Understanding resource guarding in dogs: How to help your dog feel secure

resource guarding in dogs - caption read why they do it and how we can help them

Does your dog steal things and growl or run away? Perhaps they’re possessive over their food or maybe it’s their toys they’re not happy to share. Your dog might even resource guard a favourite person…..

When a dog shows signs of guarding, their behaviour is often interpreted as territorial, possessive, or even aggressive. 

It’s a big worry. But before you let panic set in and make things worse, read this and don’t skip ahead! I’m going to explain the truth about resource guarding in dogs so you can nip it in the bud and relax. Let’s get started. 

What is resource guarding?

Resource guarding is when a dog becomes defensive in order to keep a threat away from a particular item or “resource” that they treasure.

This could be food, chews, toys, spaces (chairs/beds/doorways) and sometimes people.

Essentially this is your dog communicating: “this is mine, stay away.” But how do you stop that escalating into aggression? And how do you keep your dog safe when they have something they shouldn’t? 

jack russell baring teeth in aggression

We’ll cover this – but first I want to be really clear from the off – this behaviour is NORMAL. Protecting things that are valuable is a natural behaviour – not just for dogs but for humans too. 

How humans resource guard (without escalating to aggression)

Picture yourself in a restaurant. Your belly is full but you’re not done eating, so you take a little breather from stuffing your face. 

The wait staff start circling so you pick up a chip to demonstrate you’re still eating and to keep the threat of them removing your plate at bay. You don’t stab them in the hand with a fork, you don’t growl at them – they get the message, they move away and you relax again. 

But when it comes to communication between dogs and humans, it’s not quite so clear cut. 

Often people miss the subtle signs that a dog gives to protect their treasured items, which leads the dog to escalate their behaviour so they’re understood. 

Signs of resource guarding in dogs

So let’s look at the signs a dog gives when they’re entering resource guarding territory.

  • Freeze
  • Hard stare (the don’t you dare stare!)
  • Covering item (with paws or body)
  • Trying to swallow item quickly
  • Growling
  • Snapping
  • Biting

The early signs that a dog is beginning to resource guard can be hard to miss to the untrained eye. 

→ Your dog will freeze or go stiff initially, followed by the kind of stare a mum gives to a toddler who’s about to kick off in the supermarket. 

→ If these are ignored then your dog may try to cover the item to protect it or they’ll try to swallow it quickly. Why? Well if the item’s in their tummy then it’s theirs – you’re not going to get the opportunity to take it away from them! 

→ Beyond this, we move into more heightened behaviour which may be when you both start to panic! 🆘

→ A dog’s growl often arouses feelings of worry, but it’s a vital communication that you don’t want to stop. Your dog’s growl is like a stern voice in human terms – it’s the final warning to stop. 

→ And if the perceived threat (i.e the person or animal attempting to take their treasured item) doesn’t go away – then we move on to baring teeth, air snaps and eventually a bite. 

If your dog gets to biting point, it’s because they’ve not been listened to. Forget who’s in charge, let go of your ego, and put your relationship and trust first. I’ll talk you through how in a mo. 

But first, if you’re thinking you should be able to take something from your dog without them losing it, you’re right…..

Your dog should trust you enough that you can remove an item without them losing the plot. But this doesn’t happen through brute force or a lack of understanding. 

So let me explain why dog’s feel the need to resource guard in the first place.  

Why do dogs resource guard?

  • Genetics/upbringing
  • Learning history
  • Fear/anxiety
  • Pain/stress
  • Human behaviour

There are lots of things that can lead a dog to feel the need to protect items they deem valuable. From life experiences before they even joined your home to genetics, right through to pain, stress and learned experiences. 

For example, if when your dog was with their breeder and litter mates they were all eating from a couple of bowls – your puppy likely learned they had to fight to eat. 

Equally if they had just a couple of beds or less toys than siblings – they were repeatedly having to assert themselves to get access to resources. 

Once your puppy came home, the likelihood is that they picked up things and chewed them and you panicked about their safety… or wanted your favourite shoe back! 

Puppies explore the world with their mouths and when we rush into a game of chasing them around the house to get things back – we inadvertently make them want to hold on to their stolen items even more. 

Have you ever grabbed your puppy/dog and tried to fish something out of their mouth or tried to physically force them to drop something? 

This makes a dog feel like they need to protect their items more fiercely – it creates a situation where a dog is more likely to resource guard. 

Instead, keep reading to discover how to get your dog to willingly give up their treasured items without you having to force them. It’ll feel much better for both of you! 

Are some breeds more prone to resource guarding?

