The truth about Resource Guarding
In a dog’s world, possession is 9/10ths of the law and to them this system seems to be widely accepted. Although we function in a similar way (you wouldn’t give your house away), we expect our dogs to readily give up all their valued possessions. We assert ourselves over our dogs, believing we have more rights than they. We feed and home them so they must do everything we say…. Poor dogs.
We forget that sharing often needs to be taught, as is patience and trust. We teach our children these essential skills from an early age and forgive them for their outbursts because we know they cannot yet grasp the complexities of life. We don’t extend this compassion to our dogs. We expect dogs to just know, to understand the rules to be the same every time even if we are not consistent ourselves. What we forget is, to teach trust we also have to earn it. When we have someone’s trust almost everything else falls into place.
Resource Guarding is when a dog believes something to be theirs and controls access to ‘their’ possession via force. You may be surprised to hear that Resource Guarding is a normal and functional behaviour – that’s not to say it’s safe left unmanaged!
This instinctual behaviour would have determined the dog’s ability to survive when food and other resources were scarce. The guarding of resources may have been essential skills for their ancestors but for the modern family dog where resources are abundant, such displays of possessiveness can lead to misunderstandings and the resulting breakdown in shared trust.
There are some myths surrounding Resource Guarding, which have produced advice that has proved to be unhelpful and dangerous. As we’ve discussed, this behaviour is not abnormal but totally functional and ensured the survival of the species during difficult times. The common misconception then is to provide the dog with an abundance of resources in hope that the behaviour will vanish, however, this can present further issues as the dog may feel overwhelmed with more stuff to care for.
Equally untrue is the belief that spoiling a dog can lead to resource guarding – providing a dog with lots of lovely of toys, food and affection isn’t going to trigger their need to keep things safe. Many people still adhere to the outdated Dominance myth, believing that a dog only wishes to find a higher-ranking position so the claiming and guarding of resources is a symptom of a dominant dog. Studies have long since proven that dominance is a behaviour but not a fixed state of being, that dogs social structures are flexible and given the opportunity a dog would much prefer to live in harmony with their human than feel the need to assert themselves in any given moment.
Another outdated and dismissive statement is that Resource Guarding is all in the genetic make up of the dog and that there’s simply no point attempting to modify their behaviour because nature won’t permit it. Genetics can predispose a dog to be anxious, say if the mother was stressed during pregnancy, but not all anxious dogs feel compelled to guard resources. This behaviour is not breed specific and can occur at any age, given the right unfortunate conditions.
Don’t make me repeat myself!
Resource Guarding is also known as possession aggression as the dog often uses aggression to inform others of this perceived ownership. The aggression serves to ‘protect’ the item within their perceived possession from being taken from them, be that removed from sight or destroyed. There is usually a sequence in how this behaviour unfolds, before a full-blown aggressive outburst takes place.
Chester guarding a ball
In the early stages of guarding, a dog will attempt to clearly signal their discomfort when someone approaches what they deem to be a valuable resource. The dog appears to freeze on the spot, their eyes may bulge and their gaze may be averted from yours. If the dog is attempting to continue to have possession over an item they may simply hold a valued item firmly in their mouth and not display any aggression. Unfortunately, this tense body-language is nearly always missed by people and often by poorly socialised dogs, so the guarding dog learns to spend less time using this method of communication.
If the dog is eating or chewing on something when approached, a dog who Resource Guards may begin to rapidly consume their resource, which also relieves tension as there is no longer anything left to guard.
You may have heard the saying ‘Don’t punish a growl it’s better than a bite’. Without the dog feeling in control of their emotions enough to let us know their discomfort with a growl, we would not know the situation. If we have missed their attempt to indicate their discomfort by freezing or eating very quickly then surely a growl is welcomed to say, ‘hey, I’m really not comfortable with you doing that, please stop’. A low grumble may be enough to signal that space is needed and if not then it will grow into a much more meaningful warning.
Next in the sequence is a show of pearly whites as the dog bares their teeth to further stress the ‘fact’ that this possession is there’s and your approach is making them very uneasy. This is a clear warning, a signal that isn’t often missed. However, should the dog have been ignored in the past (intentionally or unknowingly) they could race through the full sequences and only flashing their teeth before making a bigger impression.
The dog that reaches this stage has felt their previous attempts to guard resources have been unsuccessful. When a dog displays aggression and the dog/ animal/ person steps away then the dog understands that this method of creating space works and they are likely to repeat it. Should the polite notice have been respected in the past or earlier stages of the single event, the dog will then remain in the understanding that freezing or growling is sufficient – they wouldn’t need to resort to being so assertive.
Grrrrr I’m so frustrated!
