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Using Training to Manage and Prevent Resource Guarding

Using Training to Manage and Prevent Resource Guarding

Resource guarding refers to a dog's behavior of protecting or guarding objects, food, toys, resting places or people that they view as valuable resources. This behavior stems from the survival instincts of dogs to protect items necessary for their existence. In the wild, dogs needed to guard food, water and resting places in order to survive. While our pet dogs have constant access to food, water and shelter, these instinctual behaviors still exist in domesticated dogs.

Resource guarding most often occurs with high value items like food, treats or toys. However, some dogs will also guard resting spots like dog beds, furniture or even spaces like their crate or a room in the home. In multi-dog households, some dogs may guard people, like a familiar human who gives them attention. They may growl, snap or bite when another dog or person approaches "their" resource.

Resource guarding ranges from mild to severe. Mild guarding may involve a dog who eats or chews a little faster if people approach. Moderate guarding can include growling when approached while eating or playing with a certain toy. Severe resource guarding involves aggressive behaviors like lunging, snapping, biting or fighting. It's important to identify resource guarding early and take steps to modify the behavior before it escalates or causes harm.

Why Does Resource Guarding Develop?

There are several potential reasons why a dog may start to display resource guarding behaviors:

  • Instinct – As mentioned, resource guarding stems from natural survival instincts in dogs. Even perfectly friendly pet dogs retain some of these wild instincts. Guarding resources like food, water and rest was critical for survival.

  • Lack of proper socialization – Dogs who are not adequately socialized as puppies may not learn how to share resources with other dogs or people. Poor socialization contributes to resource guarding.

  • Genetics – Some breeds or lines of dogs have a stronger predisposition to develop resource guarding. Herding breeds, terriers and guarding breeds tend to be more prone to this behavior. It's in their genetics.

  • Negative experiences – If a dog has negative experiences around their resources, like people constantly taking away food or toys, it can cause them to guard. They learn that they must protect their resources or risk losing them.

  • Anxiety – Dogs with separation anxiety or general anxiety may guard resources like toys or beds that comfort them and ease their anxiety when alone. The resource helps them feel secure.

  • Medical issues -Pain, illness or conditions like hypothyroidism can cause increased reactivity like resource guarding in some dogs. Veterinary exams can rule out medical factors.

  • Learned behavior – Sometimes dogs will display guarded behavior because it has worked for them in the past. If growling successfully got the person to back away and leave the resource alone, the dog has learned that this behavior works.

The underlying motivation is to gain control over a valuable resource and prevent it from being taken away. Several factors above can contribute to the development of resource guarding. Understanding the potential reasons can help address the root cause through training.

How To Identify Resource Guarding

Being able to accurately identify resource guarding behavior in dogs is important for addressing the issue early. Subtle body language signs will usually precede aggressive behaviors. Recognizing the early warning signs allows training to be implemented before the guarding gets severe. Here are some ways to identify resource guarding:

Subtle signs:

  • Tensing up or freezing when approached while eating or playing with a toy

  • Gulping or eating food quickly when people are near

  • Picking up valued items and carrying them away to a private spot

  • Averting gaze and turning head away when approached

  • Licking lips or yawning while guarding resources

More obvious signs:

  • Crouching over food bowl, toys or other items

  • Growling or snarling when approached while eating, chewing or playing

  • Stiffening up and staring at the approaching person or animal

  • Lifting lips to expose teeth as a warning

  • Quickly grabbing items and running away when noticed

Severe signs:

  • Biting or attempting to bite when approached

  • Attacking another animal who gets near guarded resources

  • Lunging toward or chasing people away from the resource

  • Fighting aggressively if someone tries to take away a valued item

Keep in mind that resource guarding can occur with people, dogs or other animals. Pay close attention to your dog's body language and reactions in situations involving food, toys, beds or other valued items. Early recognition allows for early intervention through training and behavior modification before the guarding becomes dangerous.

Safety Tips for Handling Resource Guarding

When dealing with a dog who guards resources, some caution should be used to avoid escalating the aggressive behavior or getting bitten. Here are some basic safety tips when managing a resource guarding dog:

  • Avoid reaching for or grabbing items from your dog. This can trigger an aggressive reaction in some dogs.

  • Do not punish or scold your dog for guarding behavior. Harsh corrections can make the behavior worse long-term.

  • Have high value treats readily available to trade for items. But do not approach or reach for the item.

  • Back away and give space if your dog growls, freezes or stiffens up when guarding an item. Do not corner him.

  • Use baby gates, pens or crates to control access to guarded items if managing the behavior.

  • Consider a basket muzzle when giving guarded food or introducing new toys. But muzzle introductions must be done slowly over time.

  • Ensure children do not approach or try to take items from a guarding dog. Supervise all interactions.

  • If someone does get bitten, stay calm. Do not yell or aggressively punish the dog. Give space and let the dog relax.

  • Contact a trainer/behaviorist if your dog displays severe resource guarding like biting or hard stares and growling. Managing aggression requires professional guidance.

