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What Research Reveals About Resource Guarding in Dogs

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

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Resource guarding in dogs is a rather natural behavior. It manifests as excessive anxiety in specific contexts where the dog feels the need to protect a perceived possession.

The protected possession may vary from one dog and another and may range from toys, bones, food bowls and even sleeping places.

A Word About Terminology

Also referred to as "possessive aggression, “food-related aggression," "object guarding" or "material protective," or" location guarding," or "owner guarding," resource guarding in dogs has a history of being called different ways.

There is guarding and guarding though in the dog world, and therefore, it's important to make some distinctions.

  • Food-related aggression, as the name implies, relates to a dog's tendency to guard edible things (bones, human foods, kibble, stolen food from the trash can) or things related to food (empty food bowl, empty candy wrappers).
  • Object guarding relates to guarding things that aren't edible like toys, tissues, sticks, laundry, and any “forbidden” objects the dog happens to pick up.
  • Location guarding involves a dog protecting an entire area such as the dog who prevents a spouse from getting in bed, a dog guarding the kitchen, a dog guarding the couch and snapping when anybody tries moving him and dogs who act aggressively when inside a crate or car or on a favorite sleeping spot.
  • Owner guarding occurs when a dog perceives his owner valuable and will act "protective" when other dogs or people come nearby.

Resource Guarding Wins the Day

When dog behavior experts were interviewed to determine the best term to be used to depict a dog's tendency to guard things, most experts agreed in using the term resource guarding rather than possessive aggression.

The term resource guarding was found to be preferable because less likely to be negatively misinterpreted by dog owners, easier to communicate and the term was more inclusive of potential behaviors other than aggression (e.g., avoidance-related behaviors).

With this in mind, the following definition for the umbrella term resource guarding was therefore crafted: “The use of avoidance, threatening, or aggressive behaviors by a dog to retain control of food or non-food items in the presence of a person or other animal.”

Resource guarding in dogs stems from a dog's profound anxiety about the potential loss of items.

Resource guarding in dogs stems from a dog's profound anxiety about the potential loss of items.

A Dog's Underlying Motivation

Resource guarding is considered a natural behavior that has an adaptive role, in other words, it is linked to survival.

"It is easy to see how, in a natural environment, a group-hunting carnivore who guards would have a reproductive advantage over one who gladly relinquishes. It's a good trait, like a well-developed immune system or legs that can run fast," claims Jean Donaldson in her book: "Mine" which specifically focuses on the topic of resource-guarding directed towards humans.

According to Landsberg and colleagues (2013) resource guarding stems from a dog's underlying anxiety about the potential loss of items that are at risk of being removed when the dog is approached.

The behavior can be exacerbated when owners strongly object to dogs stealing such as by chasing the dog around the room to retrieve the item which only contributes to making it more valuable.

Signs of Resource Guarding in Dogs

There are subtle and more dramatic manifestations of resource guarding in dogs, with the most severe cases reaching pathological levels that can be particularly risky to others.

Subtle signs may include rushing toward an item before another dog or person does, moving away or running away with it and hiding, blocking access to an item, moving to a different location and holding a resource tightly in the mouth.

Eating quickly and swallowing stolen foods may also be signs of resource guarding.

More evident signs involve aggressive displays including stiffening, freezing, hunkering over an object/food, growling, baring teeth, lunging, snapping and biting, which is the most extreme manifestation.

According to research conducted by Jacquelyn Jacobs et al, most dog owners are good at identifying obvious signs of resource guarding aggression but were less likely to correctly identify other patterns that are precursors to aggression.

Dogs Predisposed to Resource Guarding

Some dogs may be more predisposed than others to resource guard objects, locations or people.

According to research conducted by Jacquelyn Jacobs, neutered male dogs, mixed breeds, and dogs with higher levels of impulsivity and fearfulness were significantly predisposed to exhibiting aggressive displays of resource guarding directed towards people or other dogs compared to dogs of other sexes, breeds, and lower levels of impulsivity and fearfulness.

Guarding food, coveted objects, mates, and physical space are highly adaptive traits in a natural environment. If dogs had to fend for themselves tomorrow, guarders would have the survival and reproductive edge over non-guarders.

— Jean Donaldson, The Dog Trainer's Resource, APDT Chronicle of the Dog Collection

Some dogs may resource guard their owners from other dogs.

Some dogs may resource guard their owners from other dogs.

Treatment of Resource Guarding

According to research by Jacquelyn Jacobs, the best methods for treating resource guarding involved training dogs to leave it and drop it and implementing exercises that involved adding palatable food during meals.

The popular habit of removing the food bowl during mealtimes instead was found to aggravate the problem, leading to an increased degree of risk for human-directed resource guarding aggression.

