Is your dog possessive of toys with other dogs?
Or perhaps they show food guarding towards dogs or people?
These scenarios are all examples of something called resource guarding.
Resource guarding is a term used to describe a dog using a specific behavior (growling, snapping, etc.) to make other dogs or humans stay away from an item, space, or person the dog considers valuable.
Resource guarding can occur for a number of reasons. Many times it is a combination of factors that, together, create an opportunity for this behavior to occur and unfortunately be reinforced.
If you work in dog rescue, you know that resource guarding in dogs coming into foster care or being adopted into a new home is not uncommon. Details such as the dog’s past, its biological wiring, and the structure of the “new” home can all factor into if, and how much, resource guarding occurs.
If ignored, resource guarding can escalate. If recognized immediately, it can be reduced or extinguished in many situations.
Treating resource guarding in dogs requires knowledge, patience, and hard work. If you are reading this article you are already on the right path: knowledge is power.
BONUS: Sign up at the end of this article for a free Resource Guarding Toolkit!
This printable reference document will help make working on resource guarding with your dog easy and effective.
Types of Resource Guarding in Dogs
When a dog resource guards, the resource that is “guarded” can vary. Guarding may be directed towards other dogs, or towards dogs and humans that approach something the dog values. Resource guarding behavior can include:
Food Aggression In Dogs (Dog Guarding Food)
Food guarding can occur in multiple scenarios. Your dog may guard:
- a food dish while eating
- an empty food dish
- a piece of food that was accidentally dropped to the floor
- a treat it is receiving
Dog Guarding Toys or Other Objects
Any dog possessive of toys with other dogs or with people falls into this category. Examples of objects guarded include:
- water dish
- random items they consider valuable such as a stick, a piece of garbage, etc.
Dog Guarding Furniture or Specific Areas
A dog may guard a piece of furniture, or just a place in a room:
- couch or chair
- a room (for example when another dog enters the doorway)
- a “bubble” of space (i.e. the dog doesn’t want another dog or person coming near it when it is lying down)
Dog Resource Guarding Owner or Other Person
A dog may guard the person who is giving it attention, or people it is sitting near. Examples would include:
- a dog who growls or snaps at other dogs who approach it when it is being petted by a human
- a dog who growls or snaps at another human or dog who approaches when the dog is sitting near a person (perhaps on a couch or a bed) or when the dog is being held by a person.
Dog Guarding Body Parts
A dog may growl or snap when someone touches or pets them in a certain area, such as
- rear end/tail
Many times this can indicate the dog hurts when touched in this area or has had pain there in the past.
Puppy Resource Guarding
If you have a puppy that is resource guarding, you can use all the the suggestions in this article for a puppy as well. It’s important to teach the puppy that good things come if they trade a toy and that hands bring food to a bowl. The sooner you start, the faster it will turn around!
What Happens When a Dog is Resource Guarding?
When a dog resource guards, they usually give some type of warning to the person or dog approaching them when the dog has what they considers to be a high value item.
Example: If you own a dog possessive of toys with other dogs, you may see the following behaviors when a dog approaches your dog:
- Dog covers the toy with it’s head
- Dog freezes with head close to toy
- Dog lips lift slightly, showing teeth
- Dog grows a very low, imperceptible growl
The scenario varies based on a number of factors:
Resource guarding is not only dependent on the dog’s perceived value of what it is guarding, but also can be dependent on who or what is approaching the dog.
It is also varies based on the dog’s use of “warning signals.” This includes how many warning signals the dog displays and on our proficiency (or lack thereof) in noticing the signals and addressing the guarding problem before it escalates further.
Most dogs will not go from zero to “bite” with no warning. They display a number of behaviors that tell you they are uncomfortable and want you to move away. Learning to recognize these signals is the first step in addressing resource guarding in dogs.
In the above example of a dog possessive of toys, the behaviors I listed are what the dog starts with. If you don’t notice them, the dog may escalate to loud growls or barking, snapping, or biting.
