Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
The Importance of Preventing Resource Guarding in Puppies
Prevention is always better than having to find a cure. Preventing resource guarding in puppies is something that breeders and all new puppy owners should invest time in. This will help to prevent potential problems later on. Considering that resource guarding is an issue that may raise its ugly head at some point or another in a dog's lifetime, this issue should be emphasized more often.
There is debate as to whether resource guarding is something that is genetic or learned (the infamous nature versus nurture debate). To better understand resource guarding in dogs, it helps to take a closer look into a dog's evolutionary history along with its early life experiences in the litter.
This Article Will Cover the Following Topics
- How resource guarding has helped dogs survive and be the wonderful pets we have the privilege of owning today.
- Early resource guarding in young puppies when they are still in the litter (what most puppy owners never get to see first-hand).
- How breeders can help prevent resource guarding from the get-go.
- Is resource guarding due to genetics? Learned behaviors? Or a combination of both?
- Subtle and not-so subtle signs of resource guarding in puppies.
- Mistakes new puppy owners make and how to avoid them.
- Exercises that can help prevent resource guarding in puppies.
Resource Guarding as an Adaptive Trait
Despite the fact that, nowadays, dogs are fed in shiny bowls, wear collars studded in rhinestones and sleep on memory foam beds, they still display traits that are reminiscent of their evolutionary past.
We see dogs walking in circles before lying down (so to step on grass and scare off snakes and pesky bugs), burying bones (conserving them for possible lean times ahead) and occasionally, mother dogs regurgitating for their puppies (so they can be gradually weaned from milk to semi-solid foods).
While some of these behaviors are no longer under any evolutionary selective pressure (most dogs no longer lead feast-or-famine lives and breeders take care of weaning puppies and introducing them to puppy mush), these behaviors still persist nonetheless.
Another behavior that has a highly adaptive history is resource guarding. In a dog's past evolutionary history, if his ancestors failed to exhibit any signs of resource guarding, their hard-earned meals would have ended up being stolen by competitors. Sharing food left and right is ultimately a maladaptive trait in the wild and could have led to the extinction of a species.
While resource guarding behavior offered a cutting-edge advantage in a wild setting, in a domestic setting, resource guarding, especially when geared towards humans, remains a highly undesirable trait, to the point that, dogs showing signs of it, are at risk for euthanasia in a shelter environment.
One would think that, after being selectively bred to perform various tasks alongside humans for hundreds of years, by now the tendency to resource guard in dogs would have gone extinct considering that humans have provided (and continue to provide) a steady provision of food with adequate caloric intake and have no interest in stealing the goodies doled out to them. Yet, resource guarding is still well and alive and it is demonstrated by the countless dog owners seeking help with this problem.
Perhaps this adaptive trait is just there, lingering somewhere just to come out should, one day, dogs have a need to fend for themselves—as happened during Hurricane Katrina.
Given evolutionary history and the importance of controlling access to resources for survival, aggression around resources (i.e., "resource guarding") is often regarded to be within a dog's normal repertoire of behaviours.
— (Horwitz and Neilson, 2007)
Genetic or Learned Behavior?
It may be natural to assume that there must be a genetic component at play considering that puppies may resource guard a mother dog's nipples when very young. However, research reveals that behavior is influenced by both inheritance and interactions within the environment.
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For instance, it is known that stress during pregnancy has the potential to predispose the fetuses to become reactive to future stressors, startling more quickly and having longer recovery times, which may be relevant when considering factors that influence aggression.
For example, pregnant human females experiencing high levels of anxiety in their late pregnancies had children with reported higher rates of behavioural and emotional problems when assessed at both two and four years of age, even after controlling for potential effects of postnatal anxiety and depression (O'Connor et al., 2003)
The same has been found in dogs. Prenatal stress in mother dogs was found to lead to behavioral deficits and molecular changes in the developing puppies similar to those observed in schizophrenic humans, explains board-certified veterinarian Dr. Franklin D. McMillan in his article on The Harmful Effects of Puppy Mills on Breeding Dogs and Their Puppies.
