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A Positive Exchange

By Cecelia Sumner 

Dog guarding food bowl
Dogs may guard items such as food, toys, their bed, a specific area or location, a person – or anything else they consider to be of value © Can Stock Photo / pitrs

One of my general observations about dogs is they are not good at sharing. From a canine point of view, attention, food, toys, even a comfortable resting place might be worth protecting from encroachment. And, the encroachers might be any species, humans, canines or even felines can be subject to threats or attacks by a dog determined to retain a coveted item or location.

When I was a child, my parents always cautioned me about approaching a dog when he was eating. As an adult, I can understand why this is good advice, if only the tip of the resource guarding iceberg. Many of us are surprised to find our dogs baring their teeth over a bone or toy, yet this is totally normal canine behavior. Nevertheless, it can cause huge problems in the human world.

Resource Guarding

What is a resource guarder? In this case, I am referring to dog who will employ threatening signals or even bite when we try to take an object or move him from his comfortable location. A dog may stare, freeze, growl, curl his lip and/or hover over an item in an attempt to protect it. If a location is being guarded, the dog may also lunge to prevent being moved. Biting can occur in either situation if the warning signals are ignored.

I could not find any definitive research about why dogs become resource guarders. It has been suggested there is a genetic predisposition. It has also been suggested it is a learned behavior, particularly by the biggest and strongest pups in a large litter.

Regardless of the cause, resource guarding can be dangerous if not recognized and understood. It can cause dogs to lose their homes and possibly even their lives.

As a part of my normal training protocol, I teach dogs to leave and drop a variety of items. I often do trades. The dog gives me an item and I either give it back or give him something better in return. This is a game most dogs enjoy. Tug and fetch can fall into this training category.

In tug, we play, the dog gives me the toy and I give it back so we can play some more. How great is that? In fetch, I throw the toy. The dog brings it back so I can throw it some more. That’s great too. These games can establish a give and take routine that informally may reduce the desire to guard. These games can also indicate an issue. If the dog does not view these activities as games and becomes too focused, aroused or intense, it gives us an opportunity to realize there may be a problem.


If your dog guards objects from you, a program of desensitization can be introduced. As an example, my dog Rio guards bully sticks. If I come over to him when he is enjoying one, he will hunch over it and do a rattlesnake tail wag that indicates trouble.

To address the issue, I started the desensitization process by entering the room, probably 15 feet away. I tossed a few high value treats and walked away. I did that until he dropped the bully stick and sat up when I entered the room, anticipating treats were coming. Then, I began slowly coming closer, always tossing teats and retreating when Rio showed any signs of uneasiness.

These can vary from dog to dog, but these signs might include hunched body posture, growling, eating/chewing faster or picking the item up and increasing the distance from me. I closed the distance at whatever rate Rio could tolerate.

As he grew less worried, I tossed the treat a few feet to his side or behind him. Rio would leave the bully stick to get the treat. I would pick up the chew and return it to him. This lowered his anxiety about me taking objects.

It was a win-win situation for Rio. He got a treat and his prize was returned to him. In a rather short time, maybe two weeks, I was able to walk up to Rio, pet him, take the stick and return it to him without any defensive behaviors appearing. This is only one of the many ways we can treat resource guarding from people.

I always recommend consulting with a force-free trainer when dealing with resource guarding issues.

Guarding Behavior

Dogs can guard things from other dogs too. To me, this is actually more problematic. I generally use management to prevent the guarding behavior. This means I give the dog a coveted item in his crate and keep him separate until he is finished. Or, if the dog guards food, he eats separately from the other dogs.

In Rio’s case, I give him a chew that lasts quite a while. Since it takes him longer to finish, the other dogs can chew in peace. I monitor them to be sure they leave Rio alone until he is done. Again, there are many ways to handle this problem. My method is just one of many.

There are some good books and articles available with more detailed information, including the book Mine! by Jean Donaldson. Another is Resource Guarding: Treatment and Prevention by Patricia McConnell. Finally, enlisting the help of a force-free trainer is an excellent way to help you handle a dog that resource guards.

Donaldson, J. (2013). Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise Publishing
McConnell, P. (2013). Resource Guarding: Treatment and Prevention

This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, September 2015, pp.24-25.


About the Author
Cecelia Sumner CBCC-KA CPDT-KSA PCT-A owns Best Behavior Pet Training in Vero Beach, Florida and is dedicated to fostering understanding and communication between dogs and their people.

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