We encounter a wide variety of “jealousy” in dogs. It is hard to tell how many of these behaviors are benign or manageable because if it were, you probably wouldn’t go to the expense and trouble of contacting a trainer about it. We get a slightly skewed perception of how common a problem is. All the same, we have a fair amount of concern for our pups who have trouble letting people and other dogs into their space for various reasons and we’d very much like to help with that!
What to look for
When considering if your dog is displaying behavior consistent with the label “resource guarding”, look for tension in your dog when approached while he is near something he finds valuable. Different dogs value different resources. The most commonly guarded resources are food, toys, chews, people, and space. More rarely, a dog might guard the water bowl or some other thing or place that he feels is particularly important.
“Guarding” can be similarly tricky to nail down. Sometimes guarding is really obvious. Any time we approach Doggo while he has his MEATY BONE, he growls, snarls, and snaps. He is clearly warning you away from his tasty bone. It is HIS, and he doesn’t want you close while he has it. This isn’t a behavior we LIKE, but we can see pretty easily how it is valuable to evolution. Dogs who cannot protect themselves while they’re eating, or protect the food they need to survive don’t reproduce because they don’t live long enough to do so.
Other guarding behaviors might be more sneaky. Some dogs will take the thing they’re guarding and move away from you. Some only guard their resource from humans, but will share with other dogs. More commonly, dogs will guard a resource from another dog, but share freely with people. Sometimes guarding can look like play. A dog might feel stress about another dog approaching their human and (maybe aggressively) initiate play so that the new dog is required to turn and interact with the guarder. If you think you have a guarding issue, it is likely that you do. You can always video the behavior (if it is safe to do so), and send it to us for an evaluation. If it is not safe to do so, avoid the triggers and contact us immediately or get a science based behaviorist near you involved for help.
What to do about it
Never, EVER try to remove something that will not harm your dog from their mouth with your hands. It isn’t necessary and it isn’t safe. Whenever possible, prevent guarding by carefully controlling the resources your dog might guard. Our first concern is safety. We don’t want anyone bitten because they might be hurt, but also because dogs who bite are often unfairly labeled and our society does not tolerate “biting dogs”. If you think your dog guards toys from other dogs (or worse, from children), make sure to keep toys put out of reach when you’re not actively training with your dog to resolve his resource guarding behaviors.
Dogs who guard food bowls should not be fed from a bowl. We actually have a rather lengthy explanation of how and why we do not encourage feeding ANY dog from a bowl here. While we specifically encourage hand feeding dogs who guard their food, we have a list of alternative options to make dogs work for their meals here. Working for food can help a dog use some of their mental energy to reduce overall anxiety, which we mention here. Dogs with a history of food guarding should initially be fed SEPARATELY from any children or other dogs who might cause tension. Remember, prevention is our first step.
In addition to prevention, we may need to utilize various forms of management to keep everyone safe.
The first skill dogs should learn is simple crate training. While there are many societies who can get by without using wire or plastic crates for canine confinement, those societies still teach their dogs to be calm and quiet in a confined space (usually a room). In the USA, we often use crates as a part of a dog’s life for the first year or two. Resource guarding is another excellent time to use a crate. A crate trained dog can spend periods of time quite comfortably confined when training is not occurring. In very extreme cases, the dog may spend a fair amount of time in a crate. This is perfectly safe if done correctly.
We strongly encourage every dog to be muzzle trained. Even very small dogs should be muzzle trained for safety. Aside from the contention of an otherwise healthy, well adjusted, friendly dog not “needing” a muzzle, accidents happen and behaviors can result. What if, god forbid, your dog is severely injured, requiring extensive veterinary care? Dogs in duress bite. Even the friendliest dog may bite while a medical professional is trying to help. If your dog has a positive association with wearing a muzzle, you have given your dog a safe haven during those scary procedures. Instead of terror and helplessness, your dog can learn that muzzles are fun and safe. In addition to resource guarding, fear, and aggression, dogs who have a history of foraging unhealthy items, dogs who are learning to accept new stimuli with grace, and service dogs may all wear muzzles as a simple safety precaution. Fortunately, we have a few resources on muzzle training (and of course, you can always contact us to help!).
Muzzle Up Project An amazing muzzle resource.
Muzzle Up Pup! Facebook Group Has fantastic information about fit, sizing, and conditioning.
Dean & Tyler Muzzles One of two types of bite-proof muzzles we recommend.
Jafco Muzzles Another fantastic, biteproof muzzle.
Desensitization and Counter Conditioning
Once we have made sure that everyone is safe, we can concern ourselves with rehabilitating our dog to a more socially acceptable reaction to someone approaching his resource. The scientifically proven way to rehabilitate these dogs is through desensitization and counter conditioning (ds/cc). The best resource for this process is a force-free behaviorist or a veterinary behaviorist, depending on your dog’s behavior. Jean Donaldson, a respected behaviorist and author, has written a short but comprehensive guide to ds/cc for this condition. The book Mine may become your best friend. The website CARE for Reactive Dogs also has an excellent plan detailed for dogs and their owners who are exhibiting reactive behaviors (of which, resource guarding is one).
We are able and happy to help you rehabilitate your dog using all of these scientific methods. We offer private lessons, boarded training, and virtual training, which are all suitable for this type of behavior modification.
Most dogs dealing with this particular problem never experience any extreme or permanent consequences. If you’re struggling with a resource guarding dog, make sure everyone is safe and then get in touch with a qualified behaviorist, trainer, or veterinarian who can help. You’ll find that your dog will be more relaxed and your home more peaceful for your efforts.