Changing a Resource-Guarder

Until recently, food-guarders would be euthanized by most shelters. But attitudes about guarding are changing, because we now know the behavior can be managed or modified.

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Resource-guarding – that is, protecting valuable possessions – is a natural, normal canine behavior. Yet at some point we humans developed the arrogant and misguided belief that we should have the right to take anything away from our dogs, any time we darn well please, and our dogs should have no right to object. Dogs who attempt to protect their valuable resources in their humans’ home tend to be punished, sometimes severely. 

Until very recently, shelter dogs who exhibit resource-guarding were almost always met with a more permanent outcome: euthanasia. 

Should dogs really be met with cruelty or death because they’d prefer not to share their food, toys, or bed? 

I’m a passionate advocate for families who want to adopt from a shelter and want a dog who won’t hurt other members of their family. But I also believe that many dogs who exhibit resource-guarding in the highly stressful environment of a shelter can be safely incorporated into many family homes. 

ASSESSING GUARDING IN A SHELTER

Most shelters use some sort of behavior assessment, formal and structured or informal and ad hoc, to determine which unclaimed or relinquished dogs should advance to the shelter’s adoption program or be designated for behavior modification, and which should be deemed “unadoptable.” In recent years, the behavior assessments that are most widely employed by shelters have come under fire due to studies that suggest that they are not predictive and not replicable. 

“Not predictive” refers to the studies’ findings that behaviors presented by dogs during a shelter assessment are very often never seen in the adoptive home – and, conversely, behaviors not seen in the shelter assessment often do occur after dogs are placed in homes. 

“Not replicable” means that results of one shelter staff person’s assessment of a dog may be entirely different if the same dog is assessed by a different person, or on a different day. Both of these flaws put the validity of the assessment tools into question.

In our view, given that aggression is caused by stress, and even the best shelter in the world is a stressful place for almost any dog, it’s not surprising that a stressed shelter dog might be more likely to snap and snarl when pressured in the presence of a high-value resource – or in response to some of the other provocative procedures in an assessment. 

The findings of recent studies about assessments put responsible shelters in a difficult position. How do they best ensure they are not putting dangerous dogs into the hands of the public if they cannot trust the results of their assessment protocols? There are no easy answers – but there are things that shelters can do to keep from killing dogs who are unlikely to cause harm after being adopted into a family environment:

* Realize that resource-guarding is, indeed, a natural and normal canine behavior, especially for a dog who is living in a stressful environment. 

* Be more forgiving when a dog exhibits some tension over a valuable resource during the assessment process. Rather than an immediate “You failed!” response when a dog tenses or growls, gently pursue the process (assuming a fake hand is being used). During my long career working with shelters and doing assessments, I have seen a significant number of dogs de-escalate their level of tension when the assessor remained calm and continued the process with gentle persistence.

* Recognize that a dog who stiffens and growls during the procedure is communicating, not attacking. She is saying, “This is mine and I don’t want to share.” If you proceed (inappropriately, in her estimation) after giving you a polite warning, she may escalate to a more intense, “I really mean it; this is mine and you can’t have it.” Though her behavior may seem aggressive to inexperienced dog owners, the dog is actually showing admirable restraint and still may be a good adoption candidate for an appropriate home, without further intervention needed. 

* If the shelter is uncomfortable placing dogs who exhibit the kind of behavior described above, its management could establish a behavioral foster program. Staff and/or volunteers who are knowledgeable and capable of working with behaviorally challenging dogs can assess and work to modify their guarding behavior in the shelter. 

Alternatively, the dog could be placed in a foster home (with one of those experienced dog-savvy volunteers or staff members) to see if this is one of those behaviors that ceases when the dog is no longer dealing with the stress of the shelter environment.

* Continue to consider dogs who show an extreme response to a reasonably mild threat to their resources as not-adoptable, unless the shelter has the expertise and resources to do significant behavior modification.

The shelter that I worked with a few years ago created a continuum that spelled out how dogs who offered varying degrees of resource-guarding behavior would be handled (see the table below). Each possible response corresponded with a specific recommendation. As a result, they began safely and successfully placing many dogs who, previously, would have been euthanized.