Many times, dog owners miss the large majority of signs of resource guarding, then are surprised when the dog growls or snaps at a person or another dog.
I would bet if you could watch a movie of your dog in the moments before it guarded something, you would see some of the behaviors on this ladder before the “guarding” behavior that you noticed.
For example, you may see the dog’s ears flattening slightly and his body stiffening as you approach, or see its tongue flick out a few times when another dog enters the room.
Learning to Read Your Dog’s Body Language
Part of any behavioral modification effort involves learning to read your dog’s body language. Print out this Body Language Poster created by Dr. Sophia Yin and watch your dog for these behaviors when you work with him.
Dr. Sophia Yin discusses the importance of owners being able to recognize subtle signs of fear in her article Adopting a Dog: Some Dogs are Easier Than Others.
In addition to these behaviors, other guarding body language can include:
- Stiffening as you or another dog approaches
- Hard stare at you or approaching dog
- Moving head and shoulders to “cover” the object they are guarding
- A low, almost inaudible growl
- A wagging tail – this can indicate your dog is unsure – don’t assume a wagging tail means a happy dog
DO NOT Scold a Dog for Growling or Snarling!
Before you start scanning the article and skipping to one part or another, please read this section. It can mean life or death for your dog.
Your dog can’t talk. So it has to communicate what they need, and what they are feeling, through actions.
If your dog wants something to stop, they will try and make that happen.
Some dogs will walk away to escape whatever is bothering them. In the case of wanting to “keep” a resource they consider valuable, walking away won’t work, so they tell you in other ways.
Your dog might stiffen as you approach. Or he might lift his lip a little.
If you don’t listen to these messages (or you don’t notice them), he may give a very low growl. Then a louder growl.
If you still ignore him, he might air snap, and as a last resort, he may bite.
If you punish the warning signs, you make a dog afraid to show them. It’s like taking the batteries out of a smoke detector – you extinguish the warning signals that your dog uses and he skips straight to biting to get his message across.
Side note on dog biting inhibition:
The difference between a deep dog bite and a snap in which the dog “missed” or “barely scratched you” is called bite inhibition. On Jean Donaldson’s website “The Dog Training Academy,” bite inhibition is described as “the ability of the dog to bite with inhibited force.”
In plain English, bite inhibition is the ability of the dog to control the strength of the bite so that instead of hurting you, it just serves as a warning.
Sometimes you may hear someone say “it’s a good thing I was so quick or I would have been bitten.”
The truth is, if you did not get bitten, it is not because you are fast. It is because your dog has good bite inhibition and purposefully snapped at you – intentionally not hurting you – to try and get their message across.
Had they wanted to bite you, you would not have had time to move quickly enough to avoid it.
How to Stop Resource Guarding in Dogs?
Learning how to stop resource guarding in dogs is not an easy task. Toy and food aggression in dogs are becoming more common, along with owner guarding and space guarding.
How you treat it depends on what the dog is guarding, and the severity of the guarding problem. The owner needs to be very versed in recognizing guarding signals and in reading dog body language as well.
Treating resource guarding ranges from management to multi-step desensitization and counter conditioning programs.
BONUS: At the end of this article you will have the opportunity to sign up for a free Resource Guarding Toolkit! This printable reference will help make working with your dog easy and effective.
But for now, let’s learn about your treatment options.
Sometimes management is the easiest path to avoid or extinguish resource guarding in dogs. It consists of eliminating possible guarding situations; sometimes permanently, sometimes temporarily.
This is especially important when a new dog comes into the house. As a rescue dog foster and rescue dog adopter, I cannot even begin to tell you how employing these simple, common-sense measures avoids a whole list of issues that otherwise commonly occur during the first few weeks.
Simply putting toys and bones away and feeding dogs in separate room or crates can eliminate toy and food aggression in dogs. Some of these solutions are they simple
For the first month after a new dog comes into your house (or permanently if the situation dictates), avoid as many potential guarding situations as possible.
