12 Feb Tips For Preventing Resource Guarding
Resource guarding is a common issue in dogs. Based on my own experience I would say that at least half of all dog owners experience their dog resource guarding in one setting or another. This is problematic – for the bond between owner and dog, for the dog’s health (if he is guarding and refusing to give up something harmful) and at times also for the owner’s safety (if the dog reacts by snapping or biting towards having his treasure taken away).
The good news is that resource guarding tendencies can be prevented with the correct approach. Taking the right steps to keep resource guarding at bay should be a priority for every dog owner. If your dog shows resource guarding, I recommend to make it your #1 training goal to counter this.
In this post you will learn why resource guarding exists, how dogs perceive “possessions”, which solution does not work and how we can successfully treat resource guarding, or keep it from happening in the first place.
The Origin of Resource Guarding
It is important to prevent resource guarding tendencies early on in puppies. We want to teach them a mindset of abundance rather than scarcity.
Unfortunately, by the time we get a puppy (8 weeks at the earliest), he has already had plenty of options to learn that only insistently holding on to possessions will raise the chances of keeping them. His litter mates did not politely ask for sharing items they all wanted to have – instead, young puppies already snatch toys and bones from each other, play keep-away, growl and basically get a head-start in practicing their resource-guarding skills.
The good news is that it is usually not too difficult to teach the puppy that there will be an unlimited supply of treats, chew toys, stuffed animals etc. when living with us.
I usually take an armful of toys when I play with a puppy and if he decided to take one and run away I ignore it and just get him back by making the next toy enticing.
A Dog’s Perception of “Possession”
In order to understand why dogs can so vehemently defend their possessions, we have to understand how dogs view possessions in the first place.
In your dog’s eyes, he does not own anything other than what he has next to him at this very moment. Dogs do not view items as “theirs” unless they are in their actual physical possession.
While dogs will like and seek out certain places, toys, chew items etc., a socially well-balanced dog will not defend something as his that is not his at that very moment.
This applies regardless of their standing in a group of dogs.
Let’s say an older dog is chewing a bone. He stops and stands up and a young puppy goes to get the bone and starts to chew on it. The bone is now off-limits to the older dog. He may watch the puppy and seem to want to have the bone, but if he is a socially well-adjusted adult dog he will not go and steal it (even though he is physically superior and could theoretically get the bone with no problem).
This means that once you dog has e.g. a bone, it can be very valuable to him. He has no concept that he could have it again at a later date, or that he “owns” thirty other chew toys that are in the next room.
He only knows that he possesses the one bone in front of him.
It is important that we can appreciate this level of value that a possession can have for a dog when addressing resource guarding.
Try to view whatever your dog has for what it is in his eyes: Truly the only item he owns in this world.
If you can appreciate the rarity that comes with this concept your dog has for possessions, it will be easier for you to be mindful and cautious when guiding him through letting go of it.
The Issue with “Trading”
I am not a big fan of the sometimes practiced habit of teaching the dog to trade by offering a trade item and immediately reaching for the one he has, sometimes before the dog has even accepted the trade item. We see dogs getting more and more skeptical about this procedure until they eventually stop accepting the trade and just growl and turn away with their possession.
Instead, whenever I want to actually pick up their treasure I make sure that they think it is a good trade first and have all but forgotten about how important their possession was.
The safest way to approach a Dog with a Resource
If my dog for example is chewing on a shoe that I want to exchange for a more appropriate chew toy, I would not hand him the chew toy and as soon as he looks at it, opens his mouth and lets go of the shoe I snatch the later away. Movement attracts dogs – chances are that the moment I swiftly remove the shoe his attention is captured by that motion and he wants the shoe back. If I try to win by being speedy this may work now, but he will learn for the next time to hold on better and be more observant – unfortunately we will have a hard time ever winning against our dogs in speediness.