Most dogs will take the long road and offer all their tools of communication before they resort to biting, because they know that’s the last straw. They show us this by performing a very quick air-bite, which is often the time where a dog lunges and you manage to move your hand away just in the nick of time – at least that’s how it seems to us. In reality, a dog has such will power, strength and speed that if they wanted to bite us they would not miss. An air-bite is a clear as day warning that they will harm you if you do not abide by the rules which they feel are very clear, if you do not give them space, if you do not respect their needs. By now you’ll have noticed that your dog is feeling quite stressed and that professional support is urgently needed.
The law states that should a person feel in considerable fear of being harmed by a dog then that dog may be classed as a dangerous dog. An air-bite is enough to warrant such an assessment, even if the dog is on private property. Dangerous dogs are mostly good dogs who’s problematic behaviour has not been intervened early enough, and most likely those who’ve not had their basic need for space met.
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When an air-bite acts as an unsuccessful warning the dog may feel it necessary to take the gesture further – biting and puncturing the skin, leaving minimal damage but with the intent of creating a heavier emotional impact. These type of bites are classed as inhibited, again because had a dog wished to really cause harm they have the power to do so. It may be difficult to accept this stance but dogs who bite in this way are displaying a sense of control over their impulses in despite of how stressed they are. A dog who bites with inhibition doesn’t wish to bite or cause harm but they do need you to back off and at some point they have learnt that no other method of communication in their tool box works.
The final stage of the sequence in Resource Guarding is what I call the red zone. When a dog has tried all of the above tools to say, ‘hey, no, that’s mine, leave it alone’, when they have learnt over time that no one listens to any of their requests for space, when they have utterly exhausted all avenues then a bite with intent to cause harm is issued. If no warnings work then a dog may cause great damage, one that neither may come back from emotionally. When a dog tries in so many ways to express their discomfort yet they’ve been ignored, they are left with little choice – as an animal. They cannot file a law suit or leave home to live where people understand them better, they only know how to be a dog and this is how dogs communicate when left with no choice. When a dog reaches this stage they have been let down, we have failed them and it is our duty to take responsibility and work to restore their trust. When a dog bites you can be certain that their trust has been broken.
These reactions are hard-wired and instinctive, just like our own fighting reflexes should someone attempt to mug us in the street. If the guarding dog has ever lived in a crowded environment or on the streets where they needed to defend their right to breed, eat or rest, then these techniques have been proved useful and can be difficult for the dog to no longer rely on them. This is why it’s important to the seek support from a modern and ethical dog professional.
Resource guarding can present itself in a variety of ways but the most common issue seems to be with coveting food. Food is a dogs primary reinforcer, it’s essential for survival and it chemically makes them feel good. In my experience, the next in line would be objects. Bones and chews could come under food but as they’re not eaten regularly and often not in one sitting, I class them as objects – or toys perhaps. Dogs don’t just guard items but can also feel possessive over spaces too. A dog may have chosen an area where they enjoy resting and any person or animal about to enter that space could well trigger their need to protect their right over that space – again, their ancestors would have needed this heightened sense of awareness, vigilance and the ability to act in order to ensure they had a safe place to sleep.
Interestingly and worrying for owners is the guarding of people. My current dog, Chester, who’s a 3 year old Staffordshire Bull Terrier, has guarded me from early on in our relationship. Initially I fostered Chester but 3 months later he became a permanent member of my family. It was clear to me that I was the first safe, gentle and predictable person he’d met as he formed a hyper-attachment to me within days. As Chester felt safe with me he believed it incredibly important to protect me – so that he can continue to be safely cared for. This has been troublesome but as he felt more secure, confident and trusting towards others, he became less fearful and those guarding urges are triggered much less.
A method I apply with everyone Chester does not know well, is requesting they only ever approach him in a round about fashion. Should Chester be directly approached when stood alone he still becomes fearful – the guard behaviour is not triggered but the underlying fears surface which cause him to react in much the same way – freezing, lowering his body posture, lunging into an air-bite before running for the hills, all within a matter of seconds. His body language is easily missed because he spends less time at each stage. This tells us that Chester’s warning signs have been ignored/ missed in the past so he has learnt that a bigger gesture is needed to keep himself safe.
The curved path is less threatening and gives a dog time to assess their situation. The more time they have the better decisions they can make. Given the opportunity Chester will now remove himself from the situation. I have worked hard to show him he is safe, and guided him to trust in his communication skills by reinforcing the early signals such as turning his head away, offering a tongue-flick or a yawn. Having lived with rescue dogs since birth I’ve developed the skill of noticing even the slightest change in dog body language, enabling me to act quickly. Dogs who’ve felt ignored tend to communicate with almost invisible signals, leading to some dogs being labelled as unpredictable by those with the untrained eye.
