Skip to main content

Understanding Dog Resource Guarding: A Guide to Possessiveness Over Food, Bones, Beds and Toys

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Learn what to do if your dog is possessive.

Learn what to do if your dog is possessive.

Resource Guarding in Dogs

A resource guarding dog is basically a dog who claims and perceives an item as his and feels threatened by any person or animal that comes too close. Resource guarding is quite a popular tendency in the world of animals because this is often linked to survival. The behavior of resource guarding can be the result of nature or nurture or a combination of both. Some dogs may be genetically predisposed to resource guard, but often the environment may be a big contributor. Examples?

Resource Guarding in Puppies

Resource guarding may start as early as in the litter. If there are many pups in the litter, at times the pups may start fighting over nipples. For some reason, some pups prefer certain nipples more than others, and fights over them may erupt. However, it may take a certain aptitude for this in the pup's genes which may explain why some pups tend to resource guard more than others; this opens quite an interesting nature versus nurture debate.

In another example, a breeder who feeds 10 puppies using only one feeding bowl may further exacerbate resource guarding simply due to overcrowding problems. A reputable breeder will be careful enough to provide sufficient food bowls to prevent overcrowding and episodes of resource guarding.

Resource guarding is a learned behavior that tends to repeat over time; if the dog growled to protect a valuable in the past and it successfully worked to keep others away, a behavior pattern may establish because the behavior is ultimately reinforced.

Humans Are Resource Guarders, Too

Interestingly, animals are not the only resource guarders. Humans are indeed resource guarders as well. Just imagine if you were at a train station and somebody suspicious would come near you and attempt to steal your wallet. How would you react? You would very likely scream, try to threaten the person away or even attack the person to stop him from getting your hard-earned money.

As humans, we are big resource guarders! Indeed, we fiercely protect our valuables by keeping them in our pockets, purses, wallets, safes, vaults or banks, and when threatened to lose them, we often feel compelled to attack the intruder attempting to deprive us of such valuables! And sometimes our behaviors are far from being ethical compared to animals; just think of those fights erupting over items at Black Friday events when there are limited supplies!

What Do Possessive Dogs Guard?

Dogs care less about money, jewelry, collectibles and checks. Most likely, they will guard the following:

  • Bones
  • Food and treats
  • Trash cans/bags of food
  • Toys
  • Beds
  • Anything perceived as valuable, even something as small as a candy wrapper!

Resource guarding is subjective; while most dogs resource guard food, some will resource guard items such as beds and favorite sleeping spots. There are no black and white rules on what items a dog may perceive as valuable. To each its own!

Signs a Dog Is Possessive Over His Items

While the most distinctive signs of a resource guarder are growling/showing teeth/biting, there are also more subtle signs such as tensing up, freezing, staring, keeping the head low over the item or simply running towards an item the moment you are walking by it to simply claim it.

Typically, the closer you get to the dog with the item, the more intense the dog's reaction. Therefore, your dog could care less if you are across the room but may react the moment you get closer.

Dog guarding bone

Dog guarding bone

A Great Read for Owners of Resource Guarders

How to Deal With a Resource Guarder

In order to learn how to deal with a resource guarder, it is helpful to tackle some behavioral science. Three definitions come in hand in this case: threshold, desensitization and counter-conditioning. Let's take a look at each of them:

Definition of Threshold

We all have threshold levels. If you are dealing with a child that is nagging you to buy something and you don't want to give in, you may have a breaking point at which you will say "that's enough!" and even take the child out of the store. If you are scared of snakes and happen to walk through a jungle where there are snakes in bushes, you may have a breaking point at which you will start screaming and lose control. In the same way, dogs have breaking points when they are fearful, aggressive or excited.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Pethelpful

When you are able to tolerate your child nagging for you to buy a toy, you are under the threshold or "sub-threshold." The word sub simply means "under." When you are no longer able to tolerate the situation and lose your temper, then you are "over the threshold."

In a similar way, when you are far away from your dog's bone, he may likely care less because he does not feel threatened. If you get closer, you may be greeted by a growl. When you are far, he is, therefore, "subthreshold," whereas when you are near, he is "over the threshold."

Definition of Desensitization

Systematic desensitization is a behavior modification method used to work with dogs. This is mainly done under the threshold. The purpose of this is to decrease the emotional response to a negative stimulus after repeated exposure to it. With time and with gradual exposure, animals and people tend to relax when they no longer perceive the stimulus as a threat.

So if, for instance, you were taken to the jungle and saw snakes crawling at a distance every day, after some time, you may be able to relax because you may have learned that the snakes, while slimy, are ultimately no threat to you.

