What is it? Resource guarding is simply a dog protecting something from being taken. A resource can be anything that a dog feels they need. Sometimes this can be as trivial as a sock or a discarded tissue but balls and food are the most common things for a dog to resource guard. Another common resource guard, and in my experience is more common as the dog ages, is the sofa or bed.
Often and traditionally, humans interpreted this as a dog being “nasty” or “aggressive” but this is not actually the case. A dog guarding its resource doesn’t mean the dog is any of those things, it’s actually displaying perfectly natural behaviour which has helped it evolve and adapt over the years. It’s a natural and ingrained behaviour that WE ALL DO to an extent. Resource guarding is 100% natural and it's this act along with prey drive and problem solving (opening doors, finding food etc) that humans are eager to remove from dogs, but without it, dogs may have become extinct years ago.
Before we go any further let’s think of us and I’m not anthropomorphising here, just using an example to help explain resource guarding. By locking our doors to protect our homes from unwanted intruders, we are protecting our homes. When a dog growls as you are near its food, bed, toys or find, it is protecting its own property or what it believes to be its property. If someone tries to take the glass of gin from my hand, they will be greeted with a response that is not “Oh, here you go!".
If a dog jumps up and steals dinner off the counter, we often shout "No, Leave, Drop" but we are actually resource guarding from our dogs. The same goes with the sofa, our shoes and so on.
Let’s say your dog has found a tissue on the floor and when you ask them to leave it they are not leaving but staring at you, your dog is not defying you or challenging you but watching you carefully to see your next move as they feel the need to protect their find, their resource (fun, food, water, comfort) and to guard/protect their precious new find. To you its just a disgusting dirty germ ridden tissue but to your dog it's precious. This tissue is amazing, and they are right to protect it - I mean, just look, their human wants it immediately, just look at their interest in it! The moment you lean in for it is the moment that you have confirmed your dog’s thoughts - it’s amazing and the human wants it - they had better protect it!
Whilst dogs act on impulse, they also provide warning signs of their anxiety - turning their head, holding onto an item tighter but if that’s ignored baring teeth, snarling and if we don’t listen and back off, what comes next is a bite. Can we blame the bite when we haven’t listened to the numerous communications? The correct procedure here is to always offer a trade - something of equal but preferably higher value alongside positive reinforcement such as huge praise and reward that they have left the item.
Dogs can resource guard anything including other dogs, humans, cats etc. I’ve even seen dogs resource guard from their own foot! You may have seen a video of a dog with a chew or bone and each time their leg moves up near their ear the dog snarls and gives a VERY clear warning to go away. As his foot moves away the dog takes the opportunity to move the bone a bit further away. The sensible choice rather than an escalation. After the dog has moved his bone over a few inches his foot continues to approach his bone. Next, we see more growling, snarling or showing of teeth and this time some lip licks. These are further warning for the foot or “threat“ to go away. After we see more intense repetition of this and a clear "back off" bark, his own foot carries on approaching and he bites his own foot! Can we blame him? The threat was warned enough times to leave him alone!
Some people may find this video amusing (and you can actually hear the owner and her child laughing in the back ground) but for me it's VERY concerning. Its neither funny or something to ignore. As it was the dog’s own foot, my initial advice would be a vet inspection to check for some sort of medical or neurological issue. If it was another dog or human causing this, I would be removing the resource if possible so that the dog doesn’t need to resource guard. To remove the cause of the resource guard, throw a handful of treats further away and lead into another room and then, when safe, remove the item.
Another one that we often see is dogs resource guarding their owners. This is not protecting as some owners like to believe! Sometimes it can make owners feel loved when their dog is protecting them and won’t let people near them. The dog is often not protecting their owners but protecting their resource. I mean this is the human who provides the love and comfort, the warmth and food. The strange dog or person is not getting near!!! If your dog is resource guarding you, I would strongly recommend professional advice on how to correct this behaviour.
Resource guarding is a natural behaviour for any dog, human, bird, cat you name it!!
I’m not going to go much further into this as doing so without seeing what’s happening myself could potentially make guarding worse. If you are having trouble with this method, then I would suggest that you contact a an experienced dog trainer or behaviourist to help with this. Someone that uses positive reinforcement and not outdated methods such as using force as this will only confirm your dogs fear that they should protect their resource.
It’s our responsibility as dog owners to prevent accidents, to teach our dogs a solid leave command and to encourage our dogs that they don’t need to resource guard.
If you are dealing with resource guarding please seek help from a professional. Trying to show your dog who is “boss” will do more damage than good.