Eliminate Aggressive Dog Guarding Behaviors

Stop your dog’s “resource guarding,” a natural (and dangerous) behavior.

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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.

Behavior modification
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.”

Give-and-Take: A Good Game for ALL Dogs to Learn

You can help prevent resource guarding in a dog who does not display overt signs of the behavior by teaching him a give-and-take game. Note: Do not do this if your dog lunges and aggressively tries to grab treats out of your hand.

Start by offering him a toy that he likes (but is not extremely valuable to him). When he opens his mouth, say “Take It!” When he does, tell him he’s a good boy, then offer him a treat.

When he opens his mouth to take the treat and drops the toy, say “Give,” (or “Trade,” or “Share”) and let him nibble at the treat while you pick up the toy. The nibbling part is important. If you let him eat the treat and then try to pick up the toy he will race you for it, which may actually encourage resource guarding.

While he is nibbling, slowly and calmly pick up the toy.  Let him finish eating the treat, then offer him the toy again and say “Take It!” as he puts his mouth around it.

Practiced several times a day, a few repetitions at a time, this game will teach your dog the very useful behavior of “Give” on cue. He will also learn that if he gives something up to you, odds are good that he’ll get it back again, or something even better.

Troubleshooting

If he won’t take the toy: Find a toy that he likes more. If he is only a mild resource guarder (Level 3 or 4) you can even use a toy such as a Kong with a cookie inside it. Use a low-value treat (a bland cookie or cracker) in the toy, and a much higher-value treat (a piece of cheese or roast beef) for his reward.

If he won’t drop the toy for the treat: You need a much better treat. Don’t be stingy here; hard dry cookies and bits of dog kibble just may not be exciting enough to convince him to give up a toy that he likes. Even the toughest nut will usually crack for something like a piece of sardine or a baby-food hot dog.

If after a couple of times he just looks for the treat and ignores the toy: Good! You’re convincing him that the stuff you have is better than the stuff he has. That’s what you want him to think. You can either plan to do just a few repetitions each session, or you can gradually increase the value of the object he shares with you.

Once your dog has learned to play the give-and-take game, you can use it for objects other than toys. When he grabs something he shouldn’t have, such as your new Nikes or the remote control, instead of playing the “Chase” game, go get a nice treat and ask him to share. He should be happy to trade.

If your dog won’t trade you his object for the treat in your hand, or worse, starts to guard it aggressively, drop high-value treats on the ground in a trail that leads away from the object. When he drops it to follow the treat trail, wait until he is far away from it and have someone else pick it up, or leave him a large pile of treats and calmly walk back to the object and pick it up yourself. If necessary, Hansel-and-Gretel him with a treat trail into another room and close the door before you pick it up. Then reevaluate your training program to figure out where you went wrong, and consider calling in a professional to help you.

Eliminate Aggressive Dog Guarding Behaviors
Paws rushes to take a toy. Don’t use your dog’s favorite toy at first. He should want it, but not be obsessed with it.
Eliminate Aggressive Dog Guarding Behaviors
After just a couple of treats, Paws readily drops the ball for a treat. He doesn’t mind Sandi’s reach for the ball.
Eliminate Aggressive Dog Guarding Behaviors
After more repetitions, Paws doesn’t want the toy at all. That’s fine! He should anticipate rewards for sharing.
Food Bowl Desensitization

This program can take four to eight months (or longer) to rehabilitate a serious food-guarder – and even then, your dog may never become completely trustworthy. If at any point you are fearful or feel inadequate to deal with the dog, call a qualified positive professional trainer or behaviorist. This program should be implemented only by adults or very responsible older teens. Do not move to the next phase before the minimum time indicated, or before the dog’s demeanor is perfectly calm at the previous phase. Also, keep in mind that following the program outlined below does not guarantee your safety.

Phase 1: No bowl (one to two weeks)

Place the dog’s daily meal in a bowl on a counter or shelf in his feeding room. Include some high-value treats as part of the meal. Schedule several feeding sessions throughout the day. Feed him one-quarter to one-tenth of his day’s ration in each session, a piece at a time, by hand. If he lunges aggressively at your hand while feeding, tether him and feed him his meals, a piece at a time, by tossing them from just out of lunging reach. Wait until he is sitting quietly each time to toss him another piece.

