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all articles by Lisa Lafferty unless otherwise noted.  Some previously published on K9Station (defunct) under author's previous name Lisa Giroux

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Food or Object Aggression:  Instinctual Resource Guarding Management

by Lisa Lafferty

DEFINITION:  Resource guarding refers to a dog displaying behavior (growling, snapping, etc.) intended to convince other dogs or humans to stay away from a particular treasure or resource. The resource can be food, treats, toys, a place (a bed or favorite chair), or their favorite person.

Resource guarding is the most common form of aggression that troubles pet dog owners. 

All dogs have the instinct to do it.  I like to think of it as a little button under the dog's skin.  Some dogs have a button that is buried so far below the skin, it is difficult to push it, and you rarely see the behavior.  Other dogs have a stronger instinct, and their button is right below the skin and is easily pushed/triggered.  Most dogs fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

But ALL DOGS have this instinct, and that is important to recognize.  Resource guarding in the wild (for domestic dogs, this means at the edge of a dump in India, for example) is an important part of surviving.  Feral dogs search all day for meager resources.  When they find something, it is in the best interest for their survival for them to defend it against all comers. 

So if your dog is doing it, don't think he is abnormal or showing traits of a "bad dog."  It's completely normal.  But, just as with a lot of normal, instinctual behaviors in dogs, sometimes we have to train and control the behavior so that the dog can fit into a human household.

Fortunately, resource guarding is EASILY manageable.  As a matter of fact, when I get a call about an "aggressive dog" and find out that the aggression is related to resource guarding, I breathe a huge sigh of relief.  It is the least complicated and easiest-fixed form of aggression for pet owners to control.

There are two different remedies and outlooks for controlling resource guarding.  The first is how you deal with dog/human situations, and the second is dealing with dog/dog situations.

Controlling the Issue--Dog/Human

When you are a giver rather than a taker in the dog's eyes, resource guarding drops to almost nothing, even in a dog that has a strong instinct under his belt.  If the dog thinks that he has to look to you, and ask for things, and then will get them liberally after he complies with rules, he doesn't need to guard his stuff from you.  He will be in a frame of mind to eagerly do what you want to get the things that he wants.

The first and most important thing to do with a dog that is guarding his stuff from humans is to prevent the issue from happening at the beginning of the training program.  Remember that practice makes perfect.  Each time your dog practices successfully guarding his stuff from a human, he is learning to do it better and better. 

So what does this mean in practical application?  Many people do things like try to feed the dog with their hand in the bowl, or give the dog something really good like a bone and then "make" the dog accept them taking it away.  This seems logical, but the reality is that IT ONLY INCREASES THE DOG'S ANXIETY ABOUT NEEDING TO GUARD.  These techniques usually backfire bigtime in the long  run.

So what is the program for controlling or eliminating resource guarding?

  1. Pick up all items the dog might guard such as toys or bones.

  2. Take away the dog bed if he's guarding his bed.

  3. Implement Listening for Life immediately and consistently to teach the dog you are a "giver" rather than a "taker."  This is CRUCIAL and cannot be skipped.

  4. Practice a "trade-off" maneuver.  This is an exercise where you place an object between the dog's front paws and "trade" for it with a treat.  You start with something the dog absolutely will not guard--a rolled-up washcloth, a metal spoon, etc.  You are training the dog to feel secure and happy to have your hand go in and take the thing from between his paws, while simultaneously delivering a treat as your hand goes in.

  5. When your dog has had several sessions of happily taking a treat while a non-valuable object is between his paws, step it up to something the dog *might* see as valuable, such as his least favorite toy.  Progress in this manner moving up the ladder of value, always seeking a non-reaction/tradeoff. 

  6. As you are moving up the ladder of valued items, watch for *small* signs of resource guarding, such as freezing, giving "whale eye," lowering head, showing anxiety etc.  If you see these things, reduce the level of value for a few reps before placing the other item back into the training program.  I like to do a few reps in the beginning of each exercise with a totally non-valued item such as a metal spoon, then replacing it with a more valued item after the dog is "warmed up" and knows what is expected because he's done a few reps immediately before with the lower-value item.