The goal is to avoid situations that may trigger guarding behavior until proper training can be implemented. Safety comes first when dealing with resource guarding. Reading your dog's body language is key.

Training Techniques to Reduce Resource Guarding

With patience and consistency, resource guarding behaviors in dogs can be improved through targeted training techniques and behavior modification. Here are some effective methods:

Hand feeding – Hand feeding your dog part of his daily food ration helps establish trust and respect between you and your dog. He learns to associate you with resources rather than seeing you as a threat to them.

Positive reinforcement – Reward your dog with treats and praise for calm behavior when you approach him and his resources. You want to change his emotional response from guarding to happiness about you being near his valued items.

Obedience training – Work on "drop it" and "leave it" commands. Reward your dog for releasing items and not touching things when instructed. This provides you with control.

Confinement or removal – Use crates, pens and baby gates to control access to guarded items if needed. Remove the possibility of rehearsing the guarding behavior.

Trigger identification – Identify specific triggers for your dog's guarding behavior and work to change his emotional response through desensitization and counterconditioning.

Trading up – Exchange a low-value item your dog is guarding for something of higher value that you offer. He learns that giving up items results in getting something even better.

Intervention by proxy – Have a second person intervene by calling the dog over, offering a treat or providing a toy when you approach the guarded resource. This disrupts the guarding behavior.

Consulting professionals – For moderate or severe guarding that involves growling, biting, or aggression, work with a certified trainer or behaviorist on management and training strategies.

With time and consistency, you can change your dog's perception around valuable items and teach him to look to you for good things when approached during eating or while playing with favorite toys. The key is addressing the issue proactively and avoiding punishment-based strategies.

Managing Resource Guarding with Other Dogs

Resource guarding often occurs between dogs sharing a home, especially if there is competition over items like food, toys and beds. If you have multiple dogs, here are some tips for managing guarded behavior:

  • Feed dogs separately in crates or different rooms. Pick up bowls when done eating.

  • Provide multiples of favorite toys and chews. Avoid making dogs share.

  • Give each dog their own bed or rest area. Do not allow competition over sleeping spots.

  • If one dog steals another's item or interferes with their access to it, redirect or confine as needed.

  • Monitor dogs carefully when high-value resources are present. Redirect any initial, subtle signs of tension or guarding.

  • Reward calm, polite behavior when dogs are in proximity to each other's resources using treats or praise.

  • Consider "natural consequences". If a stealing dog gets snarled at by the owner of a toy, allow him to learn not to steal it. But supervise closely.

  • Place baby gates in doorways to allow visual access but prevent physical access to guarded resources in other rooms.

  • Create positive associations between the dogs involving resources. For example, feed them treats at a distance from one another during mealtimes.

  • Do not use punishment like yelling or scolding when guarding occurs. This can worsen aggression between dogs over time.

Managing multiple dogs requires smart management strategies and setting up the home environment to prevent conflict and guarding. Be proactive and promote peaceful co-existence between all pets.

Preventing Resource Guarding with Puppies

Preventing resource guarding starts in puppyhood. Since this behavior has roots in natural canine instincts, dogs do not necessarily need a "bad" experience to start guarding. Setting puppies up for success can prevent guarding issues down the road:

Proper socialization – Ensure puppies have positive experiences with people and dogs handling their food, toys and other items from a very young age. This teaches them to accept handling when older.

No competition – Provide multiple food bowls, toys and beds so that puppies do not need to compete for resources. Competition can create guarding.

Positive handling – Hand feed puppies, touch them while eating, and add tasty treats to their bowl so they associate people approaching their food with good things.

Confidence building – Avoid scolding or intimidating puppies when they have resources. Build confidence by handling them gently and returning items.

Obedience training – Practice "give" and "drop it" commands with toys and food. Praise and reward the puppy for releasing items.

Environmental management – Set up the environment to avoid guarding scenarios until a puppy matures and gains confidence through training over time. For example, provide a second bed so siblings don't argue over one bed.

Genetics – For breeds prone to possessiveness like guarding breeds, request temperament testing on parent dogs when acquiring a puppy. Select for low resource guarding tendencies.

Veterinary care – Have puppies checked for medical issues that can contribute to guarding like hypothyroidism. Treating conditions may reduce reactivity.

Prevention starts with proper socialization, gentle handling, sharing resources and building confidence. Never intimidate puppies when they have food or toys. Patience and smart management are key for raising puppies who share willingly as adult dogs.

How Children Should Interact with Resource Guarding Dogs

Special care and supervision are required when introducing children to a dog with known resource guarding issues. Dogs generally view children as equals rather than superiors in the pack hierarchy. As a result, they are more likely to display guarded behaviors toward children approaching their resources. Here are some tips:

  • Do not leave children alone unsupervised with a resource guarding dog under any circumstances. Adult supervision is critical.

  • Teach children to never approach, reach for or grab items from a dog. Explain that this could provoke a bite.