Much caution must be used in using desensitization. If the exposure is too intense and over the threshold, you may obtain sensitization instead, which means you get more afraid than before. So if you are, say, afraid of snakes, and the day after being exposed to them gradually, one slithers on your sandals, your fear may increase (you become sensitized instead of de-sensitized).

In the case of resource guarding you would therefore work on the problem from a distance so your dog is under the threshold and you do not pose a big threat to him.

Definition of Counter Conditioning

When counter conditioning is added to a desensitization program, the power doubles; it's like adding a cherry on top of a sundae. In counterconditioning, you are basically changing the dog's emotional response by shifting it upside down. So let's say you were scared of snakes; if every time you saw a snake, you were given a $100 dollar bill, with time, your emotional response towards snakes would likely change from fearing them to actually looking forward to them!

In the case of resource guarding, you would therefore change your dog's emotional response from "Oh, no! better guard the bone before they take it away from me!" to "Yes, owner, come near me, you are soooo welcome!" Tail wag included!

So let's see how to apply this in the case of a dog guarding, let's say a bone.

How to Reduce Resource Guarding in Dogs

For this exercise, you will need high-value treats, not the average dog kibble or so-so dog treats. In order to work, the treats must be of higher value than the item guarded. You need treats your dog drools for and that are very enticing. Freeze-dried liver, slivers of hot dog, chunks of roasted chicken or steak, whatever your dog loves.

  1. Find your dog's threshold level. When your dog is having the item he guards walk towards him from a safe distance (tether your dog for safety) and mark on the floor the distance at which he starts freezing or tensing up. You do not want to get to the point where is growling. Place yourself several inches BEFORE this marked zone from which he should feel relaxed. Remember, we are working under the threshold and getting him systemically desensitized to our presence.
  2. Walk back and forth a couple of times before this mark, not towards him but parallel to him so to ensure you got this distance right. He should appear to be OK with this distance. If at any time he seems to be stiffening, err on the side of caution and make the distance greater.
  3. From this distance, walk parallel and start tossing treats his way every time you pass by him. If the dog resource guards a bone, find something of higher value to toss. Do this four or five times repeatedly during the day.
  4. The next day, work again from this distance again; if he seems OK with it, then mark a closer distance just a few inches closer. Do the same exercise, walk parallel (dogs see us less intimidating when we walk parallel than towards them), and toss the treats as you pass by him. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
  5. Continue with the exercise, and decrease the distance gradually day after day. If he growls at any time, freeze. Don't leave; if you do leave, you will reinforce the growl (remember, the growling is a learned behavior, and leaving reinforces the growl, in the dog's mind, "I sent him away!") The moment he stops growling, toss the treat.
  6. At some point, you may be getting near the dog. At this point, try to give a big reward for this. A jackpot of treats (a handful of tasty treats all at once)will make his day. Repeat, repeat, repeat. You should start seeing results at this time: perhaps a little hint of a tail wag as you get close or anticipation (drooling, looking for the treat). This is good news and means the training is working! This is the power of counter-conditioning; the dog is saying, "I no longer fear you are taking my resource away; I actually am starting to look forward to you coming near me!"
  7. If you are satisfied with the results, you can keep up the training by doing refresher sessions every now and then, where you casually walk by and toss a tasty treat by the food bowl.

A good exercise for resource guarders is teaching the drop it command. This exercise teaches dogs that when they give up their resource, they get something even better! This is also a life-saving command for many different scenarios!

Remember to not reinforce guarding behavior by taking the resource away.

Caution: The above behavior modification programs should be done with extreme caution only under the guidance of a dog behavior specialist.

Disclaimer: Please consult with a dog behaviorist if your dog is displaying aggressive behaviors. Only a dog behaviorist may see and assess behaviors and offer the most appropriate behavior modification program tailored for your dog. Use extreme caution and make safety your top priority. By reading this article along with tips and advice, you accept this disclaimer and assume full responsibility for any of your actions.

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: I need to take my dog's food away after 20 minutes if she hasn't touched it. That's advice I found in another article. Is there a way to take away my dog's food without reinforcing guarding behavior?