  7. No matter how hard you try to prevent the behavior, there are going to be times where the dog does it unexpectedly.  You need to react appropriately if this does happen by disciplining the dog each time.  This doesn't mean being harsh!  It just means showing the dog, without a shadow of a doubt, that his resource guarding not only does not WORK, it results in crappy things for him.  During the training process, especially if the dog is hard-core guarding stuff around the house, leave a light leash on the dog at all times while you are home.  Then, if he does something like snarl when you walk by the place where his food dishes are placed at feeding times, you can discipline the dog by simply taking the leash and bringing him immediately to a doorknob and hooking the leash loop over the doorknob and walking away.  It's a time-out.  Most dogs want badly to be in the action, and if you show him that each time he acts this way, he gets removed instantly, they will learn to inhibit their desire.  This method must then be followed by getting the dog off the doorknob and this is how it should go.  Approach the dog at a distance where he cannot touch you.  Ask for a sit.  Insist that the dog remain in the sit while you reach for the leash--simply back away if he gets up and ask for the sit again.  Show him that the only way he is getting off the door is by inhibiting his desire to jump and be crazy, and by listening to you carefully and thoughtfully.  When he is able to sit still while you take the leash, walk him a few steps away from the doorknob, ask for another sit, and then RELEASE him with a command word such as "good boy, come on back!" or something like that.  You want him to understand that you are GRANTING HIM THE PRIVILEGE of being allowed freedom in the room again.

  8. Please recognize that if you have a dog that is preventing you from kissing your husband or preventing other dogs from having access to you, he is guarding YOU, his valuable resource.  You are not his to guard and you should discipline this behavior by removing him immediately from your presence to show him that his behavior is unproductive.  Using the leash technique on the doorknob works really well for this.

  9. Do not "test" the guarding behavior by causing a guarding situation.  Do not push the envelope to try to make something happen. 

During this time of training, I usually advise to feed the dog in a crate with a closed door, and ignoring him the whole time he is eating.  But there's a way to do it to make things even better.  Place food in crate, ask dog for sit, then release dog into crate to food, and close the door.  This further solidifies his understanding that the food is YOURS and you are graciously allowing him to have it.  A giver rather than a taker, remember?  Only stop the crate or isolated feeding after he has progressed fully in other areas.  Make sure to remove the food dishes so that he is not tempted to guard them between meals.

Or, depending on the individual, you can also feed an individual dog by hand for a week or two, asking for obedience between each bite, with the dish at your feet.  I try to do this with my young puppies for as long as possible so that they learn right away that I am in control of the food, and that compliance and calmness results in more food.  Giver rather than a taker, remember?  You can combine the two methods, of isolation feeding and hand-feeding, and get good results.

Controlling the Issue--Dog/Dog

When dogs are guarding their stuff from one another, many trainers will advise punishment for each incident.  Again, this method often backfires in the long run, because the dogs soon learn to avoid doing it around you, and also learn to be really really anxious about needing to guard their stuff.  So when you are not looking they will tend to amp up their guarding behavior.  You can accidentally train dogs to be extremely resentful and grudge-holders if you punish rather than prevent incidents.

You cannot train dogs to not react to other dogs in this issue.  You have no control about the other dog's approach or behavior.  So the method to manage this issue is all about MANAGEMENT rather than TRAINING.  The only training you will really be doing is teaching the dogs that they can relax about keeping their stuff because YOU are the one helping them keep their stuff.  You will also be teaching calm, relaxed behavior around food routines at all times.

Pick up all toys and bones.  Allow both dogs access to toys an bones while they are isolated in a crate or behind a baby gate after they have done an obedience behavior or two for you.  Dogs do not need to have toys and bones lying all over the place to be happy.  Play games with their toys WITH them instead.

Relocate food serving areas for each dog so that they stop guarding the food area in general.  Either feed in crates or have the dishes far apart in the household.  Insist on the following routine:

  1. Both dogs on Listening for Life

  2. Sit/Stay while food dish is going to the floor

  3. Dog looks at owner for release word

  4. Release dog to food

  5. If one dog finishes before the other, down/stay the finished dog far away from the other dog until he's finished.  Then, down-stay the OTHER DOG, and release simultaneously after you pick up both dishes.

