Dusty, our diminutive eight-pound Pomeranian, grabs a chew-hoof and darts under the coffee table with his prize. Tucker, the 75-pound Cattle Dog-mix approaches, eyeing the hoof covetously. Dusty curls his lip and emits a surprisingly convincing growl for such a tiny canine. Despite the fact that he could easily take the hoof away from the much smaller dog, Tucker backs off, leaving Dusty to chew in peace. We watch, and chuckle at the mini-drama that plays out in our living room almost daily.
It’s most common for dogs to defend their food, but edible items are not the only things that dogs will keep from all potential rivals. Some dogs will defend their “ownership” of toys, a favored place to sleep, or the water bowl. Behaviorists and dog trainers call these protective behaviors “resource guarding.”
A dog who defends his food from other dogs is exhibiting a perfectly normal and appropriate canine behavior. In the wild, where food supply equals life, the dog who gives up his food easily has a poor chance for survival. Because survival of individuals is important for survival of the pack, higher ranking pack members often, although not always, subscribe to a “possession is nine-tenths of the law” philosophy. It’s generally not worth the risk of injury to a pack member to argue over a bit of food or bone.
Guarding from humans
Resource guarding is far less acceptable, of course, when it’s directed toward us. For our own safety, we want dogs to understand that everything they have is really ours. But dogs are probably somewhat confused by our species’ apparent ignorance of the “nine-tenths” rule. Accommodating creatures that they are, most dogs learn to give up coveted possessions to their owners without much of a fuss, but from time to time one of our canine pals decides to aggressively assert his ownership rights to something: a precious toy, a tasty rawhide chew, or a bowl of food. If this describes your dog, you have a serious problem on your hands.
Identify objects of dispute
The more specific the guarding, the easier the behavior is to manage. If your dog only guards truffles, say, you’re pretty safe – at $20 per pound, your dog won’t often stumble across a forgotten pile of the costly fungus. If anything remotely edible falls into his definition of “guardable,” however, you have a much bigger challenge.
Generalized food guarding is the most common manifestation of resource guarding, and often the most dangerous, since it is virtually impossible to control the presence of food in the dog’s environment. No matter how diligent you are, he will inevitably find a cookie that fell between the cracks of the sofa, a bag of fast-food remnants in the gutter, or a deposit of kitty-poo in the garden. (While we may not consider cat poop to be edible, to a dog, anything consumable is food.)
Determine extent of guarding
Resource guarding describes a continuum of behaviors, all of which indicate that a dog is not comfortable with the presence of you or some other human in his “space” while he is in possession of a valuable article. Let’s look at a description of various food-guarding behaviors, from those that pose no risk to the dog’s human companions to those that pose a grave risk:
Level 1: The ideal and safest response when you approach Fido at his food bowl is that he stops eating, wags his tail, and comes over to greet you. He is telling you that he doesn’t perceive you as a threat to his food, or if he does, he doesn’t care. The food’s not all that important to him; he’d be happy to share it with you.
Level 2: A slightly less perfect but still very safe reaction is that Fido looks at you, wags his tail, and continues eating, but is still relaxed about your presence in the food zone.
Level 3: The first sign of discomfort on Fido’s part is usually a slight tensing of his body as you approach. He may also wag his tail. However, if the speed of the wag increases as you get closer to him and the amount of tension in his body, he is communicating that your presence near his resources makes him uncomfortable.
Level 4: As the dog’s discomfort escalates, so does his behavior. At the next level you are likely to see a glare in his eye when he looks at you, perhaps a lifting of the lip in a snarl, maybe a low growl, and an obvious increase in eating speed. One very effective way to prevent you from getting any of his food is for him to eat it quickly.
Level 5: If the food is portable, such as a chew-hoof or pig ear, at this level, the dog may carry the item under a chair, a bed, or into his crate, then growl at you when you come too near. If he can’t pick it up, he may try to push the food bowl farther away from you when you continue to trespass.
Level 6: A serious food-guarder is more than willing to put some teeth into his warnings. A snap is the next step on the continuum – no contact with your flesh, but a no-uncertain-terms statement that Fido is not prepared to share his food with you.
Level 7: As Fido’s protectiveness increases, so does the threat to your safety (or the safety of the child passing by). More serious than a snap is the actual bite. Rarely does a food-guarding bite not break skin – the contact is usually very quick and hard, and may consist of several puncturing bites that move up the transgressor’s arm or face.