Answer: I can see how you are rightfully concerned about removing food after 20 minutes of your dog not touching it in a dog prone to resource guarding. I am assuming that your dog doesn't have an interest in the food, but some dogs who are resource guarders may resource guard the moment they see our intent to remove something. Normally I would suggest to trade the food bowl for something else to eat that is high value like a bully stick or stuffed Kong, but that would defeat the purpose if you are trying to teach her to to eat her meals in a timely matter as that can spoil her appetite for her next opportunity to eat. Perhaps, you can try distracting her having somebody call her out in the yard or a distant room to play? And then once out, you can close the door and remove the bowl. Or grab the collar and leash and take her for a brief walk while somebody removes the food bowl while you are out and about? Have somebody ring the doorbell? Thinking of ways to get her to leave the room so that you can close the door and safely remove the bowl without her seeing you do it. Please use the upmost caution and consult with a professional if your dog is prone to aggression for safety and correct implementation of behavior modification.

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 04, 2013:

I really think this needs to be seen by a professional since he is biting. Sounds like he is using you as a pillow to eat the bone better. For starters, I think you should prevent rehearsal of the behavior. This means preventing him for behaving as he does. You can crate him when he 's chewing a bone or keep him in a separate room. This is called management, it prevents rehearsal of the behavior when you don't have time to train. If this is not feasible, I would anticipate him, that is, get up the moment he is heading your way to chew it on your lap. Don't get in the need to touch him to push him off, as this seems to be what triggers the aggression. Practice the "off" command when he does not have a bone, call him, pet him and then say "off" pointing away and then toss a treat away from you. He should leave and get the treat. Repeat several times until you can say off without the need of tossing the treat, then ONCE he moves away toss a treat. Then give him a toy, call him to you then say "off" and toss a treat away from you. Gradually introduce other items he tends to use you as a pillow and repeat. If at any times he comes tries to lay on you and growls, get up and leave he has lost the opportunity to get a treat and your company.. Again, I 'm not comfortable giving advice for something that needs to be seen by a professional as not all methods work for all dogs, Make safety your top priority and use extreme caution, please read the article disclaimers. . Best wishes.

mamamiatoni on February 04, 2013:

I really have a problem with my dog starting to bite me. He is food,bone, toys, and bed aggressive. He is a Jeykle & Hyde dog now. I generally will just leave him be when I get him a new bone. When he is done chewing for awhile, its like he will come over to me and thank me for it,lay down next to me and be a normal dog. But other times, he will bring the bone to me and want to lay on my lap while chewing it. When I try to push him off of me, he starts growling,turns all stiff, and stares me straight in the face while looking like he's going to eat me if I move. I have to grab him by his neck and hold him down. sometimes it takes awhile to get him out of the zone(as I call it). this morning was the worse time. I have about five places on my hands and arms where I have tooth holes. there is a lot more things that have provoked him,but I so don't want to give up on him. I can't afford a dog trainer. any suggestions? ANYONE....

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 27, 2012:

Hi Vanessa,

You can do the whole desensitization counterconditioning process, however it's a tedious job and such methods are best done along with dog behavior professional. I'd rather play it safe and use management just to be safe, as there are no guarantees on the outcome of behavior modification. This read may interest you;

Vanessa Martinez from Miami, Florida on December 27, 2012:

I have two dogs at home and my female is what i call a bully. I bought a bone for each of them and i have one dog outside and the other in the house just to avoid this behavior, fights or tension between the two. However, as soon as she gets the chance she take his bone and hides it in her bed and chews up her bone and if he passes by she tenses up. She does not get possessive with me or anyone else just our other dog. Would walking by with him and tossing the treats work? She is like this with any toys. Sometimes she likes to play but other times she is so possessive and makes it sure that EVERYTHING is hers. We have several toys for them, but she wants it all.

Vanessa on December 27, 2012:

I have two dogs at home and my female is what i call a bully. I bought a bone for each of them and i have one dog outside and the other in the house just to avoid this behavior, fights or tension between the two. However, as soon as she gets the chance she take his bone and hides it in her bed and chews up her bone and if he passes by she tenses up. She does not get possessive with me or anyone else just our other dog. Would walking by with him and tossing the treats work? She is like this with any toys. Sometimes she likes to play but other times she is so possessive and makes it sure that EVERYTHING is hers. We have several toys for them, but she wants it all.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 12, 2012:

thank you, I hope it helps you! feel free to post updates or questions at any time!

Kathy Sima from Ontario, Canada on April 12, 2012:

Thank you for writing such a comprehensive article on this subject! I have been noticing some possessive behaviour from our older dog lately, which I'm sure originated from us getting a second dog. Although I understand where it's coming from, I haven't known how to help discourage it. This article was very helpful, and I will try your suggestions.

Barry Rutherford from Queensland Australia on April 12, 2012:

Year's ago my Flatmate's dog would possess the space on the backseat of his car

Related Articles