  6. Remember that ownership is 9/10ths of the law in the doggie world.  If your dog has something and guards it, hook the approaching dog to the doorknob, then go hook the dog that guarded to the doorknob.  Then dramatically take the thing that was guarded, say "MY TOY" and put it on top of the fridge.  You are disciplining the first dog for trying to upset the Ownership Law and the second dog for going overboard in guarding it.  Remember that YOU are the one that owns the bones and toys and they only have access to them if YOU are happy.  You want them to make you happy to keep their stuff.  If you have this attitude in general, life in your home will be far more peaceful (and it's why you are doing Listening for Life).

Understand that while most dog/dog relationships will calm down considerably, others will require management of certain really valuable things for life.  This is a REALITY of multiple dog ownership.  I myself cannot give each dog a stuffed Kong and turn them loose; I have one dog that will abandon hers and go try to collect everyone else's and then defend all the Kongs from everybody while she sits there NOT EATING any of them.  Her defense area is about 10 feet in diameter, so in my small house this means that all dogs are immobile in a tense Mexican standoff.  I put the culprit in a crate to enjoy her Kong, and she settles down and eats it immediately.

If you own Jack Russells or Dachshunds, or another breed that has a tendency to have a really strong resource guarding instinct, do yourself a favor.  Accept the fact that management of dog/dog resource guarding is going to be an issue, and thoughtfulness a way of life.  It is very hard to fight a truly strong instinct, and sometimes it's just not a training issue...it's a lifelong management issue.  I have often counseled dog owners to give up on the dream of total harmony with bones on the floor, because it's just not realistic.

Case Study #1--JACK

Jack was a feisty Jack Russell owned by a gentle mild-mannered retired lady who lived alone.  Jack was not the breed I would have necessarily picked as the ideal dog for this lady (who probably would have enjoyed a Sheltie, Corgi or Schipperke better, or even one of the less terrier-ish terriers with a less feisty disposition).

Jack guarded EVERYTHING from her and she had been letting him do it for the entire four years of his life.  She just left things on the floor for him, tons of stuff, and tolerated him dive-bombing her feet and legs if she walked too close to his toy on the floor.  He liked to sit on one end of the couch and would growl if she sat too close to him.  She left his food dish full all the time and he guarded an area about 5 feet around his feeding station.  She sometimes even had to sneak in to actually fill the food bowl.

I won't get into how disbelieving I was that a dog owner would put up with all this stuff for so long--sometimes it's hard for me to understand why someone would think that this was a fun way to share their life with a dog! 

The reason she called me was because things had escalated.  Jack was allowed to sleep on her bed and would often growl if she moved during the night.  He would get down and wander around sometimes and get a toy or bone and bring it into the bed, and then if she moved at all in her sleep he would bite her legs through the covers.  She didn't like it and didn't do anything about it until one night unbeknownst to her, Jack brought a toy onto the bed that ended up near her face.  She moved in the night and he bit her severely on the jaw, causing a hospital visit and 18 stitches.

Here's what we did to fix it.

  1. Listening for Life with Jack on the leash and attached to her for 2 weeks straight.  At night he was tied to her bed leg rather than having free access to the bed's surface and was sleeping on a mat located beside the bed.  He was not allowed to be on any furniture where he had previously growled at her and this was controlled by handling the leash rather than grabbing him.

  2. All toys and bones picked up, food dishes picked up and feeding station changed to a different place.  Dog bed picked up. 

  3. Establishment of twice-a-day controlled feeding routine with him sit/stay/released to food.

  4. Trade-off exercises with non-valuable items.  It should be noted that Jack was guarding ANYTHING you put between his paws at first and we had to start with him tied to a banister, with a rolled washcloth about a foot away from his paws, before we could move to having it between his paws.  The instinct was so strong that any time a hand went toward something under his face, he would react, so we had to start someplace where he could be successful.  We progressed well in a matter of a few days to things of a little more value.

  5. Stuffed Kongs as meal replacements once a day inside his crate to allow him the opportunity to settle down and really chew and dissect to relieve his urge to do so and lessen his bored and restless tendencies.  She would also offer pressed rawhides, butcher bones, and other great chewy stuff inside his crate or when she left for a few hours.

  6. Absolute prevention of access to kids in the house.  He was nervous around kids and would guard stuff at the drop of a hat, much higher level than just with her.  So she kept him on-leash or crated when friends with small children came over.

After only a few days, Jack's entire attitude changed from a bossy little autocrat to a dog that was intently looking at his owner's face for direction and eagerly complying with her directions and commands.

Jack's instincts were so strong and his reward history so long about guarding things that he could not come "all the way" to not guarding at all.  We found that if he had something that she needed to take, he would try to guard only if he was surprised by her trying to take it--if she spoke to him, asked him for a sit, and then took the item, he could suppress his instinctive response and allow her to take it without a problem.  That was something that she could definitely live with and manage. 

We decided that he could sleep on the bed with her again but only if there was nothing he could take with him on the bed.  She chose to keep him by her bedside tied to the bedleg most nights for about 6 months, and then started inviting him up sometimes, keeping him on the bedleg some nights, and some nights crating him with a medium-level chew toy.

In only a few short weeks Jack's life and his owner's life were much better.

Case Study #2--MAGGIE

Maggie was a beautiful little black-and-white Border Collie that belonged to my Carol.  Carol already had three Shelties when Maggie arrived as a puppy.  It was apparent that Maggie was a serious food and toy guarder right from the get-go (unfortunately this is a pretty common trait with Border Collies nowadays).

At first Carol thought it was all kind of funny, seeing the cute little puppy behaving so seriously.  She let it go on for a few weeks without thinking much about it, and the behavior escalated.  Carol picked up all the toys and bones.  Maggie started guarding the feeding station area, even when there were no dishes or food there.  Soon she was guarding the water dish, diving in from anywhere she was when she heard another dog drinking.  Carol had moved the food bags and dishes down in the basement, and after only a few days of going down to fill food bowls and then coming upstairs to feed, Maggie began to guard the DOOR OF THE BASEMENT.

By now Maggie was ruling the house with an iron fist and the Shelties had basically the living room to live in peacefully.  Maggie started trying to boss the Shelties around when they would all go outside.  She loved to play with the water hose with her owner, and Maggie would defend an area around where the water hose was coiled on the fence in the backyard!  All the dogs would be taken out behind the house into a field to run and play, and although Maggie functioned beautifully during the free runs, she began to extend her "hose guarding" to snarking and biting the Shelties as they came to the gate to the backyard.

Maggie and the Sheltie pack were, in essence, very easy dogs to manage when it came to their relationships with people.  They were naturally very "easy" dogs that did not require a lot of attention in the home to be very respectable pets.  For this reason, Carol had not done a whole lot of training or control, because the dogs quite naturally did the things she expected from good pets.  In other words, because the dogs didn't bug her in any way, she didn't see any reason to spend a whole lot of time on training and control.  When Carol needed the control in distracting times, she didn't really have any. 

I truly believe that in Carol's household, the dogs very much felt as though they were there on their own and under their own rules and regulations--they didn't have much guidance at all from Carol.  This situation might have worked out pretty well until Maggie arrived.  This is why it's important, no matter what kind of dog you have, no matter how "good" they are, to establish routines, rules, and discipline in your pack, whether you have one dog or many.  Your dogs need to understand that they can rely on your protection, and that they need to look to you for permission.  If they don't understand those two things, there is a high likelihood that problems are going to crop up.

We established a different feeding routine, with all dogs crated.  Maggie in particular was taught that "suppertime" meant to dive into the crate that Carol indicated, and wait.  Carol had to start changing which crate she directed Maggie into, because after only a few times Maggie would guard "her" crate.  She established Listening for Life with all the dogs, with a huge change in attitude noted right away from Maggie.