Any methods involving positive punishment in response to a dog's aggressive displays in hopes of decreasing the behavior have been found to increase the intensity and duration of an aggressive episode and encourage future aggression, according to research by Ben-Michael et al., 2000; Blackwell et al., 2008; Herron et al., 2009.

The use of medications to reduce impulsivity and aggressive displays may help in the behavior modification process (which often entails desensitization and counterconditioning methods).

Studies have found that increased serotonin levels have a significant inhibitory effect on aggression (Carrillo et al., 2009). Studies indeed have shown a link between serotonin deficiency and canine aggression (Leon et al., 2012; Vage et al., 2010).

Due to this, drugs that are meant to block the reuptake of serotonin such as amitriptyline and fluoxetine, appear to have promising effects in decrease aggressive displays in dogs (Houpt, 2007; Virga et al., 2001).

The use of positive punishment or negative reinforcement based training methods was associated with increased chance of aggression to family and unfamiliar people outside the house.

— Rachel A. Casey et al.

References

  • Jacobs, Jacquelyn A., Coe, Jason, Pearl, David L., Widowski, Tina M., Niel, Lee, Factors associated with canine resource guarding behaviour in the presence of people: A cross-sectional survey of dog owners.Preventive Veterinary Medicine http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.prevetmed.2017.02.005
  • American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, Preventing Food Guarding
  • DVM360, Resource Guarding in Dogs John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants Carol Stream, IL
  • Clinicians' Brief, Resource Guarding in Dogs, by Laurie Bergman, VMD, DACVB, Keystone Veterinary Behavior Services, Villanova, Pennsylvania
  • Ability of owners to identify resource guarding behaviour in the domestic dog, Jacquelyn A. Jacobs,David L. Pearl,Jason B. Coe,Tina M. Widowski,Lee Niel, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Elsevier, March 2017
  • Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors, Rachel A. Casey,Bethany Loftus,Christine Bolster,Gemma J. Richards,Emily J. Blackwell, Applied Animal Behaviour Science Elsevier, March 2014
  • Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors, Meghan E. Herron,Frances S. Shofer,Ilana R. Reisner, Applied Animal Behaviour Science Elsevier February 2009
  • Defining and Clarifying the Terms Canine Possessive Aggression and Resource Guarding: A Study of Expert Opinion Jacquelyn A. Jacobs, Jason B. Coe, Tina M. Widowski, David L. Pearl, Lee NielFront Vet Sci. 2018; 5: 115. Published online 2018 Jun 11

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.

© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli

Comments

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 07, 2021:

I am so sorry to hear this happened to you! Bites to the face are very dangerous. The owner should have been more careful having you around this dog. Dog bites can be very traumatizing. I can understand your fear!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 07, 2021:

Hi Peggy, your dog must have thought that toy was super valuable. New toys or special unusual toys can sometimes evoke this. Glad you were able to nip this resource guarding behavior in the bud!

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 03, 2021:

I was bitten in the face as a young child by a neighbor's dog when I gave him his bowl of food wrong/too slowly helping the woman with backyard chores. My fault but it was scary. It took me many years working on anxiety regarding dogs before I can say I like dogs. It's why I'm a cat person I guess. The biter was a big dog and the incident utterly terrified me.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 02, 2021:

We once had a dog that never did this except for one instance. We acquired a stuffed toy that we intended to give to a child. Once our dog saw it, she started guarding it as if it was hers. The solution was simple. We gave it away, and she never did anything like that again.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 02, 2021:

Hi Heidi, with strays it makes sense for them to be prone to this, being an adaptive trait which may come handy when living off the roads where food may be scarce and competition may be strong. Many hurricane Katrina dogs went through this. With dogs as such, I have found it helpful using food bowls that slow them down so that their timing matches the time of the other dogs using ordinary bowls. Also, it has helped calling the dog to me once done eating (I would be sitting nearby him so the other dogs doesn't tense up thinking he's heading her way) and asking for several behaviors in a row and feeding extra kibble i had in my pocket as a reward. Glad he doesn't guard anything else!

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 01, 2021:

Our boy was a stray before we adopted him. While he is not super aggressive, he eats fast (which isn't good for his stomach) and then slides over to try and get his sister's food (she eats leisurely). So I think his behavior is related to him being a stray for an extending period of time, with little access to food.

It doesn't seem to matter that now he's 12 and his stray days were a long time ago. It was imprinted early. So we supervise feeding times. Other than that, he doesn't guard anything else. At least we have a clue why it happens.

Great insight, as usual!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 31, 2021:

This is another excellent article about dog behavior, Adrienne. You have written a very well-documented article full of good information. Thank you for sharing this information.

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