Phase 2: Empty bowl, single pieces (two to four weeks)

Eliminate Aggressive Dog Guarding Behaviors
As he progresses, the dog’s expression should change from vigilant to relaxed.

Schedule several feeding sessions throughout the day. Place the dog’s daily meal in a bowl on a counter or shelf in his feeding room. Place his empty bowl on the ground at your feet. Alternate between feeding him several pieces from your hand, a piece at a time, and dropping several pieces of food, a piece at a time, into his food bowl from waist height. Wait until he has finished each piece before dropping the next.

Phase 3: Empty bowl, multiple pieces (two to four weeks)

During several feeding sessions throughout the day, place the dog’s daily meal in a bowl on a counter or shelf in his feeding room. Place his empty bowl on the ground at your feet. Drop several pieces of food into his food bowl and wait until he has finished them. Then feed him several pieces, one at a time, from your hand. Now drop several more pieces into his bowl. While he is eating those, drop more treats, one at a time, into his bowl from waist height.

Phase 4: Two partial bowls (two to four weeks)

Again, schedule several feedings throughout the day, and place the dog’s meal in a bowl on a counter or shelf in his feeding room. Put a handful of food in each of two bowls and place one bowl on the floor. Put lower-value food into the bowls; save the higher-value food for treat dropping. If you cannot safely put down the bowl in your dog’s presence, tether him, put him on a sit-stay, or shut him out of the room while you put the bowl down.

While he is eating from the first bowl, place the second bowl on the floor a safe distance away. “Safe” will depend on your dog, and could be as much as 10-15 feet or more. Err on the side of caution. Return to the first bowl and drop treats into it as he continues to eat.

When he has finished the first bowl, stop dropping treats and direct him to the second bowl. While he is eating from the second bowl, return to the first bowl and pick it up. Continue to drop treats into the bowl from which he is eating.

Over the two to four weeks of this phase, very gradually – a few inches at a time – place the bowls closer and closer together. Watch for signs of tension or aggression. If you see any, you have closed the distance too quickly; go back to the distance between bowls where he was relaxed and work at that distance for several days before moving the bowls closer together again.

Phase 5: Several partial bowls (two to four weeks)

Repeat the previous phase, using several bowls (up to six). You can prepare all the bowls at the same time and set them on the counter, but place them on the floor one at a time, while he is eating from the first bowl. Continue to drop treats into the bowl he is eating from, and occasionally pick up an empty one that is a safe distance from the dog. During this phase, reduce the number of meals to two or three. Also look for opportunities outside of feeding time to drop treats near the dog when he is in possession of other reasonably valuable items.

Phase 6: Calling the dog (two to four weeks)

Repeat Phase 5, except try to call the dog to you from a distance of six to eight feet just as he finishes the food in a bowl. Have the other bowls set out so he must pass you to go to another bowl. Be sure to give him a very high value treat when he comes to you. Gradually start asking him to come to you before he finishes the food in the bowl – first, when he is almost done, then when there is more and more left. As long as he stays relaxed, gradually move closer to the food bowl he is eating from before you call him.

Practice this phase for at least one full week before moving closer to him. Also, look for opportunities outside of feeding time to call him to you to feed him high value treats when he is in possession of other reasonably valuable items.

Phase 7: Adding people (two to six weeks)

Starting back at Phase 1, have a second person repeat the exercises. This should be another person who is close to the dog, not a child, and not a stranger. Have the person move through the phases, spending up to a week at each phase or longer if necessary. If he is doing well with a second person, add a third, then a fourth. Be sure to use people who are well-educated as to their training duties, and able to follow directions.

Phase 8: Coming out of the closet  (two to six weeks, for the rest of the dog’s life)

Again, starting back at Phase 1, move the food bowl exercises out of the dog’s feeding room into other areas of the house: the kitchen, the dining room, the den, etc. Assuming the training has been progressing well, you should be able to move through the phases relatively quickly. Continue to look for other real-life resource-relevant opportunities to reinforce the message that your presence means more good stuff. Remember that, depending on the success of your desensitization program, your resource-guarding dog may never be totally reliable in the presence of valuable items. For the rest of your dog’s life, always be aware of the environment and be prepared to intervene if there is a potential risk.

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WDJ's Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.

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