Understanding Resource Guarding in Dogs: Types of Resource Guarding & Dog Body Language

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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, it’s 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.

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. Items commonly guarded include:

Food

dog dish with food in it

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

Objects

dog toys and bone examples of things that can be resource guarded

Examples of object guarded include:

  • toys
  • bones
  • water dish
  • random items they consider valuable such as a stick, a piece of garbage, etc.

Furniture/Areas

dog lying on couch

A dog may guard a piece of furniture, or just a place in a room:

  • couch or chair
  • bed
  • 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)

People

girl petting dog

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.

Body Parts

dog cowering from hand trying to pet it

A dog may growl or snap when someone touches or pets them in a certain area, such as

  • rear end/tail
  • ears
  • neck

Many times this can indicate the dog hurts when touched in this area or has had pain there in the past.

What Happens When a Dog is Resource Guarding?

When a dog resource guards, it usually gives some type of warning to the person or dog approaching them when said dog has what he considers to be a high value item. 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.

Many times, dog owners miss the large majority of the signals on the ladder below, then are surprised when the dog growls or snaps at a person or another dog.

The Ladder of Aggression describing aggressive dog behaviors in ascending order as seen in resource guarding in dogs.
Ladder of Aggression photo courtesy of BSAVA Behaviour manual (2002) and Kendal Shepherd
To download a PDF copy, click the picture above and you will be directed to Kendal’s website.

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.

Body Language of Fear in Dogs by Dr Sophia Yin
Click to download free poster from Sophia Yin’s website

Dr. Sophia Yin discusses the importance of new 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

Extremely Important Takeaway: DO NOT Scold a Dog for Growling or Snarling!

man scolding dog with a red line through it

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 do You Treat Resource Guarding in Dogs?

Road sign that says "Next Big Thing"
photo by Gerd Altmann

Now that you are familiar with your dog’s body language and what items are commonly guarded, you are ready to learn how to work with a dog that resource guards.

How to Treat Resource Guarding in Dogs Part 2 explains various training methods that reduce or eliminate resource guarding, and has a wealth of tips that can prevent resource guarding before it starts.

In the meantime, if you have or are planning to get a new dog or foster, read these tips on Bringing Home a Rescue Dog to make sure you make the transition as smooth as possible.

Spend this week watching your dog in different situations and learning his body language, I think you will be surprised at how many things you notice.

Naturally,

Karen

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Karen Pedersen Written by:

Karen is an independent copywriter who loves dogs and everything about them. She is married to Scott, has 4 kids, and likes to take a natural and holistic approach to living and pet ownership.

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