So is resource guarding the result of nature or nurture? According to Paul Chance, Ph.D. in Psychology from Utah State University and author of the book ''Learning & Behavior,'' asking whether heredity or the environment is more important in determining behavior is sort of like asking: "Which is more important in determining the area of a rectangle, width or length? The two are inextricably intertwined and trying to separate them will not serve any particular purpose.''
"Behavioral screening of the 103 dogs examined revealed resource guarding (61%) and discipline measures (59%) as the most common stimuli for aggression."
— Reisner IR, Shofer FS, Nance ML; "Behavioral assessment of child-directed canine aggression."
Early Resource Guarding
Signs of early resource guarding are often seen in the litter when the pups are very young. Initially, resource guarding may be seen as nipple guarding when pups rely primarily on milk, and then, it transitions into food guarding once the pups are in the process of weaning and then being weaned. Prevention, once again, is worth a pound of cure while the puppies are in the breeder's care.
Preventing Mealtime Issues
During mealtime, there are two potential problems: puppies pushing other pups out of the way to steal food and pups being pushed out of the way. Both situations can potentially end up paving the path to resource guarding and defensiveness.
Breeders may also evoke resource guarding in predisposed puppies by feeding a large litter of puppies with one single bowl and not enough food. When supply is limited and there is overcrowding, the pups may feel competitive and they may start eating fast, pushing other pups, stealing food and displaying signs of resource guarding.
Providing more food bowls than the number of puppies can help prevent early issues and it paves the path to the opportunity for the breeder to teach the pups polite eating habits. Those habits can come in handy the day the pups are sent to new homes and need to eat from their own bowls.
Putting out more food than the puppies can eat (in a way that ensures there are leftovers once the pups are done eating) is another good strategy. Mother dog can then be allowed to finish up.
The point is to prevent puppies from needing to resource guard, and if signs of resource guarding are noticed, care must be taken to promptly work on the issue and prevent these puppies from rehearsing any problematic behaviors.
Supervision by the breeder during feeding time is therefore paramount. Fast eaters and pushy pups should be prevented from stealing and pushing the slower pups away. This can be done once again by providing more food so that the plumper, more-eager-to eat pups don't feel the need to take from others.
While preventing puppies from competing over food by providing plenty of it may seem like a good plan, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Albright cautions that, while anecdotally, providing more bowls than puppies might help prevent food-bowl aggression in puppies, it's important to consider that hunger isn’t the only driving factor.
It still remains unknown what causes some dogs to develop food-bowl aggression. While on one hand, one can assume that genetics and early learning can potentially predispose an animal to food aggression, on the other hand, competition for food among puppies in a litter may just be a part of it and it is probably not the whole story, she says.
There may therefore be a need for more strategies to be implemented. For instance, if one puppy is particularly protective despite taking precautionary steps, what else can be done? There are several ways to handle this.
This pup can be redirected and prevented from rehearsing the problematic behavior. Also, he can be offered a higher value treat than what he's consuming (and guarding) in the first place, every time other puppies approach him. With time, the pup should come to realize that the tasty morsel is contingent upon other puppies coming near and a positive association is potentially created.
Implemented correctly and with the right timing, this can be sufficient to change the pup's emotional response from feeling threatened to looking forward to the other pups coming close.
If one puppy is becoming a lot fatter than the other pups, or one puppy is a lot thinner than the others, breeders should be suspicious of behaviors at the food dish that may facilitate unequal feeding patterns.
— Dr. Karen Overall, veterinary behaviorist
A Matter of Trust
Puppy owners often assume that resource guarding in puppies directed to owners is due to the puppy wanting to be "alpha" and trying to be "dominant" over its owners. This is far from what the puppy is trying to do.
