[Updated August 9, 2017]
The term “resource-guarding” sends a chill through most canine behavior professionals. This is because they understand that the aggression a dog displays when guarding a valuable resource can lead to a serious injury to a human in any future home of that dog. And because of this, a display of the behavior means an almost certain death sentence for that dog, especially if the guarding occurs during a behavioral assessment of a dog in a shelter or rescue. But should resource-guarding trigger such drastic reactions? There is a growing body of evidence that perhaps we’ve been overreacting all these years.
Resource guarding is, in fact, a natural, normal canine behavior, and an important survival strategy. For a wild animal, loss of important resources can mean death. If they allowed other dogs – or any other animal who happened along as they were eating – to take their food away, they wouldn’t live long enough for the species to survive! So how did a natural, normal behavior come to be so demonized that countless dogs have lost their lives as a result?
Resource Guarding Assessment Protocols
Prior to the 1990s, assessments of canine behavior were conducted at shelters on a haphazard basis, if at all. At the time, when some 18 million homeless dogs and cats were euthanized at shelters annually, any presentation of aggression, including resource-guarding, was enough reason to land a dog on the euthanasia list.
As spay and neuter efforts and other education programs became increasingly effective, shelter numbers started to decline, and many animal protection professionals were able to begin making more thoughtful and measured decisions through more standardized assessment processes. Still, the often-dramatic responses dogs can offer when protecting their valuables continued to make it highly likely that a dog who guarded was selected for euthanasia. And since “resource-guarding” had a bad name as an easily identifiable trigger for aggression, even less intense guarding responses were still likely to result in the dog’s death.
In the 1990s, a couple of standardized assessment protocols became popular among animal shelter staffers. One was developed by dog training professional Sue Sternberg, who was at one time employed by the ASPCA in New York City, where one of her responsibilities was assessing dogs for adoption. In 1993, Sternberg established a private animal shelter, the Roundout Valley Animals for Adoption, in upstate New York. In the same time frame, she became a popular presenter in dog training and animal sheltering circles on the value of using a standardized assessment protocol to evaluate dogs for adoption, in order to protect the public and help make better adoption matches. She offered her own protocol as a model that other professionals could use as-is, or as a starting place for development of their own protocol.
Part of Sternberg’s “Assess-A-Pet” protocol was a resource-guarding assessment, using a tool she called the “Assess-A-Hand” – a fake rubber hand mounted at the end of a stick (to put a bit of distance between the dog’s teeth and the person doing the assessing). The fake hand would be used near the canine assessment subject, to determine his response if approached by a human while in possession of a valuable resource.
Another popular protocol was developed and promoted by Dr. Emily Weiss, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and the Senior Director of Research and Development for the ASPCA. Her protocol, the Safety Assessment For Evaluating Rehoming (SAFER Test), includes Sternberg’s Assess-A-Hand resource-guarding test.
As animal protection professionals became convinced of the value and importance of assessing adoption dogs in order to ensure public safety, it seemed logical to refrain from placing dogs who demonstrated overt, identifiable aggressive behaviors, including guarding. The overreaction – euthanasia of all dogs who displayed any signs of resource-guarding, stemmed from a well-meaning desire to not put adopters at risk. But it was, in fact, an overreaction.
For eight years, I volunteered at the nearby Humane Society of Washington County. We assessed dogs using a modified version of a protocol developed by Kelly Bollen for her master’s thesis. Bollen’s protocol was a modified version of Sue Sternberg’s, and also included the resource-guarding test.
When I started volunteering there in 2004, any sign of resource-guarding resulted in euthanasia for the dog. By the time I left in 2012, we had created a range of outcomes for dogs who displayed any amount of guarding on the continuum of guarding behavior, and only the most extreme cases were euthanized (see table on page 23).
Because resource-guarding behaviors can often be managed or modified, thoughtful placement on the continuum, paired with appropriate options for dogs of each designation, helped determine positive outcomes for more dogs. Some of the options included careful placement in an experienced home without small children, behavior-modification work in a foster home prior to placement, and transfer to a rescue group with the resources to manage and modify the behavior.
Of course, each shelter and rescue organization has its own tolerance for risk, and has to make its own decisions about what level of guarding they feel is suitable for placement.
Managing a Dog’s Guarding Behavior
Three of my four current dogs (all adopted from shelters) will readily guard resources, both from other dogs and humans. Because we have no small children in our home, and because my husband Paul and I are knowledgeable and capable canine caretakers, we choose to mostly manage rather than modify our dogs’ behaviors.
Our management of the dogs’ guarding behavior includes feeding Scooter, our Pomeranian, in a separate room with the door closed, and monitoring the other three while they eat. We also separate the dogs when we give them high-value chews, using crates, baby gates, and closed doors. Also, we always ask them to trade for a treat when we need to take something from them, as opposed to trying to grab it from their mouths – a good idea even if your dog doesn’t guard.