It’s important to know that each time your new dog has an opportunity to guard, he learns that it works. So, the more situations you can avoid, the better.
What does this mean?
If you have a resident dog that guards, take away the opportunity for him to guard until you are ready to enact a carefully prepared training program.
If you are bringing a new dog into your home, remove opportunities to guard each and every time a new dog arrives for two to four weeks and then adjust as you see fit.
How do you Remove “Opportunities” for Your Dog to Guard?
1. Feed each dog separately
Food aggression in dogs is one of the most common resource guarding scenarios.
Feed dogs in separate rooms (with closed doors) or separate crates. Make sure that when one dog is done eating it cannot walk over to where the other dog is eating.
When they have finished eating, pick up the empty bowls and put them away.
2. Put ALL toys and bones away
Toy aggression in dogs is another common problem, but it is so simple to solve – put the toys and bones away!
I know you will feel guilty. We all do. But trust me – your resident dog will do just fine without toys and bones for a few weeks. And the new dog will too. You are doing all parties a favor by letting them get to know one another without each of them having to worry about if the other is trying to take their bone or toy.
When I foster a dog, everything goes away for two to four weeks. Period. That gives me time to assess the personality of the new dog, assess how everyone is getting along, and watch their body language to see if there is any tension in the air.
3. Keep everyone off the furniture
Again, you have to let go of the guilt. Your resident dog will not decide you don’t love him anymore because you stopped letting him snuggle on the couch for a few weeks. If you want, put a pillow on the floor and you can snuggle with him down there.
Similarly, no furry hearts will shrivel and die if they don’t get to sleep on the bed for a few weeks. Dogs really don’t sit and ponder the injustice of not being able to get on the bed, they live in the moment. Seriously. Their soulful, heart-rending look can be switched off in an instant if you pull a piece of kibble out of your pocket and ask for a sit.
If you have trouble keeping pets off the furniture, try putting empty boxes, books, etc on furniture to block it off.
4. Have multiple water dishes, located in separate locations
Sometimes a dog will guard the water dish, or the space it occupies. You want your resident dog to be able to get a drink without worry, so put multiple water dishes in different places throughout the house.
Don’t put water dishes near any dog beds.
5. Give your dog its own space
Sometimes a dog guards the space around its bed, or the space where it happens to be lying down. These dogs need a quiet, safe space to relax.
Put the new dog’s bed or crate in separate room away from the busy area of the house, or baby gate them in a room to give them an opportunity for quiet time.
If using a crate and the dog is afraid of it, sometimes switching from a plastic to wire crate, or vice versa, does wonders.
Dogs who are afraid of crates sometimes feel “closed in” in plastic kennels. These dogs may be more comfortable in wire crates that feel more open, and from which they can see what’s going on around them.
Another suggestion that can help is to take the top half of the plastic kennel off for them to get used to sleeping in the bottom half without that “closed in” feeling.
Conversely, some dogs feel uncomfortable in a wire crate. Draping the wire crate with a blanket will make the crate feel more cozy and help the dog relax.
One bonus of creating a separate space: it can also help you avoid food aggression in dogs because you can use that separate space to feed them.
General Food & Object Guarding Solutions
There are a few different approaches to eliminating food guarding in dogs.
If it only occurs with other dogs, feed the dogs separately. Problem solved. Forever. Amen. You can do this by putting them in crates, or in different rooms with the door shut.
If your new dog or foster dog is showing signs of food or object guarding with humans, here are some tried-and-true methods that help many dogs.
Disclaimer: if you have a severely aggressive dog, don’t attempt hand feeding and risk a bite. Work with a behavior professional to progress more slowly, using safe methods that don’t put you at risk for a dog bite.
It’s important to note that when you first start hand feeding a dog, you are not offering the food in your hand, and the dog is not near you you when you put the food in their dish – so read the instructions carefully.