Level 8: Severe food guarding can be triggered even at a distance. At the strongest level, even a person on the far side of the room can be perceived as a threat to the highly valued food or item, and the dog’s behavior can escalate very quickly and alarmingly with a seemingly innocuous movement, even from far away.
The key to winning the resource guarding battle lies in:
1.) excellent management of guardable resources in the dog’s presence, and
2.) convincing the dog that your presence is not a threat to his food supply.
Rather, he needs to see you as the welcome harbinger of all delicious consumables. Your presence near your dog should be a reliable predictor of the advent of more good stuff, not less. Your role as benevolent distributor of valuable resources is the foundation of your behavior management and modification program.
The good news is that not all dogs who display low levels of guarding behavior will advance to higher levels. The behavior you see may be the worst that they ever offer, especially if you implement a behavior modification program before the response escalates. The prognosis for successful behavior modification improves greatly if you begin a program as soon as possible.
The bad news is that higher level dogs don’t necessarily give you lower level warnings before they launch an attack. Higher levels of resource guarding can be very challenging to modify. Meanwhile, the behavior presents an extremely high risk of injury to those around the dog, especially children.
A skilled and knowledgeable owner may be able to effectively modify food guarding behavior up to Level 4 or 5. Anything beyond that definitely begs the assistance of a qualified trainer or behaviorist. A person who is not confident about working with the dog’s behavior at lower levels, or who tries and does not make progress, should also seek professional help with the dog.
It can be a lot of work to manage and modify the behavior of a resource-guarder. You will have to:
• Manage the behavior through resource control unless and until the behavior has been completely and successfully modified. You must identify and remove all potential guarding triggers. Food bowls, even empty ones, should not be left lying on the floor. Stuffed Kongs, favorite toys, balls, pillows – anything that triggers even a mild possession response – needs to be put away, and given to the dog only in very controlled circumstances.
• Relocate the dog’s feeding area from a high traffic area to a low one to minimize risk. A dog regularly fed in the kitchen may guard the entire room. A dog fed on the back porch may guard the entire yard. Choose a little-used room, at least 10 feet wide, that visitors are not likely to stumble into, such as the basement office or the pantry.
• Spend two to four weeks preparing your dog for the program. Feed two to three times a day. Confine him away from the feeding area. Place the food bowl in the feeding room, bring the dog to the room, leave the room, and close the door until he has finished eating, up to 30 minutes.
• Attend a positive dog training class using a variety of desirable food treats as rewards. (Do not do this if your dog lunges aggressively for food in your hand). Be sure to let the trainer know that your dog is a resource-guarder.
• Implement a “Nothing in Life is Free” program, where the dog has to earn all good things. Have him sit or lie down in order to get anything he wants, including food, toys, attention, and going outside to play.
• Exercise him more. A tired dog is a well-behaved dog. Weather permitting, three to four 15-20 minute tongue-dragging sessions of fetch can work wonders in reducing inappropriate behaviors. Watch out for heat stroke; do not overdo exercise in hot weather. Spend more time with the dog in general, doing things that you both enjoy.
• Identify and avoid situations that trigger aggression.
• Teach the dog to “Give” on cue (see “Give-and-Take,” page 13).
• Avoid punishing the dog should a food-guarding or other aggressive incident occur.
• Implement a desensitization program (see sidebar, below) after two to four weeks of doing all of the above. This complete program can take four to eight months or longer.
The final outcome
Some dogs are successfully and completely rehabilitated through resource guarding modification programs, especially those who exhibit only the lower level behaviors. Many are not. There is a strong likelihood that you will always need to reinforce your resource guarder’s new nonguarding behavior, and avoid situations that could retrigger the guarding.
Because small children almost always come with food – cookies, crackers, etc. – and they are naturally closer to the dog’s own level, many prior resource guarders are never trustworthy around children. Of course, dogs and small children should never be left together unsupervised, but this goes far beyond that. Many families understandably choose to rehome their resource-guarding dogs rather than risk a serious bite. Of course, finding a good home for a dog with a history of aggression is yet another big challenge.
Rehabilitating a resource guarder can take a huge commitment of time, resources, and emotion. Throughout the program, you, other family members, and visitors to your home are at risk of being bitten if there are inadvertent slips in the program.
We applaud responsible dog owners who are willing to make the commitment required to change their dogs’ behaviors. We also urge them to think long and hard about their commitment and liablility, and to be realistic about whether they are able to do what it takes to ensure the safety of others during the process of reprogramming a resource-guarder. And we cheer when we receive reports from those who have been successful in getting their dogs to “share.”
-by Pat Miller
Pat Miller is a freelance author and a professional dog trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.