If you are considering the management option for your resource-guarder, critically evaluate your home environment to determine if management is truly a realistic long-term solution. Here are some of the factors that would suggest behavior modification might be needed in addition to management:
– Children live in or regularly visit the home.
– One of more adults living in the home will not dependably adhere to management protocols.
– Dog’s guarding behavior is fierce and unpredictable (will guard random dropped/found objects, not just food).
If you decide that your dog needs some behavior modification, remember that for at least the short term, you will also need to put stringent management measures in place. While management always carries the possibility of failure, the more you do to reduce that possibility, the safer everyone in the home, canine and human, will be.
Modifying Your Dog’s Resource Guarding
Dogs guard resources because they fear losing them. Sometimes the fear is learned through experience; someone has been taking valuable resources away from the dog. Some silly humans seem to think they have an absolute right to take anything away from their dogs at anytime, and their dogs should let them, without protest. That’s a terrific way to create a resource-guarding behavior. It’s rude to grab something from someone; we learned that in kindergarten, right? I would no more rudely grab something from a dog than I would from another human. (However, I teach all of my dogs to politely give up valued food or toys, by trading them for even better ones.
Other dogs are “guardy” from a very early age, even absent known encounters with rude, resource-grabbing humans. Even six- to eight-week-old puppies can show resource-guarding behavior to their littermates and to humans.
Either way, our goal is to convince dogs that a human approaching them when they are in possession of a resource is not a threat to their resource, but rather, predicts the arrival of more good stuff!
Caveat: If your dog has caused serious injury to a person or another animal, or you are not comfortable implementing this protocol on your own, please seek the assistance of a qualified positive behavior professional.
Here is my favorite protocol for modifying resource-guarding behavior. If at any time as you work through these steps, your dog growls or exhibits any other guarding behavior, you are too close and/or have proceeded too quickly.
How to Modifying a Dog’s Resource-Guarding Behavior:
1. Prepare an ample supply of high-value treats that you can toss. Small bits of cheese or meat work well.
2. Tether your dog to an eye bolt affixed to the wall for that purpose, or to a solid, heavy object. Give him a valuable chew object (not a Kong – it will roll out of his reach!), or a small bowl of food.
3. As your dog chews or eats, walk past him, taking care to stay at a safe distance from him. This may be six to eight feet beyond the end of the tether, or it may be closer. As you pass, toss several treats where he can easily reach them, near the bowl or chewie. Keep walking; do not pause to toss the treats. If your dog growls, lunges, or shows other obvious guarding behavior, you are too close.
4. Repeat Step 3 until, as you approach, you see your dog starting to look up in happy anticipation of the treats you are going to toss. When he does this consistently, decrease the distance between you by a few inches on your next passes.
5. Continue passing by and dropping treats, gradually decreasing the distance between you and your dog when you see that he is consistently happy (not showing any stiffness or signs of guarding) at each new distance.
6. When he is happy with you walking past at a distance close enough to touch him, pause as you pass, feed him a treat from your hand, then walk on.
7. When he stays happy with your pause-and-feed, gradually increase the length of time you pause and feed him. The increase should be no more than 1-2 seconds. As you increase the length of your pause, start talking to him in a happy voice as you feed him.
8. When you can pause for 10 seconds and he stays happy, occasionally bend slightly and drop a treat into his bowl or next to his chewie, then feed some more from your hand and walk on.
9. Repeat, gradually increasing the number of times you bend and drop treats for him.
10. Now gradually increase how much you bend over until you can touch the bowl or chewie. Remember, if you see any sign of tension you have moved too quickly. Back up a few steps and continue more slowly from there.
11. Finally, as you are pausing, bending, and feeding him, occasionally play the “trade game” (as described on previous page), always returning the bowl or object to him after he has happily allowed you to take it.
12. Now start the protocol over again at Step 1, with another person in your family serving as the passerby. Choose only an adult (or near-adult) who can follow your explicit instructions. Continue until your dog is comfortable with all family members approaching him, then repeat with trustworthy visitors, again starting with Step 1.
Most important, if you see guarding behavior in your dog, or you’re considering adopting a shelter dog who may have some resource-guarding behaviors, don’t panic. Your dog isn’t evil, he’s just expressing his desire to maintain possession of something he finds valuable. In fact, recent studies indicate that resource-guarding behavior identified in behavior assessments is less of a problem in adoptive homes than shelter workers have feared for decades. So relax, consider the behavior from your dog’s perspective, empathize, and start teaching him that you’re not a threat to his good stuff.
Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center, where she offers dog-training classes and courses for trainers. She is also the author of many books on positive training.