Hand feeding can be used as prevention or as a desensitization. When I bring a new dog into my home, I always start by feeding them one small handful of food at a time. Even if they don’t resource guard, I do this to prevent food aggression in dogs – it shows them that I am someone to be trusted.
The progression would look like this:
- Put your dog’s dinner in a baggie, grab their empty food dish
- Take the dog to a quiet room away from other dogs & people
- Put the dog on a sit-stay
Hold flat palm of hand facing dog if it has trouble staying
- Set empty food dish down on other side of room
- Take a small handful of food, put it in the dog’s dish, then release dog
Note: if the dog won’t do a stay, hold the dish up and put the handful of food in it, then lower it down to the floor where the dog can eat it. Distract the dog by throwing a piece of food away from the dish and pick the dish up once the dog walks away.
- Praise dog after they eat the food then repeat the process
- As you progress, add a few pieces of food to bowl while your dog is still eating
This helps the dog associate a hand approaching the food dish with the arrival of good things
- Do this for every meal
I do this for the first week or two for any new dog for multiple reasons:
- Your dog sees you provide all their food and learns you are the bearer of good things!
- It can prevent food guarding from developing.
- You can reinforce the “nothing in life is free” concept if you ask your dog for a sit before adding food to the bowl.
If your dog is guarding objects, many times “trading” will help change your dog’s reaction to you approaching them or asking them to leave the object they are guarding.
- Put some high value treats in your treat pack (rotisserie chicken pieces are great for this).
- If your dog has a bone (or toy) and doesn’t want to give it up, take out a nice, warm, smelly piece of chicken.
- Call the dog’s name. If they smell the chicken and come running, throw the chicken away from the bone and while the dog eats it, pick up their bone. Call the dog back to you, say “good boy/girl!” and give them their bone back.
- If they don’t come running, call their name and throw the chicken so it lands really close to them. They will eat it, realize how delicious it is, and most likely will coming running if you call them again. Proceed with step #3.
- Once your dog lies back down with their bone, walk to the other side of the room and repeat. Each time the dog comes, they get chicken and you go pick up their bone.
- Have these “training sessions” each day, a few times a day. In between sessions, put the guarded object away.
- Over time, the guarding will gradually disappear as the dog begins to associate your approach with a high value treat, and not with losing their bone.
Remember – this does not change overnight. You need to work on it every day, week after week. Trust me, the hard work will pay off.
Desensitization & Counterconditioning for More Serious Resource Guarding Cases
NOTE: If you are unsure of how your dog will react to resource guarding programs, work with a professional trainer. Do not take a high value item away from your dog if you are not sure it is safe to do so.
Desensitization is exposing the dog to something that normally produces a negative behavior in very small increments that do not invoke the negative behavior, then gradually increasing the exposure in small steps.
It is normally combined with counterconditioning, i.e. giving a high value reward so that the dog starts to associate the arrival of a good thing with the situation that previously invoked the negative behavior.
Scientifically speaking, counterconditioning changes the dog’s emotional response to an object or scenario from negative to positive.
You can read more about the science behind desensitization and counterconditioning here.
Jean Donaldson has an excellent book about how to stop resource guarding in dogs called Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs which I highly recommend reading if you have a dog that resource guards.
Mine! by Jean Donaldson
The book gives step-by-step instructions (specific to the type of guarding) that you can work through when desensitizing to that specific object. Steps consist of progressive stages which change in very small increments to help your dog succeed.
The following examples are summaries, meant to give you a picture of what the desensitization program in Jean Donaldson’s book would look like.
To correctly implement the program be sure to read the instructions in Donaldson’s book as they contain important details you will need to know in order to be successful.
Example 1: Dog guarding food
When working on food aggression in dogs, Donaldson has you start with an empty food bowl.
- To begin, approach until you are 10’ from the empty bowl, then stop and toss pieces of food toward the bowl, then retreat. If the dog gets the food and repeatedly doesn’t guard, approach a little closer and do the same thing.
