“Resource guarding” is aggression that occurs around a dog’s possessions. The possession might be a food dish, dog bone, a soft space on the couch, or it could even be YOU. I once had a guest dog who would find a recently cleaned spot on the rug, and he would resource guard THAT! It’s the opposite of what we want, which is a relaxed attitude, a dog who isn’t worried about anything.
Resource guarding is the dog saying “Stay away!” It might mean stay away from my bone, my pups, my corner of the room, my human. It’s one of the most common behavioral problems I see, but fortunately one that is highly responsive to training.
First off: Why do dogs do this? Like almost all aggression, resource guarding typically starts as insecurity, and a lack of confidence, a dog who can’t predict what’s going to happen with a resource. Over time the dog can come up with his own plan for controlling resources, and this can develop into increasing aggression. Some dogs might be genetically more prone to this. I saw a puppy once that was scary aggressive, resource guarding at 16 weeks, and I was told euthanized by 6 months. Something was wrong with that pup. But that is very rare. Far more typically, resource guarding is triggered by the environment, regardless of genetics. Resource guarding is almost always a learned behavior. The dog has learned to act aggressively, because it allows them to control access to limited valuable resources.
This is why trying to pick up and control all potential triggers often fails. You can’t eliminate every possible resource in the environment. When you limit some resources, you’re making every other resource in the environment seem more important, MORE valuable, and this has potential to escalate things a dog may choose to guard. We will never be “done” with our mission to prevent development of resource guarding in all of our dogs. Behavioral health requires a sense of resource security throughout the lifespan.
When you’ve flooded your environment with other resources, the stinky spot on the rug doesn’t stand out so much. So that’s one way of approaching the problem. Rather than handing out one ball in a group of 6 dogs, dump out 24 balls. Begin with balls just laying there, don’t throw them right off the bat! If it looks like one dog is experiencing a ball shortage, dump out MORE balls. The idea is to have so many balls, no dog needs to worry about balls. Ignore the balls, don’t touch the balls, let the dogs do what they want. Add more balls as necessary. Do the same if you pass out dog bones or treats. I remember spending $30 on 12 dog bones once, but it was super worthwhile!
I’ve seen dogs learn how to relax, again and again, in resource flooded environments. The resource guarder will likely collect items: maybe six tennis balls, plus two bones and a rag, but then they start to settle down and feel foolish because none of the other dogs cares a bit about what they’ve got. All the other dogs have what they need and they aren’t bothering the resource guarder. What does this tell you about the world?! I don’t know, but maybe something!
These ideas are not necessarily a prescription, but reflective of experiences I’ve had with dogs who stay with me. As an old friend used to say to me when talking about beekeeping, “you need to think like a bee!” The same thing is true regarding resource guarding in dogs. We have to think of how we would feel if someone came and took our iphone out of our hands! Fortunately, dogs don’t care about iphones!