Shelter Assessment Resource-Guarding Continuum

This table is an assessment form for a resource-guarding evaluation.
The left column describes possible responses that a dog might exhibit to a test in which the dog is given a valuable resource, such as canned food or a favorite toy, and then a handler attempts (with an artificial hand on a stick) to take the resource from the dog.  

 Dogs who display behaviors marked on the “Shares easily” end of the spectrum could be placed in any home. If their responses were marked somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, they were placed for adoption with restrictions (such as “no small children” or “experienced home only”), moved to the shelter’s behavioral foster program, or sent to a known rescue with behavior modification resources. If, however, their behavior was judged to match the most extreme descriptions at the “Guards Resource” end of the spectrum, they would be judged a candidate for euthanasia.

WORKING WITH A DOG WHO GUARDS

Today, progressive trainers and shelter managers are aware that resource-guarding behavior can be managed, modified, and/or minimized. It requires understanding that this is a natural, normal canine behavior; a willingness to modify the dog’s environment in order to set him up for success; and, depending on the degree of drama that the dog brings to his guarding, a bit of work. 

This 10-pound dog displayed dramatic resource-guarding behavior when he was inherited by WDJ Editor Nancy Kerns through a relative, he might have been euthanized on the basis of this had he landed in a shelter, instead. But in a dog-savvy home without children or other vulnerable people, this behavior was just ignored or managed. He was very small, after all and not a real threat. If someone needed to take something away from him, they would trade him a treat – easy!

From the outset, adopters of all dogs (not just those with a history of guarding) need to be educated that the concept “I should be able to take anything away from my dog” is false and dangerous. 

Then, whether the dog is living in a shelter or in a home, the first critical task is to make sure that no one (purposely or unwittingly) antagonizes the dog into aggressive behavior. All staff and volunteers or family members need to be thoroughly trained on procedures for working with the dog and minimizing guarding behavior; obviously, only staff or family members who are capable of and committed to staying cognizant and alert to these procedures should be allowed in the dog’s proximity. 

When handling any item that has any value for the dog, people need to learn how to safely trade with the dog for anything he might covet, including bowls, toys, or anything he might have randomly grabbed, such as a dropped cell phone or keys (see “Protocol for a Safe Trade” on the next page).

When circumstances prevent a trade from taking place, the dog’s handlers should manage the environment to prevent the dog from having an opportunity to guard. For example, in a shelter, the staff might be instructed to move the dog to the other side of a double-sided kennel (and closing the door between them) before picking up items in the kennel; in a home, Mom would be instructed to put the dog outside before she picked up his empty food bowl. 

YOU CAN MANAGE

Most resource-guarding behavior is much more easily managed or modified than once thought. In an appropriate adoption home, with family members mature and committed enough to adhere to management protocols, resource-guarding doesn’t have to be an issue at all. 

The same is true in a shelter with adequate understanding and resources. Complications arise with young or careless handlers, those who resist the new understanding of guarding behavior, and/or those who may deliberately undermine management protocols. 

Nevertheless, the time is long past for resource-guarding to be a capital offense for our canine companions. Dogs have a right to want to keep their good stuff. Manage the home or shelter environment so stress and conflicts over resources don’t have to occur. Implement “Trade” and guarding behavior modification protocols as needed to keep everyone safe and happy. And let them live. 

Thanks to Jacob Paxson of The Canine Connection in Chico, California, who demonstrated the do’s and don’ts of the “Trade” protocol.

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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.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve had many rescue dogs share my life for over 45 years – including 3 who were described as non-adoptable. Each adoption has been a 100% success from my viewpoint and I believe, from each dog’s viewpoint too.
    I’ve always believed that a dog has an absolute right to have his/her meal undisturbed by anyone. I’m a reasonably domesticated human being yet I would definitely snarl if someone prodded my dinner with a plastic hand and I believe that every dog has an absolute right to resist anyone interrupting his/her meal in that way! That reputable rescue societies ever had a policy of ‘testing’ an animal in that way is quite extraordinary – I feel really angry every time I even think of that – and I’m very happy to learn that it’s now being seen as old-fashioned, inhumane and barbaric.
    Dogs deserve our respect and basic ‘good manners’ and when treated that way, they always respond.

    • I agree with Lorna Lake 100%! I also want to add that many dogs that end up in shelters have faced disturbing circumstances. Many of these dogs came from neglectful and abusive backgrounds where they, perhaps, did not get enough to eat or were not fed regularly as they should have been. These dogs, and cats too, will be, naturally, protective of their food. They should not be punished for this. As Lorna said, “Dogs deserve our respect and basic ‘good manners’ and when treated that way, they always respond.” We learned this first hand when we adopted a dog from an abusive home. As we were leaving, the woman said, “Don’t leave him alone in your living room or he’ll eat your couch.” She showed us the arm of one of her chairs–gone. As we were leaving with the dog, both she and her ignorant husband said, “Good riddance you son of a b**ch.” We brought that dog home and loved him for 17 years. He never destroyed a thing in our house and he got over growling when on of our other pets looked at his food. It’s all in how much compassion and love you give to the dog.

    • What makes me angry is that those tests have been shown to have absolutely no reliability and validity whatsoever. These tests are no better than playing eenie-meenie-miney-moe with dogs’ lives. We’ve taken any many dogs that failed the resource guarding portion of the test and have found that either they weren’t resource guarders at all or that they could be worked with and overcome their resource guarding issues. And humans are resource guarders–do you lock your home and your car? Then you’re a resource guarder. Why is it that we expect dogs to NOT guard their valuable resources?

  2. Our first dog when we retired and could be home with a dog, was Jeffrey. He was a beautiful 1 1/2 yr old Parti-colored Cocker from a local animal shelter. Our children are grown and live in another state. We were told that we were at least the 3rd family that had “parented” him. The first night ” the dog chewed on his adoption papers” . He won over going on the couch to sit, and was content to stay behind a baby gate in a small room when we went to bed. He had many good qualities and stayed with my husband on a walk in the woods, didn’t excessively bark at people and seemed very willing to meet strangers. Everyone wanted to pet him when we went on walks. I insisted that they ask me first.
    He was however a thief and a resource guarder. If you dropped something, it was his immediately. He even stole food out of peoples’ backpacks and his fellow hikers learned not to reach out with their sandwiches. He wasn’t good at “trading” but you could divert his attention to the other side of the room and maybe get your possession. I had to remind myself that I was smarter than him and could use guile and trickery ( or techniques) to have him release something. I found the best treatment was to avoid the bad behavior at all costs . We managed because we loved him and he was a great companion on hikes and camping, but the danger was always there. He lived with us until he was 10 years old and developed a large tumor in his lung. At that point we had him put to sleep. We were very sad to lose him. Always said he had “issues” and I thought I wouldn’t adopt for a long time. My husband teases me that I almost immediately was on the internet again looking at rescues. Jeffie was the anchor of my day and I was kind of lost without him.
    We ended up with a Cocker/Border collie mix. Charlie is a very barkey dog, but good natured with a soft mouth. He’s always willing to trade, but people are put off by his loud greetings. Each one is an individual and we live with them and love them.

  3. Interesting article. As I do not have grandchildren, I have never been very concerned about these issues. I have had rescues that had different patterns of self protection, which may not have been suitable for a home with small children. And re: predictability, shelters are very stressful environments and do provoke atypical behaviors. Decades ago I adopted a wonderful mix, maybe lab/pointer, who barked and yelped nonstop CONTINUOUSLY in the shelter, however, she was the only short haired, female, non pitbull young dog available. Her constant barking was only due to her extreme discomfort there, and she turned out to be not a barker, at all. That I might not have adopted her at all is a sobering thought, because she was a delightful personality.
    2 of my dogs are resource guarders (food and resting space), and 1 is not. I feed them in separate rooms, as well as have beds in several rooms. And they really like each other, except when resting and eating:( They do not seem to guard resources from me, only each other. Although I would probably have to trade if one killed a squirrel…….

  4. We have a resource-guarder at the extreme end of the spectrum unfortunately. We adopted Carson, a Great Pyr mix at 3 months old and he displayed guarding even at that age. We thought we nipped it in the bud early but within the last few weeks (he’ll be 2 in Sept) the resource guarding has returned with a vengeance. It’s so bad that he doesn’t even want to be touched if his raw butcher bone is in the same room. My husband wants to euthanize but I have talked him into meeting with a trainer. Desperately trying to save him. Wish you were on the East coast for a training option.

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