  • Show children how to recognize subtle warning signs like lip licking, freezing and staring so they can back off before guarding escalates.

  • Instruct children to fold their arms in front of their body if the dog has a toy or food item. Folding arms helps avoid accidental reaching.

  • If the dog growls or walks away with an item, teach kids to stand "like a tree" without moving and avoid eye contact.

  • Consider using baby gates to separate dog and child but allow visual access when high-value items are present. This keeps interactions positive.

  • Feed the dog in areas totally inaccessible to children, like crates or rooms with closed doors.

  • Work on "give" and "drop it" commands in a positive manner. Reward the dog for releasing items to adults with children present at a distance.

  • Do not punish the dog for growling at children. This risks suppressing warning signals and getting bitten without warnings in the future.

With training and proper management, children can co-exist safely with a resource guarding dog. But adult supervision is absolutely mandatory at all times. Prevention is the priority, not punishment.

When to Get Professional Help

For mild resource guarding like food bowl avoidance or subtle freezing and lip licking, many pet parents can implement the training tips above on their own successfully. But in more serious cases involving growling, lunging or attempts to bite when approached, it is safest to enlist help from professionals.

Indicators that professional help may be required include:

  • Biting or attempting to bite when items are reached for

  • Severe, deep growling and intense staring/guarding behavior

  • Lunging or chasing people away from resources

  • Hard mouthing or apprising bites even if no skin is broken

  • Multiple instances of the dog stealing items aggressively

  • Evidence the dog may bite without warning signals like growling first

  • Resource guarding that is worsening despite owner efforts and consistently triggered

  • Children reside in or frequently visit the home

  • Other pets are also at risk of being bitten from the resource guarding

Working with certified professionals like board-certified veterinary behaviorists, certified applied animal behaviorists or experienced certified dog trainers can help ensure safety for all family members. Medication may be prescribed in extreme cases.

Resource guarding often responds very well to customized training and behavior modification programs implemented by professionals in partnership with owners. Seeking professional guidance is recommended any time biting occurs or when guarding behavior is escalating in frequency or severity despite efforts to manage it.

How to Find a Qualified Trainer

Choosing an experienced, qualified trainer is important when dealing with resource guarding issues. Avoid trainers who rely on punishment, intimidation and confrontation. Handling aggression requires patience, positive reinforcement and changing the dog's emotional response.

Here are some tips for finding a good professional trainer:

  • Referrals from veterinarians or veterinary behaviorists are a good starting point.

  • Search for trainers certified through respected organizations like the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) or the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).

  • Look for trainers experienced specifically in treating resource guarding and aggression. Avoid trainers who focus only on obedience.

  • Meet with potential trainers to evaluate their experience and discuss their training philosophy/methods before committing.

  • Ask if they follow LIMA (Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive) principles and focus on positive reinforcement in their programs.

  • Ask how they involve owners in the training process to ensure you understand the techniques.

  • Avoid any trainer who advocates dominance, physical corrections or confrontation which can worsen resource guarding long term.

  • Compare several trainers and programs before selecting one. Cost can provide clues to trainer experience.

Take time finding the right fit and be wary of quick fixes, outdated methods and trainers who want to use punishment or confront the dog during guarding episodes. Addressing aggression requires expertise.

Medication in Severe Resource Guarding Cases

In the most severe cases where resource guarding results in repeated biting and aggression that is unresponsive to behavior modification, prescription medication may be recommended. A board-certified veterinary behaviorist is best qualified to determine if medication is appropriate.

Some things to consider with medication for resource guarding:

  • Medication is not a sole solution but used in conjunction with behavior modification training.

  • It can help lower a dog's baseline anxiety and reactivity threshold to make training more effective.

  • Common medications prescribed may include fluoxetine, clomipramine, or gabapentin.

  • Instruction on proper administration and handling of medication side effects is provided.

  • Progress is monitored and adjustments to dosing made based on the dog's response.

  • Weaning off medication can occur once the dog's behavior has improved over several months.

  • Some dogs may need lifelong management with medication for severe guarding not resolved through training alone.

Medication carries some risks and is not appropriate for all cases of resource guarding. Mild to moderate cases usually respond well to training alone. But medication administered and monitored by a veterinary behavior specialist can be a helpful tool in certain situations alongside training for reducing a dog's reactive responses.

Management Tips for Living with a Resource Guarding Dog

Caring for a dog with resource guarding requires smart management and training. But it is possible to have a good quality of life and bond with a guarding dog. Here are some tips:

  • Stick to a predictable routine for feeding, walking, training times to reduce anxiety.

  • Identify your dog's triggers and work to change their emotional response using positive reinforcement.

  • Limit access to guarded resources like special toys except during supervised training sessions.

  • Feed meals in safe areas like crates away from kids/other pets. Pick up bowls immediately after meals.

  • Provide a "safe space" like a crate or spare room for your dog when needed to avoid confrontations.

  • Use baby gates, exercise pens, doors and leashes to control entrances to rooms with guarded resources.

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