Resource Guarding: What It Looks Like and What to Do
While food aggression or resource guarding has a reputation as a problem typical only in strays, the truth is this behavior can be found in any dog with any background. Guarding anything from food to their favorite bedding, dogs who growl, bark or hide their favorite items are guilty of this localized aggression. What resource guarding looks like, the reasoning behind it, and a few of the ways to tackle this problem are all addressed in this article.
What Resource Guarding Looks Like:
A stiffening of the tail, a curl of the lip, sometimes even just picking up their precious possession and moving to a more secure location. If your dog is guarding something they find valuable, these are just a few of the ways they will let you know. The most common resource dogs will show aggression around is food, but they can also guard toys, bedding, or anything they see as a limited resource. Items they would like to maintain control over are the first to be guarded, especially from unfamiliar visitors.
The behaviors that are shown in resource guarding, such as tensing of the body, growling, bared teeth, whites of the eyes showing, pausing during activity, or evasive movement, sometimes only present as one behavior to start with. When the dog is rewarded with their guarding behavior by the perceived threat backing off they will typically escalate the behavior.
Research Behind Why Dogs Guard Resources:
In terms of evolutionary behavior, guarding resources is hardcoded into dog DNA through survival instincts. Protecting territory, keeping away rivals from food, and limiting interactions with new-comers are all behaviors that helped our dog friends survive the millennia it took to domesticate them. Despite how natural these behaviors are, they are not always healthy for a modern relationship, and often come from a variety of causes. While it was previously thought this behavior was more likely in dogs who came from a background with limited resources, studies now show that resource guarding is caused by a combination of behavioral and hormonal influences.
In a 2014 study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, researchers found dogs were much more likely to show aggression to unfamiliar people rather than those they knew4. They were also unlikely to show aggression in more than one circumstance. This means that dogs who were aggressive to house visitors were unlikely to also show aggression to family members during mealtime. The researchers felt that this was because the dogs probably learned that aggression was a good response in one situation, but they did not learn aggression was appropriate in another. This study points to a behavioral base in resource guarding, that if a dog is not modeled the behavior of guarding bedding or food they are unlikely to start showing these behaviors.
While modeled behavior is important in training, studies also point to physical differences playing just as major a role in aggression. In a 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers examined the levels of oxytocin and vasopressin in forty-three dogs whose owners had sought out help for leash aggression2. Researchers found that dogs who had high levels of oxytocin, also known as the love chemical released after childbirth in mothers, were less likely to react to a surprise encounter with aggression. They also found that dogs who were more likely to react with aggression had higher levels of vasopressin in their blood, a stress related hormone that can trigger an aggressive response. While no breeds were found to have a particularly high level of either hormone, researchers noted that dogs training to be service animals had particularly high levels of oxytocin.
Steps to Address Resource Guarding:
While it is useful to know that dogs are only likely to show resource guarding if they are hormonally predisposed and have seen the behavior modeled, it is even more useful to know how to train a dog out of the behavior.
In an article written for Psychology Today noted dog behaviorist Stanley Coren, PhD cites several studies that conclude the same thing; aggressive and punishment-based training styles only serve to increase aggressive reactions in dogs3. All methods used for addressing aggressive behaviors, such as resource guarding, should use counter-conditioning and desensitization techniques. These two methods, both non-aggressive and working to change emotional reactions, are the best methods when addressing resource guarding.
It is important to both desensitize the dog to a person’s presence, and to change the dog’s feelings that a person is a threat to their resource to a more positive feeling. Both of these can be achieved with three easy steps:
- When the dog has a resource they have guarded in the past, approach them but stay far enough away that they do not show guarding signals. Stop at this perimeter, and toss a high-value treat towards the dog. Retreat till you are out of sight.
- Approach again, this time coming slightly closer than last time without coming close enough for them to signal guarding behavior. Toss another treat and leave the room.
- Continue approaching closer and closer without getting too close for the dog to signal guarding. Continue tossing treats each time until you are able to approach the dog and their item.
Once you are able to approach both the dog and the item they usually guard, try to touch the item without guarding behavior resurfacing. Use plenty of high value treats and patience, the key is to make the dog feel your presence represents something better than what they are guarding. If they abandon the item during this process and approach you for more treats, ignore them and leave the room. It is important they associate an item they like to guard with your presence. Once the process is repeated several times, your dog will start to prefer your presence over that of the item.
Understanding the root of a problem such as resource guarding is the first step to addressing it in your own dog. With these studies, we know resource guarding is a behavior based both in biology and learned habits. While some dogs are hormonally more likely to show aggression, learned habits play a larger role. By using the methods of counter-conditioning and desensitization, trainers (and owners) can soon overcome aggressive behaviors.
2 Maclean, E., Gesquiere, L., Gruen, M., Sherman, B., Martin, W. L., & Carter, C. S. (2017). Endogenous Oxytocin, Vasopressin and Aggression in Domestic Dogs. Frontiers in Psychology. doi:10.1101/151514
3 Coren, S. (2014, March 18). Dog Aggression Is Predicted by Training Methods and Breed. Retrieved March 27, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201403/dog-aggression-is-predicted-training-methods-and-breed
4 Casey, R. A., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G. J., & Blackwell, E. J. (2014). Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 152, 52-63. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2013.12.003