With the dominance myth causing all dogs to misbehave because of a need to be alpha debunked by research, what's likely happening is that the puppy is simply lacking trust. The puppy doesn't trust his owners coming near when the puppy is eating or guarding a resource. This lack of trust may be due to various factors, and as seen, there may genetic and learned behaviors at play.
Dog owners may sometimes inadvertently encourage resource guarding or may cause it to emerge if a dog was predisposed to it. This can happen in various ways.
For instance, a puppy may feel compelled to guard items if they are often bluntly removed by the owner or if the owner engages in behaviors that are perceived as intimidating such as scolding or forcing the puppy to give up items by cornering the puppy, reaching out to remove the item and/or prying open a puppy's mouth.
Board-certified veterinary behaviorist John Cirabassi claims "Punishment or forced removal of items or food can increase the likelihood of the animal escalating aggressive displays to maintain control of items. This fear-based response can result in the aggressive guarding of benign items that may not contain the same value as the original objects possessed by the dog."
Playing games of "keep-away" may too be counterproductive because, to a resource guarding puppy's eyes, you may be chasing him to steal his belongings.
Sometimes, dogs owners may push puppies to guard their food bowls by pestering them during mealtime. These well-meaning owners are concerned about resource guarding and will purposely take food away, put their hands repeatedly in the bowl or pet the puppy while eating in hopes of habituating the puppy to their presence, but this may only worsen problems.
What all these methods have in common is that they do nothing to instill trust. Why should a dog want the owner near if that means potentially losing his possession? Why does a dog have to keep up with people messing with his food by putting hands repeatedly in the food bowl? Especially those same hands that earlier took a bone out of the puppy's mouth!
To prevent resource guarding in puppies, a good amount of effort must be exerted to instill trust. This is done by creating positive associations, to the point of creating what is known as a "conditioned emotional response."
We should be advising clients against poking and prodding a dog while eating. It may help to tell clients that 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 approache
— Dr. Albright, veterinary behaviorist
A Ladder of Aggression
Most puppy owners are capable of recognizing the most obvious signs of resource guarding, but there are many subtle signs that precede the most obvious ones. It's important to recognize these signs so as to nip behaviors in the bud before they escalate. Recognizing early signs is also important for behavior modification, so to ensure the puppy is not sent over threshold.
Following is a ladder of aggression often seen in resource guarding. Remember, dogs don't always follow these in a textbook fashion, and they may skip through the rungs. If you notice any of these signs, please refer to a behavior professional using force-free behavior modification for help.
Caution is needed with puppies who start eating faster the closer a person approaches. These puppies are worried about their food being stolen, and therefore, decide to take the "eat it fast and stop worrying" approach.
This behavior should be tackled considering that countless dogs end up on the surgery table for swallowing objects and bones to prevent their owners or other dogs from stealing from them.
It often happens along these lines: a dog may get ahold of something that he or she perceives as very valuable. The dog tries to hide with it or run away with it, but the moment the dog notices the owner's interest or the moment the owner comes near in hopes of retrieving the item, the dog gulps it down quickly.
Freezing is seen when a dog is approached while eating something perceived as valuable and the dog feels threatened. When dogs are comfortable eating, they will be relaxed and eat at a normal pace, without worrying.
A dog who is resource guarding is worried and getting increasingly stressed and, will, therefore, typically stop eating and freeze.
A dog who is freezing typically will keep his head lowered over the resource he is guarding, at the same time though his gaze may be directed at the approaching threat.
At some point, puppies who resource guard will growl which often is the owner's first wake-up call if they failed to recognize the earlier signs. Growling is a distance-increasing behavior. The dog is telling the owner to back off because he doesn't want him/her anywhere near his resource.
Growling should never be punished. Suppressing a dog's growl is like removing a dog's alarm system. Next time, the dog may go straight to a bite.
