Resource guarding (or often known as food aggression) is a type of dog behavior problem that can be described as a form of dog aggression and can be seriously dangerous for anyone close to the object, person, animal, or whatever represents a valuable resource from the dog’s perspective.
There are multiple reasons why dogs can start protecting these valuables, so in order to fully understand how to deal with this issue, and how to prevent it in the first place, we need to learn a little more about why and how it starts.
How does resource guarding start?
Resource guarding is actually a natural animal instinct. It primarily appears in the presence of food, but other forms of resource guarding can occur as well. One of these other forms, for example, occurs during the mating season when males tend to protect (or guard) females from other males, females protecting pups can also be considered a form of resource guarding.
There are a few different factors to which resource guarding becomes a dog behavior problem:
- A dog’s temperament
- The environment
- Early puppyhood
- Classically conditioned resource guarding
Many dogs start displaying resource guarding or food aggression patterns within their first few weeks of life, and most litters have at least one (or more puppies) that will develop this particular dog behavior problem later on in life, there are a few reasons why this is.
A dog’s temperament, and physical, psychological and social development will play an important role, for example, a fearful based puppy, or a weak puppy that has difficulties keeping up with the rest of the litter will often develop stronger aggressive/defensive patterns in order to protect a valuable resource from the rest of the litter.
A poorly structured environment with a lack of social activities, and mental stimulation, or environments with a lack of items will often increase the need for defending the items and resources, in general.
How do we contribute to this behavior issue?
Maybe one of the biggest factors can still be attributed to the human/dog relationship. Due to the mistakes we make, we often create conflicting situations which increases our dog’s possessiveness which is one of the sources of resource guarding behavior problems.
In most cases we create two conflicting scenarios revolved around two common activities:
During puppyhood, puppies will often pick up items like shoes or other things that may be valuable to you and most people will normally react by quickly approaching the dog, then taking the item from his mouth, and giving some form of correction (in most cases social pressure) and leave with it.
What this does is create a conflict. You think that the dog will learn the lesson and leave that object alone in the future, but most dogs see this action as a form of attack in which the only purpose was to take that valuable item away from him. Next time, he may decide to guard it better, or he will start running away from you when you try taking an item from his mouth.
Instead of conflicting or competing with your dog for an item, offer an exchange for another item or for treats. This gives your dog the message that he can always get more valuable items from you in exchange for the one he has, and this will encourage him to hand over an item to you without any conflict or fight.
The second common scenario that many dog owners try, is taking the food bowl away while their dog is eating. For some reason, many dog owners are under the impression that they should be able to take their dog’s food from him while he is eating, without the dog reacting to it.
Is this correct and important?
This is a very important exercise; but not for the reason of proving that you have the ability to do it, or that you are the “Alpha leader” but instead, so that you can comfortably approach your dog and take an item that could potentially be dangerous to your dog. How you approach this exercise; will make all the difference in its success.
Bending down, reaching for the bowl with your hands and making your dog actually step back in order for you to claim the bowl is actually a direct attack to take food away (or at least this is what the dog sees). In the animal world, there is no such thing as taking food away in order to return it once again; taking away food, in most cases, means fighting for it.
In order to help prevent the development of food aggression issues, simply exercise with your puppy by giving him an empty food bowl and then gradually put a few of his dog kibbles into the bowl with your hand, a few at a time, combined with feeding him from your hand. This is a non-confrontational way to “explain” to your dog that there is no need to fight for food. You can then take the bowl, put a few kibbles into it and put it back on the ground. Later, you can pick up the bowl while the dog is eating and put it back down without any conflict. Your dog will know that you are not trying to take the food away from him.
TIP: Even if you manage to over-power your dog in the “taking the food away” conflict, and your dog learns not to react to you when you are doing this, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will allow that action by other family members or people that may come to visit or that happen to be around while the dog is eating.
Paying attention to detail
Everything in a dog’s world is about details, including the behaviors surrounding the guarding or protection of resources. In most cases, the object or the position of the object will actually trigger this negative behavior. In the case of a food bowl or smaller item (like toys) the position of the dog over the item (with his front paws or when the item is between his paws when he is laying down) is actually the trigger for the behavior.
The majority of dogs are actually fine if you are holding the food bowl up in your hands and he is eating from it, or if you are holding a toy filled with peanut butter, for example. But as soon as the item touches the ground you can see the transformation from a peaceful dog to a seriously dangerous animal.
It is important to know this in order to address the dog’s environment (by removing the objects that your dog guards when you are not working on resolving the issue), or to understand and identify which situations will probably provoke these guarding patterns.
Resource guarding levels
There are a few levels of resource guarding and they are distinguished by the severity of the behavior while guarding the item.
They are divided into:
- Mild symptoms
- Medium symptoms
- High symptoms
Mild resource guarding symptoms would be considered to be a body language in which a dog either steps with his front paws over the object, steps in front of it, or places his body sideways between the possible threat and the object.
Growling or barking are common vocal signals that dogs use to inform the person or animal that they have the intention of protecting the item and that the threat had better back away.
