Source: A-Z Animals (Extract)
Posted: October 20, 2023

If you’re the caregiver of a dog, you may be familiar with the term “resource guarding”.

You may be pals with a dog who seems to struggle with guarding resources. Habitual resource guarding by dogs can be a source of chronic stress in a household for humans, dogs, and other pets alike.

In this guide, we’ll define resource guarding, describe its purpose for canines, and offer some helpful tips and perspectives on addressing resource guarding from your canine companion.

Resource Guarding in Dogs: What Is It?

First, let’s define resource guarding. This is not a behavior limited to dogs, however, our definition will start as dog-specific.

In the domesticated dog, resource guarding manifests as the use of threatening, aggressive, or avoidant behaviors toward a person, dog, or other animal to maintain control of a valuable resource. It’s important to understand that the concept of “valuable resource” is subjective and different for each individual. We may feel that a dog guarding a stick is ridiculous, but value is entirely subjective. For instance, many humans fiercely guard their money as an immensely valuable resource- which most dogs would likely only see as valuable for enthusiastically shredding.

Dogs evolved as scavengers and resource-guarding behaviors aided them in retaining possession of scavenged items, especially food, among their social group. For dogs, behaviors associated with resource guarding are ritualistic displays meant to increase the distance of the other dog or animal, not to injure. In cohesive social groups of feral dogs, for instance, resource guarding only rarely escalates to injury-causing fights when space-distancing signals are repeatedly ignored.

In households, resource guarding by dogs can quickly become maladaptive when space-distancing signals aren’t listened to, when resources are poorly distributed among household dogs, and when resource guarding behaviors are punished by human caregivers.

Signs of Resource Guarding

If your dog is exhibiting resource guarding, you may notice the following subtle and not-so-subtle signs:

  • stiffening/freezing over an item or in between the resource and the threat
  • looking away, which can escalate to staring
  • lip lifting
  • growling
  • snarling
  • teeth baring
  • lunging
  • frantic eating or chewing of an item
  • snapping
  • biting (when threat displaying has not worked or communication has been suppressed)

You may see your dog exhibiting these signs related to guarding an object, food, person, space, or other animal. For example, your dog may attempt to guard the couch from other dogs or people. They may guard the doorway to a room where they regularly are fed. Or, they might display resource guarding around their toys. Resource guarding can happen in single or multi-dog households. There may be a genetic component, in addition to environmental, in regards to how intense or habitual the resource-guarding behaviors present.

How Caregivers Can Accidentally Cause Habitual Resource Guarding

Resource guarding in pet dogs can become habitual and maladaptive in response to the ways in which we interact with our canine companions. Typically, the more a dog resource guards, the less safe and comfortable they feel in their environment, which can stem from current or past experiences. You may adopt a dog who already has habitual resource-guarding behaviors due to negative experiences in their previous home.

The following are some examples of how humans can inadvertently cause or escalate resource guarding in dogs:

  • Forcing dogs to “share” their items when they are clearly uncomfortable
  • Punishing communication that expresses discomfort and the need for space, such as growling, snapping, staring, etc.
  • Consistently taking inappropriate items away from the dog without trading for an appropriate item. For example, someone may find themselves often taking objects away from a teething puppy without offering an acceptable chew toy in return.
  • Displaying domineering behaviors towards dogs in relation to their resources. A common example of this is taking food bowls away while dogs are eating, picking up a dog’s feet while they’re eating, etc.
  • Feeding dogs too closely together, especially when one or more dogs are uncomfortable.
  • Accidentally creating a scarcity environment between household dogs, such as having only one toy in a room.