Some dogs will growl when you get near their food bowls or bare their teeth when you approach their toys or rawhide chews. They can even become possessive about their bed or favorite napping spot on the couch.
Despite how it might seem, your dog does not hate you; nor is he trying to dominate you. He is “resource guarding” – a normal behavior in canine society (just like jumping, digging, barking, etc.), but something that is decidedly less desirable in human society. Fortunately resource guarding is something that can be managed, treated, and even eliminated with proper time and intervention.
A variety of things can cause a dog to protect resources, including:
• Anxiety, insecurity or inability to cope with new environments, social situations and/or people/pets.
• Hunger or competition with other dogs for nutritional resources – real or perceived.
• Genetics. Just like people, some dogs are more possessive than others.
• Unintended results of things people do (e.g., taking away food, punishing for resource guarding, etc.).
• Medical issues, such as illness or injury, or behavior changes resulting from medication (e.g., steroids).
Some dogs may growl or snap if you approach while they’re playing with toys, eating food or chewing on a bone. Early warnings may include:
• Tensing, stiffening up or becoming rigid or very still when you approach.
• Hunkering down or hovering over the food bowl or toy in a protective stance.
• Eating faster or “punching” at the bowl as someone approaches.
• Staring or watching suspiciously as you approach or pass by.
While your dog may never want to fully share his resources, the prognosis is good for teaching him to have a calm, self-controlled and accepting attitude when you approach his prized resources. With some helpful tips and consistent reinforcement, you can condition your dog to view people approaching as a good thing.
Start by managing the environment to minimize the ways your dog can practice bad behavior. Make sure there is adequate space and the room is quiet and calm – try to eliminate any distractions. If possible, restrict your dog’s toy play and/or feeding time to a room or kennel separate from other dogs and people.
Some other tips include:
• Walk it Out: Take your dog for a 20 – 30-minute walk before mealtime to burn off extra energy and enjoy
some nice bonding time with you!
• Be Consistent: Feed your dog at the same time every day to reduce the potential anxiety caused by him
wondering when he will get fed. Dogs have internal clocks and know when it’s time to eat.
• Play with Your Food: Help your dog learn that food, treats and other good things come from people by using
“Nothing in Life is Free.” Give him a way to work for his food.
o Before feeding him or giving him a toy, have your dog do 2 or 3 tricks (e.g., sit, lie down, stay).
o Require a “trick” or good behavior before giving your dog something he wants like affection or a walk, which will
reinforce your leadership and bolster trust and respect in your relationship.
• Play the “Look at Me” game: Teach your dog that when he turns away from his bowl or toy to look at you, he will
be rewarded with something yummy. Here is how to play:
o Place a small amount of dry kibble in a bowl or food dispensing toy, and let your dog begin eating the food.
o Approach your dog with a tasty treat (e.g., a piece of hotdog, cheese or other special, high-value food item).
o Say the dog's name. If he lifts his head, praise him generously and toss him the treat – rewarding him for turning his
focus to you. Repeat this exercise on a regular basis.
• Make a Trade: Teach your dog to trade
good stuff for better stuff (e.g., a yummy treat) – then give back the original good stuff. Over time, he will
start associating your approach with better stuff on the way! Here’s how:
o Begin by giving your dog a toy he finds boring or only mildly interesting (the less valuable the toy, the more quickly
your dog will be willing to trade – plus, he will be less likely to aggressively guard something that isn’t highly desirable).
o Let your dog play with the toy for a moment, then offer him something he’d prefer to have (e.g., a special treat).
Calmly say, “Trade.”
• Hold the special treat and let your dog nibble on it while you pick up the boring toy.
• When your dog finishes eating the treat, ask him to “sit” and then return the toy to him.
• This process will teach your dog to trust you as he starts associating you with better stuff.
