Last updated: February 20, 2021
It’s pretty unsettling when your beloved pet fiercely defends a bowl or toy from you. Doesn’t he know who you are? Doesn’t he know that you love him dearly? That you are his best pal? That you were the one to give him that treasured object in the first place? Doesn’t he know that YOU ARE THE BOSS OF HIM?
Take a deep breath. It’s okay.
Today I’ll teach you what to do and what not to do, and talk about how I handled my dog’s resource guarding (and it’s probably not what you’d expect).
It’s a natural gut reaction to be shocked and dismayed by resource guarding. I remember when I was a brand new dog owner and my new puppy growled at me when I tried to take a rawhide from her. I could scarcely believe it! Was my puppy… *gasp* …aggressive?!
Now that I am older and wiser and all that, I know that resource guarding and food aggression is pretty typical behavior.
And I have good news:
- It’s the simplest type of aggressive behavior to modify
- It responds very well to modern, force-free behavior modification methods
So don’t worry; as long as you address it properly, things will get better. Your dog isn’t bad, and you can still live happily ever after together.
What is resource guarding (RG)? Why do dogs do it?
I like behaviorist Patricia McConnell’s definition: it’s “behavior that discourages another to take, or get too close to, an object or valued area in a dog’s possession.”
A dog might protect toys, food bowls, treats, trash, furniture, or even their favorite people. They view people approaching their stuff as a bad thing, because they’re afraid someone will take their stuff away. The dog will tense up, bare their teeth, or growl when approached. If these warnings are ignored, they may bite as a last resort.
In this post, we’re talking about dogs who resource guard against humans. Dogs may also guard against other dogs, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
Before you get too upset by your dog’s actions, just realize that resource guarding and food aggression is normal dog behavior. As far as the dog is concerned, you’re being quite rude, taking his stuff.
This is one of the many behaviors (like jumping, digging, barking, crotch-sniffing, etc) that are perfectly acceptable in canine society but frowned upon in human society.
“Frowned upon in human society?”
That’s not even true, is it?
You’re probably a resource guarder, too!
Imagine: You’ve just sat down to your favorite meal. A really good steak, perhaps. You’ve been looking forward to this dinner all day!
But then someone immediately reaches over to grab your steak off your plate with their hand.
“Hey,” you say, somewhat bewildered. “That’s mine, don’t touch.”
They ignore you. They grab the steak.
You smack their hand away while saying “HEY! I said no!”
The person yanks their hand away and gasps. “oh my god, what’s wrong with you?” They ask, horrified. “Are you aggressive? Are you trying to DOMINATE me?!”
Now you know how your dog feels.
There are endless, less thought-experimenty examples of everyday resource guarding in humans:
- Putting your name on your lunch in the office fridge (and getting pretty pissed when it mysteriously disappears anyway, I wonder how that happened, BRAD)
- Locking your front door
- The nightly tug-of-war for the blanket between a couple sharing a bed
- Calling dibs on the last slice of pizza
- Chaining your bicycle to a bike rack when you leave it in public
I realize this doesn’t actually solve the issue you’re having with your dog, but, ya know. Just some perspective.
Resource guarding is not a power play
It’s not about trying to take over leadership of the pack, or anything (which is a crusty old myth anyway).
RG says nothing about a dog’s social status, especially when it comes to guarding resources from humans. But it does actually seem most common in insecure and anxious dogs.
A confident dog usually doesn’t feel the need to constantly fight for their stuff. When a confident dog has a beloved toy or a bone, he’ll leave it lying around. He’ll let people pick it up. He’s calm, cool and collected. He’s not worried about people stealing from him.
An anxious dog is another story. They’re more likely to worry about losing their stuff, or not having enough to eat. (This is why a lot of dogs display food aggression during their stay in animal shelters)
The way to fix this? Teach your dog that he has nothing to fear from you. The people around him are well-meaning and nobody wants to steal from him.
Ferocious fur balls: Resource-guarding puppies
RG behavior is a common, and almost expected, part of puppyhood. In the litter, puppies deal with fierce competition from their siblings. Any time they get ahold of a piece of food or a toy, they have to defend it or else another pup will probably take it. Puppies often carry this behavior over to their new homes.
Don’t freak out if your adorable little baby dog growls at you for coming too near a treasured object. As long as you take it seriously and address it before it becomes a major problem, resource guarding is pretty easy to fix in puppies.
