Resource Guarding – What It Is, How to Prevent It

A few simple tips can help you teach your puppy or dog that there's no need to get scary around her stuff.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
August 30, 2010
Episode #038

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Sometimes people tell me Bowser gets a little stiff if you come within 6 feet of his dinner, so they just leave Bowser alone when he’s eating. No problem. And there is an argument to be made that such mild guarding is normal behavior--after all, an animal won’t last long in the wild if anybody can just march right up and take his food away.

The trouble with applying that argument to dogs who live in human homes is, what if the 3-year-old grandkid comes to visit and gets all in Bowser’s face during kibble time? From Bowser’s point of view, his polite warnings that this is his bowl, thank you very much, were ignored, so what could he do but escalate? From the toddler’s point of view, all those stitches really, really hurt. And Bowser, of course, winds up dead.

How to Reduce or Eliminate Resource Guarding

Well-accepted, scientifically sound behavior modification can help the resource-guarding dog. Generally you should expect a variation on the theme of counterconditioning and desensitization. Starting with the mildest possible version of the problem situation, you teach the dog that the problem isn’t actually a problem at all, but rather a predictor of yummy treats. Over time, you build up the dog’s comfort level till she can handle situations that reflect normal life. A dog who growls over her food bowl when people are 6 feet away can learn to greet human approach with happy, relaxed wags instead. I’ve included further information in the Resources list, below.

An Ounce of Prevention

The catch is that, as always, it takes far longer to repair problem behavior than it does to install desirable behavior in the first place. And it’s a truism that behaviors can’t be guaranteed to leave the repertoire. Mainly we hope to see them move to a waaaay back burner.

Teach Your Puppy That You’re Good News Around Food

Say you’ve just brought home a new puppy -- you’re at the ideal time to keep resource guarding from ever manifesting itself. The suggestions I offer can lower the likelihood that your puppy will grow up to guard her food, but of course there are no guarantees in life.