- Eventually work up to walking all the way up to the empty bowl, dropping treats in, and walking away. Approach from different angles and change the amount of time between approaches.
Through very small changes – which need to be repeated over and over before moving to the next step – you will progress to
- Approach, bend towards the bowl but don’t grab it (just drop treats)
- Repeat the approach, bend towards the bowl, touch it briefly, then drop treats
- Approaching, bending towards the bowl, touching it for longer and longer intervals, dropping treats
- Approaching, grasping and moving bowl, increasing to longer and longer intervals over time, adding treats
- Approach, lift bowl, set back down, adding treats
- Approach, take empty bowl to counter, add treats, return bowl
Donaldson does an amazing job of laying it out step-by-step, in a high level of detail that ensures you will do it correctly.
Example 2: Dog resource guarding a bone or toy
Again, please remember that if you do not trust your dog’s behavior, do NOT attempt to take an item from the dog.
When a dog guards an object, your goal is to teach your dog that an approaching person signals getting a yummy treat, AND that he will get his treasured object back after getting the treat.
Let’s say your dog guards bones. First, you are going to find an object they don’t guard or particularly care about. For this example, we’ll use a squeaky toy. Next, you need high value treats.
Set the squeaky toy next to your dog. Approach the dog from 6 feet away, pick up the squeaky toy, deliver the high value treat with the other hand, then return the squeaky toy.
A summary of the hierarchy process (again, this is only a summary) includes:
- If all goes well, increase your approach distance to 10 feet, then 20, and change up the angles you are approaching from. Do many repetitions at each distance & angle until the dog is comfortable and successful.
- If your dog remains relaxed and happy about the trades, add a pat on the dog’s back.
- Progress to handing the unguarded object to the dog, taking it back after continually lengthening intervals, and rewarding with a high value treat.
- Once your dog has mastered all of these trades with no worries or guarding, you move to a medium valued object, then to higher valued objects.
In her book, Donaldson lays out each incremental step in complete detail. Following her instructions will help to ensure the dog’s success in the program.
By working in these tiny incremental steps, your dog starts to have a positive emotional association with a situation which previously elicited a negative emotion and guarding behavior.
The dog’s emotional response is changed from fear (of losing the resource it is guarding) to happy anticipation of a treat.
Example 3: Dog resource guarding furniture
From a short-term perspective, the easiest solution is to not let the dog get on the furniture. This is an especially smart and effective approach when you have just adopted a dog or brought a new foster into your home.
If a dog is going to remain in your home, however, after the first month of “no furniture,” when the dog is more settled and comfortable, Donaldson outlines a program to reduce and eliminate furniture guarding if the dog shows this behavior.
A summary of her steps includes:
- Teach your dog to target your hand (touch it with his nose) using clicker training. If you are new to clicker training, this article about clicker training your dog will teach you how to do it.
- Practice moving your dog around a room by having him target your hand to receive a treat.
- Practice moving your dog around using the target command in all sorts of settings – walks, inside, outside, etc.
- Once this behavior is firmly established, use your hand target to get the dog to hop onto a piece of furniture that he does not guard. Praise him when he gets up but do not treat him. Then immediately use your hand target to call him off the furniture and then click and treat.
- Repeat this until he reliably hops on and off.
- Repeat step 4, only right before presenting the hand target give a cue word like “hup!” Praise when he gets on, then give an “off” cue word (“off!” or “off you go!) right before giving a hand target to move the dog off the furniture. Reward with a treat.
- Practice this sequence on other items of furniture that your dog doesn’t guard.
- Practice this sequence on an item of furniture that is close to the guarded item, or a piece of furniture with low or medium value. If you find there is no in-between guarding levels, try pulling the seat cushion to the floor of the high value furniture item and practicing on and off the cushion, or cuing the dog to be directly in front of the furniture.
- Once step 8 is going smoothly, try cuing your dog onto the guarded furniture item. Stay three feet away, click and praise, then cue him off. If he gets off, have a huge party and give lots of treats! Continue cuing on and off from the 3 foot distance until the dog is comfortably moving on and off with cues.
