Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
A Case of Resource-Guarding
This article is about dogs that tend to growl, snarl, snap, and bite when trying to take something away from them, whether it's food, bones, toys, or anything else. The technical term for this behavior is "resource-guarding," and in order to better understand this behavior, it helps to take a closer look into what dynamics are going on in the dog's mind.
Getting more acquainted with resource-guarding and the underlying emotions is important, considering that the wrong approach can significantly exacerbate things.
A Natural Behavior
It is often forgotten that resource-guarding in dogs is ultimately a natural behavior, something that has helped dogs survive and become the domesticated animals with whom we share our modern homes with.
However, resource-guarding targeted towards humans is often categorized as unacceptable because, as humans, we place high expectations on dogs nowadays with every little hint of "aggression" not being tolerated. "Don't bite the hand that feeds you" goes the saying.
Also, we live in a time of great liability, where medical bills can easily amount to thousands of dollars. A dog bite can easily lead to a lawsuit and even the dog risking being put down.
A Matter of Trust
Many dog owners find it surprising to learn that resource-guarding is more a matter of fear of losing access to something perceived as valuable (toy, food, stolen items) and a general sense of mistrust in having their owners nearby while in possession of such valuables.
Perhaps, this is surprising mostly because of the outdated notion that dogs who growl when in possession of an item are doing so because they want to be 'alpha' and wish to outrank their owners.
With the dog dominance myth debunked, and a better understanding of why dogs act in certain ways, we can, therefore, deduce that growling and biting when trying to take something away from them is more a matter of insecurity and mistrust. The dog lives in an anxious state of having his possessions taken away.
For sake of comparison, imagine walking down the road when a person walks by and removes your wallet or purse from you for apparently no rhyme or reason. Or perhaps, imagine eating a tasty steak when the waiter walks by and takes the steak off your plate right under your nose.
If this happens often enough, you would likely start living in a wary, hyper-vigilant state, and, therefore, may hold on to your purse tighter or you may eat your steak faster to prevent rude waiters from stealing it. However, if the stealing still happens, you may likely start to lash out and engage in defensive behaviors to protect your belongings.
Potential Triggers for the Behavior
Are dogs genetically wired to resource-guard or is it a learned behavior? Welcome to the nature and nurture debate! Turns out, most behaviors are the result of a combination of both genetics and the environment.
There may be, of course, many different views on this, but one thing is for sure: resource-guarding is an adaptive trait, which has allowed dogs to survive and be welcomed to our homes.
It's survival of the fittest: if a dog's ancestors "shared" in times of scarcity, they wouldn't have been able to live and reproduce, so it's ultimately a trait that has survived the test of time possibly because it can potentially turn helpful in any possible lean times.
Many dog breeders feel that resource-guarding may manifest first in the litter when too many puppies are fed from a small bowl of food, encouraging them to compete. More and more breeders, therefore, take steps to prevent resource-guarding in puppies from an early age, with the exercises being continued by the new owner. Particularly important is training the leave-it and drop it cues.
Resource-guarding may also be inadvertently encouraged by wrong approaches by the owner. Yelling at the dog, chasing down a dog when in possession of something (e.g. keep-away games gone bad) or prying open the dog's mouth to forcefully remove the item, can cause the dog anxiety upon having access to something perceived as valuable. Even the practice of forcing a dog to endure petting while eating food and repeatedly taking the bowl away can backfire paving the path for resource-guarding in an insecure dog.
Finally, harsh, correction-based methods such as scruff shaking or alpha rolling puppies to give up a resource or correcting a growl, will only backfire, increasing anxiety and potentially leading to a dog who suppresses his growling and goes straight to a bite.
It is easy to see how, in a natural environment, a group-hunting carnivore who guards would have reproductive advantage over one who gladly relinquishes. It’s a good trait, like a well-developed immune system or legs that can run fast. In a domestic environment, it is undesired.
— Jean Donaldson
14 Signs a Dog Is Guarding a Possession
Growling, snapping and biting are the most evident signs of a dog guarding a possession, but there can be many more subtle signs taking place before. Some dogs may also show very mild signs of resource-guarding that aren't readily recognized, only until the behavior has reached a point where more evident signs are noticed due to natural progression or the owner approaching the dog in the wrong way, exacerbating things.
Here are some potential signs a dog may be guarding a possession. Not all of the signs listed necessarily progress to problematic resource-guarding.
- Carrying an object in the mouth and moving away from the owner
- Running away and hiding the object
- Laying down with an object kept tightly in the mouth
- Tensing the body
- Hunkering over the possession
- Showing the white of the eyes (whale eyes)
- Eating faster as the owner approaches
- Swallowing edibles/non-edibles fast to protect them
- Rushing towards a valuable before the owner can get near it
- Sudden bout of intense barking upon approaching something valuable
- Growling in a deep, guttural tone
- Snarling (showing the teeth)
- Snapping (quickly biting the air)
How to Stop a Dog From Biting When Taking Something Away
Dealing with a dog biting when taking something away often entails a multi-faceted approach. Because of the risks for being bitten, it's important for dog owners to seek the assistance of a dog behavior professional well-versed in dealing with dog aggression and exclusively using force-free methods. Following are ways to stop a dog from biting when taking something away.
Rule-Out Medical Conditions
In dogs who resource-guard food, it's important to rule out medical conditions known for causing a ravenous appetite in dogs. A veterinarian should test for things like diabetes and Cushing's disease.