The wrong way to handle the issue
We’ll get to the good stuff in a moment, but I thought it was worth mentioning the traditional way of dealing with RG, because it’s so backwards that it would be laughable if it wasn’t so deadly. It causes real damage to dogs, their people, and the human-dog bond.
In ye olde school of dog training, RG is often treated as a dominance/control issue. The solution, then, is punishment:
The dog protects his food bowl? Step in front of the dish and push him away to show him that the food belongs to you. The dog snarls when you try to take his toy? Alpha-roll his ass.
This battle of wills is the kind of thing you see on a lot of dog “rehab” reality shows. While it does make for dramatic television (Hey, I’ve been known to watch 90 Day Fiancé. Who am I to judge people’s entertainment choices), it offers absolutely no long-term solution.
This ain’t something that can be solved with punishment or corrections. All you accomplish when you do this is confirm Fido’s suspicion that you ARE a threat and he has to protect himself from you. The solution becomes the problem, creating a vicious cycle. There are three things that can happen when people try the this approach:
1. The problem gets worse and Fido actually hurts somebody. Fido will probably be euthanized now.
2. The problem doesn’t get any better and Fido’s owners give up, switching to a management-only approach (i.e. “leave the damn dog alone when he’s eating”). Hopefully there are no kids in this household.
3. It actually “works” and suppresses the behavior. It does nothing to CHANGE the behavior, so Fido’s owners now have a dog who is shut down: upset, but unable to show it. Suppressing behavior is cruel and dangerous for dogs and people alike.
Growling is a good thing
Punishing a dog for growling is dangerous. And kind of counterproductive, since growling is not aggression; growling is a dog’s way of avoiding aggression.
A growl is the equivalent of saying “knock it off” or “something’s not right.” When a growl is punished, all the dog learns is not to give warnings before they bite.
What to do about it
I’ll show you a couple training exercises to do, and then I’ll talk about practical ways to handle “real life” situations where the dog gets ahold of something they can’t have.
We’ll address food aggression and object guarding today. The basic principle for both: condition Fido to view people approaching and touching his stuff as a good thing. Human hands giveth, they don’t taketh away.
Proceed with caution: When dealing with aggression, there’s always the potential for injury. The risk is lowest when you use force-free methods like I’ll show you, because confrontation is not built into the training. But still – train at your own risk. When in doubt, consult a good trainer or behaviorist. Just remember that not all trainers are created equal, as this is largely an unregulated industry. Do your research and say “thanks but nah” to any trainer who wants you to be the alpha or put a prong, choke, or e-collar on your dog.
Resource guarding, and food aggression in particular, responds very well to desensitization and counter-conditioning (DSCC)
DSCC is often not the best approach for things like reactivity, because it’s hard to set up controlled situations with reactivity, but it’s perfect for RG.
What you need to know first
The devil is in the details: Read our DSCC primer
Today’s article will only lightly explain how to adapt DSCC specifically for RG. We have another article that goes into much more detail. So please read that before you begin training. The Right Way to Use Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning to Help a Fearful or Aggressive Dog
Real behavior mod actually looks pretty boring
If it’s done right, that is.
You don’t need or want the dog to exhibit the unwanted behavior in order to fix the unwanted behavior.
The dog’s gotta stay below threshold -the point at which a stimulus (a human approaching his stuff) is strong enough to provoke a reaction like growling or snapping- at all times. Our goal with training is to gradually push Fido’s threshold so high that he never reaches it at all.
When a dog is over their aggression threshold, they’re not in a place where DSCC will work. Avoid provoking even subtle signs of RG, such as:
- Eating faster (to get it all before it’s taken)
Be CER-tain training is working
Fido needs to develop a happy Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) to you approaching his stuff. During the training exercises, when you go to put food in his bowl or take the object from him, we want him to exhibit body language of happy anticipation:
“Oh boy, I’m gonna get something good!”
You know that bright-eyed and hopeful look your dog gives you when he realizes you have a treat for him? That’s what what we’re going for. Achieve this CER at each step of training before you move to the next step.
Know what you’re looking at
As you can see, there’s a lot of body language-reading involved here. To be successful at this training, you need a solid understanding of the subtle ways dogs communicate. Take our free online course, Dog Speak 101
Avoid putting the dog in situations where RG may occur, except during training setups
Like if he guards high-value chews like pig ears, either don’t let him have these at all outside of training, or when you do, stay far far away. Maybe put him in a room with the door closed until he’s finished.
