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Preventing resource guarding and what to do if its present?

04/03/2023 - Dog Behaviour

One of the most common behaviour problems that we see as trainers and behaviourists is resource guarding. Cases of resource guarding can vary massively in severity and the cause is not always clear – what is true in all cases, though, is that it has the potential to become very dangerous and should never be ignored or left to escalate. All too often we are approached by owners who are desperate because their dog’s guarding behaviours have become more severe, leading to a scary situation and invariably damaging the relationship between dog and human. That’s why we wanted to write this blog, to share some of our top tips for avoiding the development of resource guarding behaviours as well as to highlight the very real risks of not dealing with resource guarding as soon as we notice it. 

What is Resource Guarding?
Resource guarding is a when a dog exhibits possessive behaviours over resources such as food or toys. Resource guarding behaviours are typically aggressive, though early signs may be subtle and harmless. Dogs may simply run off with something, freeze and stand over the resource they are guarding, or this may escalate to growling and even snapping/biting. Some dogs may swallow items they are possessive over. Dogs may resource guard things like toys, stolen items, a person in the household or even their own space.

Top Tips to Avoid Resource Guarding
We should start by noting that these tips are truly about prevention – if your dog is already exhibiting signs of resource guarding, get in touch and let us know what’s going on so we can offer training or behaviour support as appropriate.

Keep Lots of Toys Around!
Dogs are more likely to guard resources which are high value to them and scarcity increases the value of that resource. We recommend keeping plenty of toys around for your dog and even buying 3-5 identical versions of each toy! Particularly if you have a multi-dog household, this is a real game changer and we couldn’t recommend it enough – it might seem a bit bizarre at first, but keeping multiples of each toy around makes a huge, huge difference.

Always Swap – Don’t Just Take!
The cardinal sin is just taking a valued resource away from our dogs without a fair trade. Our dogs don’t know what items they are or are not supposed to have – if they’ve picked something up, one of the worst things we can do is chase them around and wrestle it from their mouth! Always, always go and fetch the best treats in the house and swap these for the item you want your dog to relinquish. Your dog will learn that giving you things pays off really, really well! If we simply invade our dogs’ space and take an exciting and high-value resource from them, they can quickly learn to become defensive.

Management is Key!
We appreciate that it might feel a bit counter-intuitive to give our dogs a treat when they’ve stolen an item of laundry or something off the table. We agree – we don’t want these situations to occur, either! The fact is, though, that once the dog has the item, we’re in triage mode and the best way to get the item back without causing more problems is to swap it for a great treat.
What we can learn from this, however, is the importance of management – if we don’t want our dogs to steal things, we need to do our bit and keep things out of reach and/or supervise our dogs. Keeping accessible surfaces tidy and putting things away on high shelves and in cupboards, as well as using barriers such as baby gates or dog crates to limit your dog’s access to areas of the house when you’re not there to keep an eye on them, are all ways to manage the environment so your dog doesn’t get hold of something they shouldn’t. 
This doesn’t mean your house has to be bare forever. Over time, your dog will learn that the dining table is boring – there’s nothing up there of any interest to them! But practice makes perfect, so leaving things out before your dog reaches this stage is just asking for your dog to become a professional thief! 
Management might also mean separating dogs in a multidog household, for example at dinner time or when they have been given a high value chew, as well as supervising their interactions and calling one or the other away if one of the dogs is getting upset.

Never, Ever Punish the Growl!
We said the cardinal sin is taking something away from your dog without a trade – well, it’s also punishing your dog for growling. We should all thank our dogs if they growl at us. Growling is our dog’s least confrontational way to let us know they are feeling really uncomfortable – we can think of a growl as a smoke alarm, letting us know there’s a problem. Punishing a growl is a terrible idea because it doesn’t resolve the problem, it only teaches the dog NOT to express how they’re feeling. The dog still feels uncomfortable with the situation but now we’ve taken the batteries out of the smoke alarm and everything seems fine – until it’s not. This is how so many bites happen “out of the blue,” without warning. NEVER punish your dog for growling – respect the growl and give your dog the space they need.

The Risks of Resource Guarding
As we’ve mentioned above, resource guarding can start with fairly mild behaviours. Your dog may grumble when you approach to try to get them off the sofa. They might freeze as you walk past while they’ve got a toy. These signs are subtle and for many dog owners they might not be easy to read – dogs might be wagging their tails while they’re guarding a toy, but a tense tail wag coupled with stiff, frozen body language is not a happy dog! If signs of resource guarding are ignored, the problem can quickly snowball…

One of the most obvious and direct risks of ignoring resource guarding behaviour is the escalation of our dog’s behaviour. From grumbling and freezing to snapping and even biting. Escalation can also mean more frequent guarding behaviour than previously seen and guarding things they didn’t in the past, as our dogs’ insecurity worsens.
Stress Levels on the Dog
Dogs who are resource guarding aren’t being naughty and it isn’t a game for them. They are feeling insecure and defensive. This is at least as stressful – almost certainly moreso – for our dogs as it is for us. Leaving dogs to practice resource guarding behaviours means leaving our dogs to feel stressed. Leaving them in such stressful situations inevitably leads to increased levels of stress hormones in our dogs’ systems and has huge impacts on our dogs’ overall welfare.

Increased Risk of Bites
As our dogs’ stress levels increase and their behaviours escalate, the likelihood of a bite occurring becomes greater. This quickly leads to a dangerous situation – both for those on the receiving end of the bite, but also for our dogs whose futures may be at risk if they have a history of biting.

Learned Behaviours
We mentioned earlier that practice makes perfect. This is true of resource guarding behaviours and the more our dogs practice the escalation of behaviour we see when resource guarding occurs, the more likely they are to go to that place in the future. Every time a dog exhibits resource guarding behaviours, they are learning what is or isn’t effective when they feel threatened and want space. The more of a history our dogs have of growling or snapping, the more difficult it becomes to get to a place where our dogs never rely on these behaviours when they feel insecure in the future.
This is why dogs who have resorted to growling and snapping when someone went to take something from them, may start exhibiting these behaviours as soon as someone approaches or walks past – alongside the cumulative trauma they experience from repeated conflicts, they’ve learned that people approaching often leads to people invading their space and trying to take resources away and that those more aggressive behaviours are the quickest way to get the space they need to feel safe and secure.\

Damage Relationship and Broken Trust
Even if we manage to get through without any physical harm to either party, the damage done to our relationships with our dogs and the trust between us can be tragically severe and difficult to repair. It is very difficult to feel confident and trusting around a dog who has snarled, snapped and possibly even bitten you – none of us want to feel scared of our own dog. Equally, the high levels of stress our dogs will have experienced will leave them traumatised and insecure. It is a difficult and long process to rebuild this trust on both sides once it has been broken and this is probably one of the most heart-rending things about resource guarding cases.

What To Do
If you are worried your dog may be exhibiting signs of resource guarding, no matter how minimal, get in touch with a professional right away. Click here to get help today. If we notice signs and act early, we can often prevent resource guarding from developing with management and basic training (of dog and human!) – this is much safer and much cheaper than waiting.
Once the behaviours escalate, a behavioural consultation is required to fully assess the dog and ensure that the right advice is given to keep you, your dog and anyone else in the household safe. So don’t wait – get in touch right away if you have any concerns and we will be more than happy to support you and your dog, so you can live together harmoniously!

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