Instead, I would approach the situation like this:
I take the chew toy I have for an exchange, sit down with my puppy and let the chew toy move across the ground. Make it a chase – just like he is attracted by the motion of the shoe he will be attracted by the motion of the chew toy. When he lets go of the shoe and grabs the chew toy, I do not immediately reach for the shoe – instead, keep on playing with the chew toy to make sure the dog is really “tuned in” to it. When he shows sufficient interest I let him have it and slowly go to reach for the shoe. Don’t sneak, don’t rush, don’t make it a big deal. Ideally the dog likes his trade so much that he doesn’t care. If he comes rushing back to the shoe, stop moving it, grab his chew toy and again entice him with it in a game.
The idea is to show him that your trade is always better, always more fun, and that you will not try to outsmart him by quickly stealing his first possession (because he will remember that and he will be faster the next time!).
What about a situation where you cannot take this much time, because your dog may hold onto something hazardous, and perhaps already is guarding it a bit from you?
(Maybe he has stolen a bar of chocolate from your counter)
In such situations I take a handful of the most delicious treats I can find. If the dog is happy to be approached (is not running away from you, not growling etc.) I come close to him and hold the treats directly in front of his nose. It is quite funny how sometimes dogs take a couple seconds to really breathe in the scent of the treats and get convinced that they are good, then suddenly let go and take them.
Again, if this happens it is not your first priority to snatch his possession – it is your priority to make him believe this is a good deal. He gets another treat, and another. I will toss the follow-up treats a little ways away so that he starts moving away from his possession. When he is leaving it to go get the treats you can now pick it up, but continue to play your treat game. We don’t want the dog to suddenly realize that we stopped the treats and removed his treasure – one can quite distinctly see the look of shock on the dog’s face in this situation at times.
Instead, the transition between owning the possession, letting go to eat the treats and casually having the possession removed while eating the treats should be one smooth, no-big-deal event.
It is the dog realizing his “mistake” that will make him guard the possession and refuse the treats in the future. We want to avoid this by any means. The treat game can take as long as a minute or two if necessary!
But what if your dog is already walking away with his treasure? Trying to catch him by cornering him and removing the possession should only be reserved for the situations when nothing else works, as it will definitely heighten his likelihood to become a resource guarder.
What I like to try first instead is a variation of the treat game described in the last paragraph – take the treats and toss them at your dog, aiming for them to land close to his nose. Don’t be stingy and toss one or two – I will toss bunches of tiny hotdog pieces. The combination of scent and movement often is sufficient for the dog to at least become interested in them, keep on tossing and there is a fair chance he may let go of his treasure to eat some.
This is not the moment to rush in and steal what he had.
If you have come to the point where he has eaten a couple, chances are he will eat more. We do not want to make him wary of us by making swift movements towards his possession. Instead, keep on tossing the treats in a game, further and further away. Eventually you can slowly and without any excitement reach for his treasure, pick it up and continue playing.
I have done this myself many times with my dogs when they were puppies and found animal remains in our forest. My youngest has at 9 months not quite learned to not pick them up, so whenever he has one, the hotdog shower comes out and there are enough hotdogs that he forgets what he was doing in the first place.
Here is a video to show you my approach:
Whenever possible, make sure that your dog does not perceive the trade as one where he ends up with a disadvantage.
Remember the long-term goal of your training: To make your dog comfortable around you and have him trust you.
Your dog stole a shirt from the laundry hamper? Don’t chase him or pry it out of his mouth. Your dog is not in any immediate danger and this is a good training opportunity for him.
Get some treats that he likes and carry out the protocol outlined in the video above.
It is frustrating to have your dog steal things and not wanting to give them up. It also is very tempting to just physically overpower the dog and get the item back. This may work for puppies or small adult dogs. It does not work for big dogs however, and it does not build the trust needed between you and your dog!
It is well worth it to invest a little more time now when trying to get something back from your dog.
Unless your dog is in actual danger (such as if he has a bar of chocolate), let him have it for a bit longer while you apply our concept.
As you can see in the video, this will pay off well on the long run. It will give you a dog who is happy to give up any possession, any time, because he has learned that is will always be worth it.
The more times the dog notices that giving up his treasures is a bad idea, the harder it will get to convince him otherwise.
Take a proactive approach to preventing resource guarding and do not let it become a problem in the first place.
Keep in mind that swift movement will attract his attention! Make the trading as slow and calm and possible.