Some puppy owners decide to ignore a puppy's growl. They think that, just because the puppy is small and very young, it is not a big deal. Some may laugh about it and keep moving toward the puppy.
An escalation of a growl is often a snarl, a dog showing his teeth. Dogs may lift their lips and show their pearly whites silently or accompanied by growling. This is a more serious warning. The dog is saying: "You see these teeth? I will be using them if you keep getting closer."
Snapping takes place when a dog bites the air, hence why it's also known as "air-snapping." It's easy to assume that snapping dogs are trying to bite, but miss aiming, but dogs are much better than that.
Snapping dogs are purposely missing because they are trying to not bite. They are deliberately trying to avoid using their highest level of force. Rest assured, if a dog really wants to bite, he will bite and will do with accuracy and speed.
And there you have it: the dog's highest level of force in action. The amount of damage done when a dog bites is often a matter of how much bite inhibition the dog has. It's unfortunate when puppies or dogs are pushed to this when they have been trying their best to warn.
Often, the cause is a dog owner who is trying to fix the resource guarding the wrong way, increasing the dog's tension rather than alleviating it. Some dog owners will grab the puppy's possession just to make a point. Others just find it funny and enjoy threatening to steal things from their pups just to laugh at their reactions. This will only exacerbate things, and once the puppy is grown up, it will no longer be funny.
9 Exercises to Prevent Resource Guarding in Puppies
The goal of these exercises is to create a conditioned emotional response to the owner approaching while the dog is playing with a toy, eating from a food bowl or chewing on a bone.
It's a good idea not to overdo these exercises by doing them all together and all in one sitting. Puppies should also be granted some free time where they get to enjoy their toys, kibble and bones in peace.
A word of caution is needed: although these exercises can help prevent resource guarding, instances of resource guarding can always happen despite lots of training. All it takes is for a dog one day to find something so valuable (like a stinky dead bird carcass, which is certainly something many puppy owners haven't had the opportunity to practice with) to cause him/her to revert to this ancestral instinct.
1) Trading Toys
Dog owners should teach their puppies that great things happen when their toys are taken away. Owners should start with low-value toys first and then move on. It's important to consider here personal taste. For some dogs, certain toys may be higher in value than other types of toys. For example, some dogs may go bonkers over squeaky toys while others may like more toys to grab and shake.
Start with the lowest value toys. Remove the toy from your puppy and trade it for a higher-value toy. As you move up the hierarchy of value, you may arrive at a point where you can't find a toy that is higher in value. In general, consider that new toys (of the type of toy your puppy loves) should be automatically higher in value. Smearing some food on a toy may also increase its value.
2) Trading Food Bowls
Good breeders should start food bowl exercises with puppies from an early age before they go to their new homes. With each puppy in a crate, they should have access to a full food bowl. Getting those pups used to having their unfinished foods bowls taken away requires hand-feeding them a high-value treat and then returning the food bowl to them.
Start with the food bowl empty, grab the bowl and trade it for a high-value treat and then return the food bowl. Then progress to practicing with the food bowl filled with some low-value food (kibble) and then higher-value food.
3) Adding Awesome Goodies
Make it a habit every now and then of nonchalantly walking by your puppy's food bowl and adding some goodies to it. Do this often, once again to the point of creating a conditioned emotional response. Your pup may wag his tail and look happy as he knows that something really good is coming.
4) Trading Chews
Many puppies are prone to resource guarding chews. Most likely these are particularly valuable because they are long-lasting treats. Dogs need to lie down in a quiet area to enjoy these rather than gobbling them up in one sitting. It's important to consider this. I have seen people trading a chew for a high-value treat, only for the pup to return to the area looking for the chew. This suggests the trade wasn't fair.
It's best to trade for another long-lasting treat such as Kong stuffed with goodies or taking away the chew and smearing something tasty on top and giving it right back.