Although things improved, Maggie continued to guard things that no one expected her to guard.  The only thing that was constant was that Maggie would find something each day to drive the other dogs away from.  Even after things had hugely improved, Carol's life was a constant daily struggle to manage all the dogs together.  It certainly was not the way she wanted to live, and the Shelties were under stress, and so was Maggie.  When the opportunity came for Carol to allow Maggie to go live with her sister as an only dog, she chose to re-home Maggie. 

In this case, the obsessive/compulsive tendency of Maggie's Border Collie blood, combined with her resource guarding, was not the right fit for the household.  Maggie never, ever guarded anything from people.  She was a sweet, loving, smart, biddable, wonderful Border Collie, but she wasn't capable of living in close quarters with all the other dogs.  She lived out her life very happily with Carol's sister, getting put away if another dog visited, and getting along fine with other dogs she met outside of her home.

Maggie's case is extreme.  Most times, dog/dog resource guarding can be controlled and lessened.  Was Maggie a "bad dog" for having such a strong instinct?  No!  She was a dog that needed a certain kind of home, and she was a WONDERFUL dog of a lifetime in that home.

Fortunately, most dogs only guard actual STUFF and not PLACES WHERE STUFF MIGHT BE or THINGS THAT AREN'T HERE NOW BUT SOMETIMES FUN STUFF HAPPENS, like Maggie did.

If Maggie had been better managed as a puppy, if all the dogs had been placed on Listening for Life prior to Maggie's arrival and Maggie as soon as she arrived, this situation would probably have worked out very differently.  But the combination of strong instinct, and months of the dog successfully having fun guarding stuff, was just too much to overcome.

Case Study #3--Charlie

Charlie was a Kelpie that enjoyed eyeballing the two cats in the household.  He would "lock onto" them with his Kelpie stare and follow them around.  I didn't see the point, but I guess he enjoyed it, because he developed a really big habit of being so obsessed with the cats that he started attacking the other dog in the household if the other dog got too close to the cats.

In Charlie's case we ruled that Cat Herding was no longer allowed, kept him on the leash and told him off if we saw him trying to eyeball the cats.  Our primary training criteria was to teach Charlie that the cats belonged to the owner, and not Charlie, and that he had absolutely NO RIGHTS to do things with the cats.  At the same time, we increased his playtime with his owner by having a game of retrieve each day, with Charlie having to perform one or two of his many tricks before each throw.  We also took him to herding lessons (on sheep this time--not cats!) and his interest in the cats dropped sharply as he and his owner learned to do the thing he loved most--herding--under a controlled situation.  His owner learned to love the lessons with Charlie and kept going for the rest of his life.

This method worked very well in a very short period of time.  Charlie could never be fully trusted when alone in the house with the cats and the other dog, so when this needed to happen, either Charlie or the other dog were crated.  Fortunately it wasn't often that this was necessary. 

In this case, the "ultimate ideal situation" of Charlie, the cats, and the other dog could not be *fully* realized, but was easily managed and improved. 

In Closing

It is important to realize that in most dog/dog cases, there will be SOME LEVEL OF COMPROMISE from the "ideal" dream of what will happen.  You might not get perfection, but you can usually get a manageable level with not a whole lot of effort. 

Try not to get the idea in your head that a dog with strong resource guarding instincts, especially with other dogs, is a bad dog.  It's just a part of having a multiple dog household, or if you have a single dog that guards with other dogs, managing things so that it doesn't happen.  Try for the best you can get but don't be disappointed if management rather than perfection is your end result.  It's not fair to the dogs if you do not realistically understand the truth of how they operate and the things they can tolerate.

Dog/human interactions, fortunately, are a different story.  Training usually results in vast improvement and you can quite often get a dog that never, ever tries to guard stuff from people.  Proper consistency and thoughtfulness usually results in big results in a very short time that last forever with only a little work on the part of the owners.  It is never OK for a dog to show true aggression with their owners, and resource guarding is no exception.


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Lisa & Kerry Lafferty  /  ozarklisa@gmail.com  /    Mountain Home, Arkansas