• Toss a Treat: Desensitize your dog to your approach by tossing him a treat as you walk by. The goal is to help him
understand a human approaching his food, toys, space, etc. is a good thing!
o Stay far enough away when you walk by that your dog doesn’t show warning signs.
o Over time, slowly reduce the space between you and your dog when you walk by.
One important note: Resource guarding is not an act of disobedience or defiance, so punishing your dog for this behavior is not recommended – and it can actually backfire! Your dog may misunderstand punishment as challenging and/or threatening him for his beloved resource, which may escalate his level of aggression and defensive behavior.
There are a few options for feeding your dog, depending on what works best for you. The goal with all options is to ensure that dinner time is a calm, consistent experience, with minimal excitement, fanfare and variability.
Require your dog to sit calmly in a designated spot while you prepare his meal (if your dog hasn’t mastered “sit,” establish a boundary he cannot cross, such as the threshold of a room). If your dog gets up or moves beyond the boundary, stop and step away from the bowl. Calmly repeat your command and once your dog returns to his designated spot, resume meal preparation. If your dog breaks again, repeat the process until he remains in place through the entire meal preparation.
Patience is the key during this process. It may take several days for your pooch to understand the routine – but it will be worth the effort! Once your dog remains calm during meal preparation, proceed using one of the following options:
• Bowl Feeding: Call your dog to the designated
feeding area and ask him to sit or stand calmly before
lowering the bowl to the floor. Allow him to finish eating without distractions and let him walk away from the bowl before it is
picked up. Supervise feeding so your dog can eat without encroachment from people or other dogs.
• Hand Feeding: Use meal time as training time, asking your dog to earn every morsel. This is essentially a
hand-feeding technique. Teach your dog new commands, run through the ones he already knows, practice loose
lead walking around the house, or play games like targeting a stick, or “It's your choice.” Find a demonstration
• Free Feeding: Ensure a full food bowl is available to your dog at all times. This option works best if no other
animals or small children are in the house and if weight gain is not a potential issue.
While it is important for your dog to have an opportunity to work through his issues, it’s more important for you and your family to be safe. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or your dog is not making progress, you can use the following simple techniques to manage the behavior:
• Set up your dog for success by removing all items that trigger his
resource-guarding behavior. Make sure
chew bones and food bowls are picked up when not in use. If your dog guards his bed or pieces of furniture, don’t allow
him to have access to those locations without permission.
• Avoid situations that set him off – if he growls when you approach his food bowl during mealtime, then stay away
from him while he’s eating. Consider feeding him in his kennel or a separate room to minimize opportunities for
• Be aware of your dog’s body language and watch for signals leading up to a full-blown resource
guarding episode. If possible, redirect his attention to something of higher value.
• Make sure your dog gets enough physical exercise and mental stimulation to help him maintain a calm state of being.
If you encounter unavoidable situations where management techniques won’t work, consider using some of the other tools and practices outlined in this handout. For example, if your dog is guarding a piece of trash he has stolen, try bribing him with something of higher value to redirect his interest away from the trash. If he sneaks into a location he likes to guard like his bed or a favorite spot on the couch, avoid a conflict by ignoring him until he leaves – then close off access before he can return.
Operation Kindness employs a full-time Animal Behavior Specialist named Amber Jester who is available to answer questions, as well as provide help and guidance if you need it. Amber is just a phone call away if you need to talk with someone.
If at any time your dog makes you feel unsafe or if you have children in your home, hands-on help from a qualified professional may be the best course of action. While resource guarding is not uncommon, it can become a serious issue – potentially dangerous for humans and other pets – if not addressed or managed properly. Please don’t hesitate to contact Operation Kindness’ Behavior Specialist at (972) 418-7297 EXT. 286 with any questions or concerns.
• The Whole Dog Journal Recourse Guarding; www.whole-dog-journal.com
Resource Guarding in Dogs by Laurie Bergman VMD, DACVB
Animals ISSN 2076-2615 “Preliminary Investigation of Food Guarding Behavior in Shelter Dogs in the United States.” 2012