Resource guarding in dogs is a common behavior and one that is often misunderstood by pet owners. We're so used to considering our pets as members of our families that we tend to forget that they originated in the wild. Some of the behaviors that were developed there have remained within their makeup even though they have since become domesticated.
Both food guarding in dogs and other forms of dog resource guarding are one of those carry-over behaviors. Dogs in the wild often had to protect their food, shelter and other important resources from other dogs and other types of animals in order to survive. Dogs brought up in shelters or that were born in a large litter may be similarly conditioned to compete for the resources around them.
So what exactly is resource guarding in dogs, and how can you recognize it? Simply put it is when a dog acts aggressively protective of something. The behavior is most often applied to his food, but it can also be applied to other items including favorite toys, or even common articles the dog finds around the house like socks or papers from the trash. In some cases, the protective tendency may even be applied to his human family members or even parts of his own body where he doesn't like to be touched.
The signs of dog resource guarding can vary from taking the item and running away with it or hiding it in a "safe place" to snarling or growling to more obvious aggression such as biting or chasing a person away. It can be startling when this kind of aggressive behavior suddenly comes from an otherwise very loving and friendly pet but it's important to remember that this is a natural reaction on the dog's part and as the human you need to carefully consider how you react so you don't make things worse.
This can be particularly difficult and potentially dangerous in a household with children since they are less likely to understand why the dog is behaving the way he is and may unintentionally do something to provoke him, which can lead to disastrous results. For this reason it is crucial to recognize the signs of resource guarding and take steps to gently discourage it so that you and your four-legged best friend can live together happily.
For Australian Shepherd owners, dog resource guarding can be a common issue. Aussies are very intelligent and have a highly developed natural protective instinct. After all, it is the regular job of the breed to protect and guard their herd. When an Aussie is introduced into a household that protective instinct is often transferred, either to their family, which becomes their new "herd", their food, or their belongings.
This isn't a sign of a "bad" dog, but it is a behavior that can become dangerous if you don't get a handle on it as soon as possible. The good news about Aussies is that because they are so intelligent it may actually be easier to dissuade them from engaging in this behavior. At any rate, resource guarding in dogs does not have to become an issue provided you approach it the right way.
Most dogs will actually begin to develop a resource guarding tendency as puppies. When they have to compete with their litter mates for food, that competitive and protective tendency often kicks in naturally. For this reason, the sooner you can begin prevention measures, the better off you'll be as this will help to nip dog resource guarding in the bud so it doesn't continue into adulthood.
The first step in preventing resource guarding in dogs is to recognize the signs. Be aware of your dog's body language when he's relaxed and watch for any behaviors that are outside the norm. If his body is stiffening, his lip is curling, he's growling or even snapping at the air in front of you without actually biting, those are all signs that he's guarding.
To prevent this type of behavior you need to help remove the insecurity he feels so he doesn't view your behavior as a threat. Approach him and speak to him gently, offering a treat with one hand while you take the item with the other, then return the item to him. Do this several times in a row, always remembering to praise him when he doesn't respond aggressively. You can similarly use treats and praise to desensitize him to being touched in certain areas.
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If the dog resource guarding centers on a piece of furniture, like a couch or bed, you can counter this by using a "wait" or "hold" command before letting him up onto it. Also, make sure that if he's sitting on a couch or bed with you that when you get up, he does too, so that he doesn't get a sense of "ownership" of the piece of furniture.
For favorite toys, you can also play games that include give and take with a release command and plenty of praise when he interacts properly with you. Again, the earlier you can start with this type of training, the better and remember that positive reinforcement is always recommended as any negative response from you may actually escalate his aggression rather than deterring it.
While resource guarding in dogs is a natural instinct, it can become dangerous if it continues unchecked. If you feel that you have a particularly serious situation that you can't handle yourself, don't hesitate to seek the help of a trained professional.
For further reading see: 5 Ways to Help Your Dog Overcome Resource Guarding Behavioral Issues by Doggy Dan. Dan is a professional dog trainer based in New Zealand.
He has also created a comprehensive online video-based dog training program. His program covers all aspects of dog training and just about any behavioral issue you are likely to come across. You can find out more about Dan's program here.
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