If he guards forbidden objects that he’s stolen (and by “stolen” I mean picked up because it looked interesting and was left within reach), then prevent stealing by treating him like he’s a wee baby and you’re doing the puppy thing all over again: supervise, dog-proof your house, use baby gates and a crate, etc.
First, no free-feeding
Fido has to learn that dinner comes from people, not from an always-full bowl on the floor. Feed 2-3 meals per day, picking up any leftovers.
The refill exercise
Use this exercise to feed your dog all his meals for a while.
Ration out a meal’s worth of dry food. Put it into either a treat pouch that you wear, or a container that will be kept out of the dog’s reach. Present Fido with an empty food bowl.
If there’s ANY chance this scenario could cause Fido to freak out or bite, put a baby gate between the two of you or tether his leash to a sturdy object.
Step one: Approach the bowl, then add a few pieces of food, then step back about 2m (6 ft). Wait for him to finish eating the food, then repeat.
Repeat until one of these things happens:
- Fido starts showing a happy CER as you approach
- He loses interest in eating
- You run out of food
If Fido has shown the CER on three approaches in a row, you can move on to the next step in the next session/meal. If he does not show a CER, repeat this step in the next session.
“But my dog doesn’t guard kibble, she only guards good stuff.” Even better! All the more reason to do this exercise. Good behavior mod looks boring, remember? Starting at a level you know you’ll be successful at is the best way to build a foundation of trust.
Step two: This time, add something delicious, like chicken or dog food roll. Approach the empty bowl, add some kibble plus one piece of the good stuff.
Same deal as step one: do as many sessions as needed until you get three CERs in a row.
Step three: Present Fido with a bowl filled with a quarter of a meal’s worth of kibble. Approach while the bowl is full (either while he’s eating, or while he’s just standing and waiting because he knows you have something better than kibble), and toss in a piece of something delicious.
As always, stay far enough away that Fido shows no warnings. Depending on how good your aim is, you might need to settle for tossing the delicious food NEAR the bowl, and that’s okay.
Repeat until three CERs blah blah blah. You know the drill.
Step four: Give your dog a bowl with a small amount of something he’s known to guard. Raw food, wet food, his favorite (dog-safe) table scrap, etc.
Wait til he finishes, approach the bowl, add more.
Step five: Give your dog a bowl of the good stuff from step four. This time, WHILE he’s eating, approach and toss more in.
If, at any point, the dog shows warning behavior of any kind *coughDog Speak 101cough*, immediately decrease the intensity of the exercise.
Ways to decrease intensity:
- Create more distance between you and the dog
- Make your body language less intimidating by standing sideways instead of facing him straight on
- Go back a step or two or three
If your dog only guards things (bones, toys, dirty socks, etc) and not meals, do the above exercise with his meals anyway. It will build a much-needed foundation of trust and happy thoughts. Work up to at least step three, then do the following:
The treat toss exercise
Set up a situation where the dog will guard. Give him an object that he CAN safely have, of course. i.e. a pig ear, not a dirty sock. Walk away, then come back. Stop at a distance you know he won’t show warning behavior, and toss him a piece of chicken.
(Yes, it has to be chicken or something equally good. Not dog biscuits, not chicken flavored treats. Chicken.)
Walk away, come back, toss more chicken.
Repeat about five times per session, then leave him in peace.
Over multiple sessions, gradually decrease the distance between you and the dog. Make sure to get that “when my human comes near me when I have a bone, they give me something better woohoo!” CER at each distance first.
You can generalize this by approaching Fido when he’s chewing on any toy, and tossing him a treat.
Teach Drop It
Start by giving Fido a toy that he finds low-value. Then present him with a very good treat. When he releases the object, say “drop” or “give,” and then give him the treat. As soon as he’s done chewing, give him the toy back.
Start with very short sessions to prevent Fido from getting frustrated. I’m talking two to four “drops” and then done, leaving Fido to play with the toy in peace. You can gradually work your way up to longer sessions and higher-value toys.
The exchange game
Again, start with Fido holding a low-value object, like a squeaky toy.
Approach with high value object, like a pig ear, hidden behind your back. Ask Fido to drop the low-value toy. When he does, give him the good one.
Until you and Fido are great at all this training, use management to prevent him from getting things he shouldn’t have.
Even if the resource guarding disappears, continue to play the exchange game and the drop it game and the treat tossing game on a maintenance basis.
What about when you really DO have to taketh away?
