When people follow out-dated advice and fail to recognize signs of resource guarding in dogs, it’s a recipe for trouble. Here’s what to look out for–and what to do about it.
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By Zazie Todd PhD
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Learning to read a dog’s body language is a skill. Many people find it difficult to identify signs of fear, but are much better at recognizing when a dog is happy (Wan et al 2012). People with more experience with dogs are better at spotting the signs of fear.
We know that it’s fairly common for people to miss signs of fear in their dog, even in situations where they know that many dogs are fearful, such as at the vet or when hearing fireworks (Mariti et al 2015; Blackwell et al 2013). What about spotting the signs of resource guarding?
What is resource guarding in dogs?
Resource guarding is a relatively common behaviour issue in dogs. Resource guarding means that the dog is acting to protect their resources, such as food. The dog may growl, stare, air snap, lunge, or even bite at people. Other signs may include eating the food very quickly, showing the teeth, freezing (being very still), and trying to avoid having the item taken away by keeping it in their mouth, turning their head to the side to prevent someone from taking it, or even running away with it.
Unfortunately one of the big myths about dog training that I’ve seen many people repeat is the idea—and please don’t try this at home, because it’s not true—that you should be able to take the dog’s food away from them.
This erroneous idea seems to come from those outdated “dominance” approaches to dog training in which you are supposed to show you are the dog’s boss by controlling their resources. Of course you already control their food anyway without taking it away from them, because you are the one who buys it at the pet store or supermarket and who decides when and how much of it to dole out to them.
So if people have trouble identifying some of the signs of resource guarding, and are directed (wrongly) to take food from the dog, that’s a risky situation. It’s always a shame when outdated approaches to dog training potentially put people in harm’s way. Bites have consequences for dogs too as they may ultimately be rehomed or euthanized.
What are the signs of resource guarding in dogs?
So what are the signs of resource guarding that people are most likely to spot? This question is answered by a study in which dog guardians were shown videos of shelter dogs and asked to say whether or not particular signs of resource guarding were present. The videos were from shelter evaluations in which the dog was given food or a rawhide chew and then the evaluator used a fake hand to take it away from them.
It’s no surprise that people were easily able to spot whether or not aggression (air snaps or bites) occurred; 85% of people correctly noticed it when present, and 96% correctly said when it wasn’t.
People were reasonably okay at spotting threats when they were present (such as growling), but not so good at noticing when they weren’t. People were least good at recognizing threats and rapid ingestion of food.
Similar to Wan’s study of body language, people who had additional experience with dogs or knowledge of dog behaviour were better at spotting the signs of resource guarding.
The scientists sum up their results by saying,
“Our study indicates that owners are very good at identifying dogs without RG behaviour, and dogs with biting and snapping behaviour, but are relatively less effective at identifying avoidance, rapid ingestion and threats (e.g., growling, freezing, body tension, and baring teeth).”
Of course, if people are able to recognize those early signs then they may be able to resolve the behaviour before it progresses to a snapping and biting stage.
What should you do about resource guarding?
The good news about resource guarding is that it can be specific to particular settings. When dogs who resource guard in the shelter are adopted into new homes, they don’t necessarily show this behaviour in their new home. One study found that when dogs were said to resource guard when they were surrendered to a shelter, or were found to guard on the shelter assessment, more than half of them did not resource guard in their new home (McGuire et al 2020).
Management is crucial with a resource guarding dog because you don’t want to put anyone (especially children) in a situation where they might get bitten. It’s important to teach children not to take food or toys from a dog, not to put their hands in or near the dog’s food bowl, and to stay away from dogs when they are eating. It may be necessary to feed a dog behind a pet gate or in a crate, or in another room away from other people and pets in the home.
The approach to training usually involves teaching the dog not to fear an approaching person because they are going to give the dog something better—add some wonderful treats to their food, for example. This is desensitization and counter-conditioning. But I always recommend people to hire a dog trainer for this, because of the risks involved. It’s essential to get the training right so as not to accidentally make the behaviour worse instead.
Resource guarding is more common in dogs who are impulsive or fearful, and less common in dogs who have been taught a ‘drop’ command (which some people call ‘out’) (Jacobs et al 2018). As well, remember that common “advice” that I said was wrong? Jacobs et al also found that taking food away from a dog who is eating is associated with increased severity or frequency of resource guarding. And adding nice foods to a meal that the dog is eating is linked to lower levels of resource guarding.
To me, the outdated (and frankly, stupid) advice to take food away from a dog is one of the more egregious ideas to come from “dominance” training because of the risks to both people and dogs. Using positive reinforcement to teach “drop” is a great idea and you never know when this will be useful. In a pinch, you can also swap things with your dog. If you don’t have a higher value item, you can make something seem that way by making a big fuss over it.
I wonder if resource guarding will become less common as those older “dominance” ideas get less popular?
This piece originally appeared in my premium newsletter, The Pawsitive Post (Issue 21, April 2022). Pawsitive Post subscribers get a twice-monthly newsletter packed with evidence-based info on dog and cat behaviour and training, regular subscriber-only webinars (CEUs available), and early access to The Pawsitive Post in Conversation videos. Sign up today.
Blackwell, E.J.,, Bradshaw, J.W.S.,, & Casey, R.A. (2013). Fear responses to noise in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear-related behaviour Applied Animal Behaviour Science : 10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004
Jacobs, J. A., Coe, J. B., Pearl, D. L., Widowski, T. M., & Niel, L. (2018). Factors associated with canine resource guarding behaviour in the presence of people: A cross-sectional survey of dog owners. Preventive veterinary medicine, 161, 143-153. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.prevetmed.2017.02.005
Jacobs, J. A., Pearl, D. L., Coe, J. B., Widowski, T. M., & Niel, L. (2017). Ability of owners to identify resource guarding behaviour in the domestic dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 188, 77-83. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.12.012
Mariti, C., Raspanti, E., Zilocchi, M., Carlone, B., & Gazzano, A. (2015). The assessment of dog welfare in the waiting room of a veterinary clinic Animal Welfare, 24 (3), 299-305 DOI: 10.7120/09627222.214.171.1249
McGuire, B., Orantes, D., Xue, S., & Parry, S. (2020). Abilities of Canine Shelter Behavioral Evaluations and Owner Surrender Profiles to Predict Resource Guarding in Adoptive Homes. Animals, 10(9), 1702. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10091702
Wan M, Bolger N, & Champagne FA (2012). Human perception of fear in dogs varies according to experience with dogs. PloS one, 7 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051775
What is desensitization and counter-conditioning in dog training
Academy vet talk: Resource guarding in dogs by veterinarian Dr. Rachel Szumel
She won’t drop the ball! Doesn’t she like it when I throw it? By Kristi Benson
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