Yes, some breeds are more genetically pre-programmed to resource guard. This means it won’t take much to bring the behaviour to the surface. 

Gundogs for example were bred to pick things up for us. They like holding things – that’s why they’ve always got something in their mouth! Whether it’s a slipper, a sock or a toy!

When you have a dog that is bred to hold things, you’re not just taking away the item – you’re taking away the happy endorphins they get from holding it. Which makes them more likely to snap. 

Terriers destroy a lot of things or rip them apart, they’re genetically predisposed to do this. It feels good for them. 

Looking for ways to meet your dog’s breed needs is an important part of being a good owner. 

Give your gundog something to hold and carry, give your terrier something they’re allowed to shred to pieces! This won’t encourage aggression, it’ll satisfy their urges in a way that’s safe. 

Research what your dog was bred for and look for activities that satisfy their natural urges. 

Dogs who lack impulse control are also more likely to develop guarding behaviours. Working on your dog’s self control is a great way to prevent resource guarding from developing. 

Is punishment the solution or a mistake?

Punishment is not the answer to fixing resource guarding, it will only make it worse. It’s a natural behaviour in dogs, but it can have serious consequences for humans and other animals. 

If your dog is resource guarding, it’s vital that you get a positive dog trainer on board to help you. Using punishment or force is very likely to make the behaviour much worse and more widespread. 

Find a trainer who can help you build trust with your dog, repair their confidence and teach you how to get things back from your dog safely. 

I’m not going to dress this up

Dogs who escalate beyond growling, are at a high risk of ending up being relinquished to rescue if they don’t get the right support.

If a dog is pushed to biting point and you no longer feel safe to have them in your home, I can assure you finding a new home will be very difficult. These dogs often end up bouncing in and out of rescue, landing in one failed home after another. 

This is completely avoidable with the right help. 

dog in rescue kennel looking for a home

If you’re local to Musselburgh, please get in touch with me. If not, please find an accredited positive dog trainer or behaviourist in your area. 

In the meantime, let’s look at what management you can put in place to prevent guarding from escalating so you can keep everybody safe. 

How to manage and prevent resource guarding

  • Teach your dog you can be trusted
  • Use management to keep everyone safe
  • Give your dog appropriate outlets to their breed
  • Learn dog body language
  • Teach them behaviours that will help

Trust is a BIG DEAL. From here on in, no snatching or trying to forcibly retrieve items from your dog. Instead, begin to fill your trust bucket by showing your dog you make good things happen. 

Dog in training

Remove opportunities for your dog to guard. 

  • Don’t leave toys, food or bowls lying around 
  • Keep dogs separate around food and toys 
  • Wait for your dog to leave or remove them from the area before taking things

When management fails, risk grows. Believe that strict management is necessary and you can save your dog’s life.

Teaching behaviours that help

There are four key behaviours that you can teach your dog that can help you both prevent and manage any resource guarding behaviours. 

  • Trade
  • Drop it
  • Leave it 
  • Go to station

These life skills are covered in my puppy training and dog training courses – alongside other important skills such as recall and loose lead walking

Train with me online

Here’s a taster for you:

If your dog is already exhibiting guarding behaviours, then you will need more distance and management to keep training safe. Ideally, you should do this alongside a positive trainer for everyone’s safety. 

My online course for preventing resource guarding is almost ready for release. It includes advice on furniture guarding, multi dog households, and sudden onset of aggression. Plus step-by-step training videos on the four key behaviours you need to teach to keep your dog safe. 

Sign up below to be the first to get your paws on this vital training for your dog. 

Protecting Their Treasure: Understanding Resource Guarding in Dogs

Resource Guarding Wait List

Last words

Taking this approach to handling and preventing resource guarding isn’t you giving in, being weak or being submissive to your dog. If you want a happy, confident dog and a great relationship then trust comes first. 

When you’re respectful of your dog, seek to understand their communication and help them feel safe – you will be so proud that you took this route. 

In summary, avoid these 4 common human behaviours that cause big problems!

  • Taking things away from your dog without letting them know
  • Punishing your dog for communicating
  • Ignoring your dog’s body language
  • Putting your dog in situations they’re not ready for

The driving force behind resource guarding is fear or anxiety of losing something. If you continue to take things, you’re reinforcing that fear. And the likelihood is, the behaviour will escalate.

Learn more about building trust with your dog here.

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Becky Milne East Coast Dog Training with Border Terrier

Hi, I’m Becky

I’m an ethical and positive dog trainer who wants to help you create a fantastic relationship with your dog.

I offer fun and effective dog training that makes you WANT to train.