being around, they should want you to be there and your hand near that bowl, because it means more yummy stuff is coming.
 

For the above bowl exercise start with kibble or treats that you have been rewarding them with until they understand the concept, and then you can work on doing this with higher value items like a bone. You’d work on coming up to the bone and putting something next to the bone. Now obviously if you’re working on a bone, are you going to reward with Kibble? No. Kibble isn’t high enough in value compared to a bone. You’d bring in something like cheese, BBQ chicken, a bit of sausage - because there is no way that the dog is going to appreciate your hand coming in towards that bone with kibble. Again, you’ll never take that bone away, but you will touch it, bridge and give a high value treat. And then you’ll slowly, slowly, slowly intensify it. Only once you’re 100% convinced that your dog is fine with your hand coming in while they’re eating, that’s when you can pick up the bone, bridge and reward with another really high reward. The only reason I pick it up and work up to that point with a dog is for the sole purpose that you need to move the bone not take it away. Initially, when you are up to the stage of moving it, move it a small distance away, within arm reach where your dog can watch, reward your dog heavily and then let them eat the bone again. This is to teach them that if you do need to move something like a bone, you’re going to give it back, but in addition to getting it back, they’re also going to get yummy treats in between. So in these stages, you’re never making that bone disappear, or they’ll very quickly learn that your hand means taking away.

If at any stage you notice resource guarding in your puppy and it seems to get worse despite you practising this activity, please flag it with us before it gets worse.