- Practice step 9 standing closer and closer to the furniture.
- Start doing random cues when you see the dog on a piece of furniture. Have a party with lots of treats when he gets off!
Again, remember that these steps are a summary. They can work with some dogs, but not others. If your dog has serious guarding issues, get Jean Donaldson’s book and work through her detailed steps. Better yet, get the book but also get a good trainer to help you.
Example 4: Dog resource guarding body parts
Dogs sometimes do not want you to touch certain parts of their body, and tell you by “guarding” when you reach out or touch them. Common body part guarding scenarios include:
- nail clipping
- hind end
- collar grabbing
The first step in any body part guarding situation is getting the dog looked at by a vet to determine if pain is causing them to not want to be touched. If the dog is hurting, it’s no wonder he doesn’t want you to touch the sensitive area.
Once you have ruled out pain as the cause of the guarding, you need to divide the dog’s body into parts he guards and parts he doesn’t. If something is near the guarded body part it goes on the medium guarding list.
Your desensitization program will look like the object guarding one, but instead of starting with the lowest value object you will start with the lowest “value” body part.
In her book, Donaldson quotes Ian Dunbar, a world-renowned veterinarian, animal behaviorist, and dog trainer;
“Ian Dunbar puts it well when discussing hierarchies to fix body handling when he says, ‘If a dog doesn’t like having his head restrained, where do we start practicing? Right, on the tip of his tail.’ “
If your dog doesn’t like his ears touched, Donaldson has you start by placing your hand on the dog’s rear for 1 second, then give a treat to the dog with the opposite hand.
You will repeat this with varying waiting intervals in between, and in different settings (inside, ouside, different rooms, etc). Eventually you will work towards placing your hand on the dog’s rear for 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds.
You will continue this process, in the small steps outlined in Donaldson’s book, moving from dog’s rear to the back, the withers, the neck, and finally the ears.
If guarding occurs when equipment is involved (brushing or nail clipping), you need to have two separate desensitization programs going on. One will be desensitizing to the object, and the other desensitizing to the body part.
Another Useful Tool: “Nothing in Life is Free” (NILF)
Another great tool for your “how to stop resource guarding in dogs” plan is something called “Nothing in Life is Free.” It teaches the dog to trust you, reinforces that you are the bearer of positive things, and builds your dog’s confidence by providing clear rules and enjoyable outcomes for good behavior.
He will love learning and it will make him feel more secure, just like a toddler who benefits from consistent limits and rules. The San Francisco SPCA has a great handout on Nothing in Life is Free to print and refer to as you learn this process.
The gist of Nothing in Life is Free is that throughout the day, your dog has to earn the things he wants. If he wants to go outside, he needs to give you a nice sit. In return he gets praise and a positive reward -the door opens! If he wants you to pet him, have him shake your hand first or give you a high five.
Remember That Extinguishing Resource Guarding in Dogs Takes Time
There is no magic bullet; resource guarding will not disappear overnight. Whether you are experiencing food aggression in dogs, toy or bone guarding, or another type of resource guarding, you must be patient.
By working hard to consistently create scenarios in which it is more rewarding for the dog to give up their high value object then to guard it, you will slowly but surely see your dog start to change.
Pair that with being smart and arranging your house and routines to eliminate opportunities for your dog to guard things, and you will be amazed at the positive progress you will make!
Are you going to adopt or foster a new dog? Here are 2 must-read informational articles to study before you bring your dog home including a FREE PRINTABLE DOWNLOAD!
Bringing Home a Rescue Dog is a great overview of things to do and not do when you bring home your rescue dog to help create a smooth transition.
Fill out the form below to download the free, printable Resource Guarding Tool Kit. The tool kit contains a pictorial reference list for you to post and refer to while training your dog.
I hope these resource guarding ideas and training methods are helpful! If you have questions be sure to leave them in the comments below.
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