When I see Chester ‘talk’ with his body I act fast to diffuse the tension – either by purely interacting positively with Chester or warmly greeting the triggering person, both ways in an attempt to change Chester’s emotional response. Anyone can support an anxious dog by approaching with curved path, this isn’t a method specific to those who guard items, space or people. By averting your eyes and walking in a non-direct manner the dog is much less likely to become gripped by fear and perceive their possession to be under threat. Walking directly towards the dog’s resources will raise the likelihood of you receiving a bite, as you’ve not offered them enough time to pause and think so the fearful behaviour just goes through the roof.
Puzzling to owners are the dogs who guard random and miscellaneous items. Whichever item the dog has formed a connection to they will guard – perhaps it makes them feel good or it’s seen as vital to their safety on some level – and these items may change over time. Most resource guarders aren’t limited to one specific thing, it’s common for dogs to guard a combination of food items, objects, spaces, people and miscellaneous items. In my experience, a dog who guards food may also develop the urge to guard a toy if the right steps are not taken in time.
Don’t touch me!
Those with dogs who Resource Guard may also find that their dog has body handling issues. Chester guards me and he is also fearful of being touched on his back legs. A client of mine guarded sticks and treats from other dogs while out on walks, and they froze and bared teeth when their lower back was touched by their family members. Veterinarian physical examinations showed no ill health yet these dogs were both adverse to being touched. Perhaps this link exists because the dog is already anxious and distrusting, perhaps the distrust causes tension in the body and unconscious nervous responses are triggered in the spine, creating a fearful feedback loop that the dog is unable to control. Whatever the reason, when a dog is sensitive to touch and expresses that with a tremble, a freeze or with a warning, we can help by gently stepping away and reading the response. If the dog remains in position they do not want the interaction right now. You’ll know when they want a fuss as these dogs make themselves known with soft eyes and a heavy head in your lap.
Resolving the issue
Dogs who Resource Guard need our patience, compassion and properly applied modern, ethical training methods. Once the dog has been assessed a treatment plan can be drawn up to support the dog at the stage they are at, with an aim to reducing their anxiety.
Managing the environment so that the dog cannot get access to the resources unless in a supportive and controlled way is essential part of this process. Should a dog possess an item and the owner unknowingly approach, the dog is triggered, stress hormones are released, and the dog reacts negatively reactivating the loop of distrust. To ensure their stress levels are kept steady I would recommend employing a clear and fun routine so the dog can know what to expect from their day, to instil a sense of safety and predictability.
As young people and animals are less likely to understand the dog’s behaviour to notice the warning signs, it is best to take precautions when the two are around one another. Ethical muzzle training is an option if the dog’s behaviour seems unpredictable, but this must be combined with training as it merely acts as a plaster and isn’t going to resolve the issue. Feeding the dog in a separate room where they can eat without the worry of being interacted with will also keep both safe. Using stairgates and boards can provide guarding dogs with the space they need, also a cosy and private crate may provide a haven for the dog to retreat to when needed.
Diet is a very important factor in enhancing a dogs wellbeing – it may be necessary to place the dog on a serotonin enhancing diet and one that is rich in nutrients. Unnatural colourings, additives and preservatives create dis-ease in the body, as do grains, meat meals and corn. Veterinarian Dr Karen Becker (USA) has shared videos on the importance of diet on health and behaviour, I recommend anyone to take a look.
An ethical and effective method to resolve resource guarding involves correctly timed Desensitisation techniques in combination with Counter-Conditioning techniques, to reduce the power of the trigger while encouraging a positive association with people/ animals approaching resources. One is not effective without the other here, and both need to be fully understood for the success of the behaviour modification.
Dogs learn best when they are relaxed so it’s important to construct sufficient foundations while they’re under threshold. It takes skill to work within a dogs threshold, it’s a fine balance that needs adjusting constantly – every dog is different, and each day and situation brings a different tipping point. A good trainer will understand that when a dog actively guards during the training session, that it’s time to take a break. Stress hormones will have been released with the stress induced; the dog will struggle to override this chemical reaction while being repeatedly tested, meaning they are less likely to learn what you’re trying to show them. If we’re trying to regain trust we must go at a pace that fits them, not us.
To resolve Resource Guarding I recommend seeking advice from a reputable Behaviourist or Trainer, who abides by a strict force-free code of conduct to apply the modern and ethical methods needed.
Until I understand, please give me time to think
It is easy to see how a dog’s behaviour can quickly deteriorate and that the issue of Resource Guarding is a symptom of deeper unease. When the dog’s behaviour changes aren’t understood or pieced together, relationships can break down between the dog and owner.
Trust is at the seat of many dog behaviour challenges; a lack of it creates fear between us and things just go down hill. Thankfully trust can be repaired.
Most importantly, when we realise that asserting ourselves over our dogs aggravates the issue, we are already half way to a much healthier, happier dog.
Rédigé par Layne Arlina