Also, it would be important gathering info on what medications the dog may be on. For instance, dogs on steroids may develop increased hunger as a side effect and this may trigger new behaviors such as poop eating and food aggression.
Other differentials to rule out are medical disorders that may cause pain (like spinal issues, joint pain), causing a lowering of the dog's bite threshold and the inability to move away with a valuable possession from an adult owner or child.
Ruling out medical conditions is important considering that results cannot be attained if there is an underlying medical disorder that needs to be addressed.
Implement Strict Management
As dog owners wait to see a behavior professional, it's important to implement a strict management protocol. This means preventing the dog from rehearsing the troublesome behavior by avoidance.
So if your dog guards in particular specific items, these items should not be provided, or for edible items, they should be provided only when the dog is inside a crate or behind a barrier such as a baby gate.
Consider Behavior Modification
While strict management can help prevent incidences of resource-guarding, it is not a treatment plan, and therefore, in most cases, it isn't sufficient to tackle the problem.
Treatment for cases of resource-guarding in dogs requires the implementation of behavior modification. What does behavior modification for dogs who bite when taking something away entail?
The most effective procedures are based on desensitization and counterconditioning techniques. Desensitization entails exposing the dog to low-grade situations taking a step-by-step, systematic approach. Counterconditioning, on the other hand, entails creating positive associations so to change the dog's underlying emotional response.
Please Note: Behavior modification may not always be suitable for all cases. In such cases, management may be necessary long-term. Consult with a professional for an assessment and consideration of prognostic factors for rehabilitation.
Hire a Professional
Behavior modification is an advanced skill that requires years of experience to implement correctly. It requires carefully reading the dog's body language for the most subtle signs of stress to ensure the dog doesn't go over threshold.
It is important to go slowly at the dog's pace to prevent setback of any progress made, and most of all, it's important to ensure safety. Also, along with behavior modification, it's important to still institute management as needed. Behavior modification, therefore, comes with risks. For this reason, it's important to work along with a behavior professional. This cannot be emphasized enough.
If you do not wish to actively teach the dog a more suitable behavior than aggression in the presence of food, or if you cannot or are too afraid to work with the dog, you must ensure that you and the dog avoid all circumstances in which the dog will become aggressive.
— Karen Overall, Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats
Safer Ways to Take Something Away
So you need to take something away from your dog, but you are wondering what you can do? Chasing your dog down, blocking him or prying his mouth open can lead to a bite.
There are several safer strategies that can be employed in order to take something away from a dog, lowering the chances for being bitten, but of course, a disclaimer is warranted here.
Sometimes, you need to carefully evaluate whether it may even be worth it, taking a risk. Consult with a professional to play it safe. For safety, it is therefore always recommended to carry out such strategies with the help of a behavior professional. It is also important having a helper and a door or other safe barrier.
Option 1: Provide a Strong Distraction
In this case, a strong distraction is purposely provided to get the dog to voluntarily give up the item. For example, a friend may be asked to ring the doorbell. Many dogs in this case will leave the item behind and rush to the door. As you walk to the door, open it and allow your dog to greet the guest, have a helper close a door that is between himself and the dog so to safely remove the item.
Another option is grabbing the dog's leash and collar. Many dogs look forward to going on a walk so will rush in hopes of having the leash and collar put on and then exit the door. As you head out, have a helper remove the item.
It is important in both circumstances that what the dog likes to do is permitted. If you ring the doorbell on purpose and there is no guest to greet, or if you grab the leash and collar and do not take your dog on a walk, you risk your dog no longer attending to these distractions and understanding that it's all a trick. Your dog may therefore seem tentative, rushing a bit towards the door, but then come back to re-gain his possession.
Option 2: Swapping for Something More Valuable
If your dog has a possession, start unwrapping one of your dog's favorite edible chews. It's very important that whatever you offer is always higher in value than what your dog has.
Keep in mind durability. If your dog has a stick in his possession, don't just give him a single treat which will cause him to gobble it up and then return promptly to the stick. Instead, give him something durable that will keep him busy for some time.
So once your dog gets up, leaving behind the stick, and eagerly asking you for his edible chew, toss this high-value treat past a door, and once he's behind that door, close this door between you and your dog so that you can safely remove the object.
This method works well because on top of getting the dog to voluntary relinquish the object, it also teaches him the art of "fair trading." In other words, instead of dreading you coming his way when he has a possession, he looks forward it because he has learned that you always have something better to offer.
Back to the former example of the rude waiter removing a steak from under your nose, how would you feel if instead he trades the steak for lobster and caviar and adds a glass of champagne too? Most likely you'll start loving seeing him move in your direction!
Messing with a dog’s food bowl when he is trying to eat is like somebody messing with your plate or petting your head when you are trying to eat dinner. Nobody likes that. However, you may be more tolerant, maybe even look forward to the person approaching if you know that the person was going to give you a small bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy ice cream every time they approached.
— Dr. Albright, veterinary behaviorist
- Clinician's Brief, Resource Guarding in Dogs Laurie Bergman, VMD, DACVB, Keystone Veterinary Behavior Services, Villanova, Pennsylvania
- Mine! by Jean Donaldson
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 25, 2020:
We have never faced this situation with any of our dogs, but it is useful information for dog owners to know. I liked your suggestions for using distraction and reward. Behavior modification would take some time to achieve a good result.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on January 17, 2020:
Excellent tips when dogs bite on something and never want to let go of it.