Okay, so maybe you’ve started the training plan, but haven’t had time to see a big difference yet. And someone accidentally left a shoe where Fido the Shoe Aficionado could grab it. Now Fido has the shoe and he’s growling at you.
Here’s what to do:
Get some chicken. You’re going to give him the chicken in exchange for the shoe. Now, exactly HOW you do that depends on a few things.
But before we go further, I need to define a couple terms:
When you tell Fido to do a trick (for example, “sit”), he does the trick, and then you pull out a treat and give it to him, this is called a reward.
When you put a treat in front of Fido’s nose, have him follow it into the position you want (for example, a sitting position), and then give it to him, this is called a lure.
(See the Dog Training 101 series for more on lures vs. rewards)
Moving on, please answer these questions:
Have you started the object guarding exercises yet? Does Fido know the Drop It cue and enjoy playing the exchange game? Do you think you can safely touch this shoe without being bitten?
If the answer is NO, use the chicken as a lure. Speak to Fido in a happy voice. Keep your body language non-threatening (stand sideways instead of face on, crouch down if possible). Put the chicken in front of his nose, lure his face away from the shoe, take the shoe, give him the chicken.
You can also stand at a distance, shake a bowl of chicken and excitedly say “oh BOY, Fido, come see what I have!” Hopefully, that will make him abandon the shoe and come see what you have.
But if the answer is YES, just use the chicken as a reward. Put your hand out for the shoe, say your Drop It cue, take the shoe, then give him chicken.
And when it’s serious: damage control
When my Belgian Malinois, River, was a teenager, she went through a huge resource guarding phase. I dutifully worked on training, but one day, I made a mistake.
River found a giant cooked pork bone left over from dinner. Someone left it where she could find it. I approached. I was ten feet away when she snarled as loud as she could. Because of the training we’d done, River always let me take forbidden objects from her. Not today. This was the biggest treasure she’d ever had. She told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was not permitted to touch.
This is an example of being WAY over threshold. You want to avoid this At All Costs during the training phase. But, ya know, shit happens.
If I tried to “show her who was boss,” it would just make our trust problem worse in the long run. And I might get bitten. Contrary to what dog training reality shows would indicate, most dog trainers would agree that being bitten is not a badge of honor, but a sign that they fucked up.
It also didn’t seem like a good idea to stick a lure in front of her nose. I ended up taking chunks of meat and dropping them on her back. Which was weird enough that she stopped guarding and turned around to investigate. I kicked the bone out of reach.
This is not good training. This is not good management. This is damage control. All I could do was commit to training and managing better.
FAQ: If I give my dog treats when she steals stuff, are we rewarding her for stealing?
If you have to do this on occasion, then no. All it does is further condition a positive CER to people touching her stuff. See Training a Behavior Vs. Changing an Emotion: What All Dog Owners Need to Know.
But if this happens on a frequent, regular basis, then yes, over time you could end up with the dog learning that taking stuff is a fun game.
That’s why management is important. Keep stealable stuff out of your dog’s reach. And any time she’s in the presence of stealable stuff but does NOT steal, reinforce her for not stealing by giving her attention and praise, and maybe getting a dog toy to play with.
And this might be an unpopular opinion, but: I would much rather your dog learn that grabbing stuff and having you take it back is a fun game, instead of resource guarding for the rest of their life.
Don’t tell them I said this, but my housemates are kinda messy and always left stuff where River could get it. So I did have to trade treats for shoes/hats/fast food containers a lot.
And now? Her days of real RG are long behind us.
Sometimes, when I’m too busy writing about dogs and not playing with her enough (oh, the irony), she will “steal” something and give a mighty growl. But the twinkle in her eye and her playful stance tell me it’s all in good fun. I’ll make a show of being deeply offended, take the object out of her mouth, and promise to play with her in five minutes. She’ll give me a charming maligator smile and prance off to get one of her toys or harass her sister Hazel or something.
It’s all quite endearing and I really don’t care that I’ve accidentally “reinforced an unwanted behavior.” I got dogs because I like dogs and all their hijinks and hilarity, not because I’m a stickler for dog training rules.
When should you seek professional help?
- If it’s been several weeks with no improvements
- If Fido has bitten someone or you think he probably would
- If you have young children in your home
- If you are uncomfortable doing this training or feel like you’re in over your head
Find a trainer who is uses DSCC or other force-free methods, not corrections. Use this guide from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers to learn how to find the right professional.