5) Trading for Bones
Bones are often at the very top of a dog's hierarchy of value. Not only because they are long-lasting, but because they often have meat to nibble on. Many dog owners wonder what to trade these with. By putting oneself into a dog's mind it is possible to find several options.
For instance, a bone that has been chewed down a lot can be traded for some long-lasting edible that can be fully consumed (e.g. bully stick). An empty marrow bone can be removed and then immediately returned with something tasty smeared in the middle (like cream cheese or peanut butter). Of course, these are just examples. Use bones at your own risk and discretion and make sure they are appropriate for the age of your puppy.
6) Just Random Trading
Every now and then, when you catch your puppy showing signs of really "being into" something, get a super high-value goodie and practice an exchange. Surprise your dog! You want him to look forward to these little exchanges because they are so valuable! Do this when you have a chance every now and then.
7) Mouth Inspections
Getting your puppy used to having his mouth checked is good for getting your puppy used to having his teeth brushed and mouth checked by your vet, but also in case you ever need to retrieve some item out of his mouth.
Every now and then, open your puppy's mouth open and stick a tasty treat inside. At some point, if you catch your pup with an item in his mouth (that he isn't prone to guarding), let him sniff a super high-value treat as you gently extract the object from the mouth, promptly replacing it with the tasty treat. This will make your puppy more collaborative and help him learn that when you remove something from his mouth, something tasty will follow. However, aim to train your puppy to "drop it" so he's a willing participant and you no longer have to manually extract things.
8) Management of the Environment
Every now and then, make it a habit to check your pup's environment. In the yard, make it a routine to scan for items that your pup may get a hold of. Look for things like candy wrappers, food wrappers, dead birds, dead mice, etc. Even the most immaculate yards may contain these things.
Also, on walks (once your vet has told you it is safe), scan your environment to prevent walking your puppy in the direct path of some tempting items on road. It's a good idea to always carry a treat bag on you, so you are prepared to reward your pup for leaving stuff or dropping stuff.
9) Teaching Good Manners
And of course, all puppies benefit from better impulse control and frustration tolerance. Make sure your puppies learn to sit for their meals, are fluent in responding to the leave it and drop it cues, and know to hold sit stays and down stays and going to their mats.
Also, make sure to dedicate time to teaching good bite inhibition making sure to train your puppy to play-bite softly before progressing into teaching to not bite at all.
Avoid Doing This
- Avoid touching or picking up dogs when they are eating or have something valuable.
- Avoid chasing your puppy around to retrieve an item he has in his mouth (even if just for play).
- Avoid prying your dog's mouth open and retrieving something out of their mouth by force.
- Avoid confrontational methods such as scruff shakes, alpha rolls, etc.
A Note About Safety
The above exercises are for prevention of resource guarding, and are, therefore, not intended to be used as part of treatment. If your puppy has been showing signs of resource guarding, please see a professional.
- Understanding Canine Resource Guarding Behaviour: An Epidemiological Approach by Jacquelyn Jacobs A Thesis presented to The University of Guelph
- DVM360: 5 things you need to know about food aggression
- Reisner IR, Shofer FS, Nance ML; "Behavioral assessment of child-directed canine aggression" Inj Prev. 2007 Oct;13(5):348-51
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2019 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 05, 2020:
Hi Peggy, it's interesting how certain toys bring out this trait that seems otherwise buried deep. My male did that too when we gave him a special toy, but fortunately my female dog cared less about it so it was never a big issue.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 05, 2020:
Our dogs were always good at sharing food items. One time we were given a stuffed animal that we intended to give away to a child. One of our dogs appeared to fall in love with it, and showed some resource guarding traits. To keep the peace, we removed it when she was out of the room and did get rid of it. It was the only instance of that, and in the beginning, we thought that it was cute. But we did not want it to get out of hand and end up in a dog fight. She started growling if our other dogs approached her when she was near the stuffed toy.
Adeeb Ur Rahman from Gurgaon on February 16, 2019: