Guarding various resources is a natural behavior for dogs but it can be quite a source of contention between humans and their dogs. A dog guarding his resource is not “dominant” or “bossy” he is simply trying to keep the good stuff for himself. I have certainly been known to hide the box of girl scout cookies from my family not because I am bossy or dominant, I just want those damn cookies for myself! The most common resources we see dogs guard are: Food, Objects/Toys, Spaces (bedding/couch) and Humans.
For guarding of all resources the following 2 rules apply:
1. Practice avoidance! Don’t mess (touch, pet, take things away)with your dog when he is eating or playing with/chewing a special toy. Even dogs who never guard their food or toys may get snarky when the object is a real meat bone or a favorite toy. If you give your dog a real meat bone, put him in a place away from others (and you) and let him chew it without interference. Once he has gotten up and walked away from the bone, go and remove it.
2. Watch your dog’s body language closely! Specifically, any signs of fear, anxiety or stress (FAS) which with resource guarding, usually presents as your dog’s body stiffening or freezing and staring at the food bowl/object. He may glance sideways at you with a “side eye” or “hard stare” and his tail may be tucked under or raised straight up and still.
For specific types of resource guarding:
A. Training Protocol for FOOD BOWL GUARDING:
Some research suggests free feeding (leaving food out at all times) or hand feeding can be helpful in treating resource guarding. I have also found success with ditching the bowl entirely and feeding the dog “creatively” – out of toys, puzzles, boxes, or simply tossed on the floor. Because every dog is different, when managing and working with a dog who is resource guarding, we may need to tailor the approach to the specific dog.
These exercises must be done a room with enough space for your dog to be far away enough from the human not to see them as a threat. Your dog must not be exhibiting any signs of fear, anxiety or stress (FAS) at any time during the training session. If he is, back up to a point in the training where FAS is not seen. Repeat all of these steps at least 10 times or until you dog relaxed and looking at you in anticipation of the treat being thrown.
- Person remains stationary and tosses a treat (higher value than what is in the food bowl) towards the bowl.
- Person tosses treats toward the bowl while person is moving. Start the movement on the far end of the room moving side to side not directly towards the bowl.
- Person gradually works closer towards the bowl tossing treats towards the bowl.
- Person tosses treats 6-10 feet away from the bowl (dog should go towards the treats and away from bowl) and reach towards bowl to put treat in it.
- Person tosses treats away from bowl and while dog is eating those treats the person picks up the bowl, places a treat in bowl and puts back down for dog.
- Person gradually tosses treats closer to the bowl while picking up.
B. If your dog is GUARDING OBJECTS/TOYS A and B from above still apply!
- When engaging with any dog do not take or pull a toy from his mouth. If we take an item from a dog, we are teaching the dog to guard it (more fiercely possibly) next time.
- Teach your dog a DROP cue: You want to teach your dog that if you say “drop” it is a good thing for the him because he is likely to get something even better! We want him to WANT to drop items for humans.
- If your dog has something in his mouth say “DROP” and wave a treat near his nose (or toss on floor under or to the side of his nose) and when he drops the item give him the treat (or let him take from the floor as you pick up the toy) and then, if the item is something he CAN have (a toy) give the item back to him. So, for dropping he gets something better AND gets his toy back.
- Practicing trading various items in this way starting by offering your dog something of higher value than the item you are asking him to drop.
C. If your dog is GUARDING BEDS/SPACES
- Make sure you are at a distance where your dog is still relaxed and toss treat on to mat/bed. Gradually decrease the distance between you and the mat and toss treats.
- You are not asking your dog to “do” anything during these sessions. We are just teaching him that someone approaching his mat/space is a good thing for him.
D. If your dog is GUARDING HUMANS (YOU) – this one is actually the easiest to fix! As with all of these guarding scenarios, watch your dog’s body language very closely for the initial signs of stress (freezing, staring, “whale” eye, lip curl, growl…) and as soon as you see any of these signs, get up and remove yourself.
- In the moment, simply walk away. Do not reprimand or say anything to your dog – if there no resource to guard, you dog will stop guarding.
- At other times, when the dogs are relaxed, work with both dogs and reinforce polite behaviors with both your attention (since that is likely a high-value reinforcer for the guarder in that scenario) as well as treats. You want the guarder to have a positive association when the other dog is around you both. “Other dog with me and my human = great things for me!”