TIP: No matter how mild the signals are that the dog gives, it is not recommended to continue forward ignoring the signals. This can only be done by a professional dog expert and only in certain circumstances that will allow for a particular approach; otherwise you are risking a possible attack and injuries. Mild dog signals don’t necessarily mean that the dog won’t defend his valuable item with the highest level of aggression.
As mentioned above this is a serious and dangerous dog behavior issue and I wouldn’t recommend dealing with it on your own, especially if you don’t know what to do or how to do it. Contacting a dog professional for advice and guidance may save you and your dog unnecessary trouble.
The higher the level of resource guarding is, the higher the level of symptoms and possible reaction from the dog. In most cases, the higher the level is, the sooner your dog will start to react, therefore asking for a larger distance between the threat and the valuable item.
TIP: It is important to keep this in mind. The distance, at which the dog will not react and launch at us (in order to defend his item), is not to be determined by us, this is all about the dog and his comfort level. Just like every other dog behavior, this issue will grow if the dog is exposed to an environment that supports the behavior and if not appropriately addressed.
Is resource guarding a dog dominance issue?
Dog dominance rarely (if ever) has anything to do with resource guarding issues. However, resource guarding is related to a lack of relationship and trust. In most cases, this aggression and protection is displayed toward the immediate family. Many dog behavior problems, including this one, can be avoided if the dog is properly socialized during the first four months of his life and he doesn’t perceive humans as a threat.
Dealing with a resource guarding dog behavior problem
Before we go into any details about how to deal with resource guarding issues, I will repeat the caution and warning with a “don’t try this at home” label.
Resource guarding is a serious issue and can be extremely dangerous. A dog that displays these behavior patterns, in most cases, will attack if provoked. Please contact an expert to help you in dealing with this dog behavior problem.
TIP: Regardless of the level of signals that a dog gives, his strike can still be powerful, dangerous and damaging just as much so, as a dog that displays a higher level of warning signs (barking, growling, launching, etc.)
The number one step in dealing with resource guarding issues would be the prevention of them. This is easiest to do with a puppy, and the whole base of the exercises is to present yourself in a non-confrontational way, and for the dog to understand that leaving the item in question does not necessarily equal losing it, just like described above with the food/item scenarios.
Now it is more difficult when you are actually dealing with an adult dog that has already established resource guarding patterns. The actual steps when dealing with this issue have to be non-confrontational ones. The best approach is:
Your relationship is number one, and an equally important part as any other mentioned above. Your dog needs to trust you. If you build a good solid relationship, it will be easier to present yourself in a non- confrontational way. It is also proven that the better the relationship between the handler and his dog is, the lower the possibility of aggressiveness towards the handler. The better the relationship is, the more “forgiving” the dog is.
Obedience training (or training tricks) is the next important step. Of course this has to be a reward based training concept and clicker (marker) training is the best one because it will train you and your dog a communication language that you can use outside of the obedience work (or training tricks).
The purpose of this is to teach your dog a few important things:
- The dog learns to work for you in order to access valuable resources (food, toys, etc.)
- You always have the resources, so in order for the dog to access them he needs to go through you, meaning he needs to do something in a non-confrontational way in order to access a reward.
- The dog learns the concept of patience and how to contain himself and his behaviors (through a lot of repetitions and errors where the dog doesn’t earn a reward, etc.).
Once you have these two steps established, it will be much easier to deal with the resource guarding situations themselves. Once you are ready (and you have the help of a dog expert) you can proceed with desensitizing and counter conditioning.
Just like any other steps and exercises in the desensitizing and counter conditioning technique, you will first need to make a list of triggers, then work from that point, (determine the safety distance, break the exercise into levels, etc.).
This is a time-consuming process that will require a lot of repetitions, but once your dog realizes that you are not representing a threat, and that the triggers that were classically conditioned before to be an aggressive response, are now dealt with in a different approach, the resource guarding issue will start changing into a more appropriate behavior.
TIP: It is important to minimize (or completely eliminate) any conflicting situations during the times that you are not actively working on the issue. The more often that the dog practices the aggressive response to the triggers, the more he will strengthen his resource guarding behaviors, and the more time it will take to resolve this issue. Control the dog’s environment in order to prevent this.
Corrections and resource guarding
Corrections are not something to be applied when dealing with resource guarding issues. From the dog’s perspective, you are already attacking him in order to take a valuable resource away from him. Therefore the result of using a correction will be that either your dog will become even more aggressive in order to protect his resource, or the severity of the correction will be so strong that the dog will leave the object, but this will have a tremendously negative impact on your overall relationship and trust, etc.
A resource guarding issue is already a trust, relationship and conflict-related problem, so adding corrections into this picture is nothing more than adding more problems.
By adding corrections, your dog will not learn to guard the object any less than he was doing before the correction, what he will learn is to either run away with the item when he sees you approaching (which may later become an issue as the dog may start avoiding you every time that you are walking towards him), or he may learn to leave the item, which may make you think that the issue is resolved, but the dog may still react with someone else.
By doing this you are seriously jeopardizing the security of everyone who approaches the dog in the presence of the trigger.There are many more reasons why not to use corrections to deal with a dog’s resource guarding issue; hopefully these ones listed above are enough to warn you about the possible consequences.
TIP: Keep in mind that resource guarding is a serious deal and your best bet is to contact a dog expert to assist you in resolving this issue.
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