MINE!! Understanding and Working with Resource Guarding

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

Resource Guarding: “the use of avoidance, threatening, or aggressive behaviors by a dog to retain control of food or non-food items in the presence of a person or other animals.” (Jacobs, Coe., et al.)

Gulping food at breakneck speed, playing keep away with the ball, growling at anyone near the food bowl, barking when somebody gets too close to their person on the couch, whining when the other dog gets the treat first the list goes on. Sounds familiar? What do you call it? Resource Guarding? Possessive Aggression? Food related aggression? Why does it matter? And can you fix it or at least manage it? All of these terms have been used to define behaviors dogs display to gain or keep access to or control of something of supposed value in the presence or approach of another dog or person. Depending on context or what is going in the environment when this is happening, these may be totally different things. A very hungry dog may gulp food to satisfy that hunger, a dog with a history of being deprived of food around others may gulp food to protect the opportunity to eat, and an anxious dog may gulp food as part of their general disposition. Emotional states, motivations and environments set the stage for much of what we are looking at with behaviors. We do know that what we call something is important, it colors how we think about it and from there how we respond to it.

Putting the aggression label on to this or any behavior can muddy the waters unless we are in fact talking about true aggression here – the intent to cause harm as opposed to bluffs, threats, stare downs and the like. Highly ritualized distance increasing behaviors serve dogs in avoiding aggressive interactions. Fighting is costly from a biological standpoint and most, if not all animals would rather the other party go away instead of engage in violence. We can be both misinformed and careless with the use of “alpha” and “dominance” when discussing dog society and forget that dog society is mainly a society of deference of “no, it’s OK – you go first” in response to a warning or threat rather than “let’s fight.” And if that’s how dogs “talk” to each other, if a growl is a warning to a back off and if the other dog hears that and responds, what happens when we get it wrong? A 2018 study reviewed expert opinions on what to call those avoidance and guarding behaviors of protecting perceived assets and the expert consensus was to drop the aggression label (unless that is actually what is seen) and to use “resource guarding over possessive aggression due to the potential for motivation to be interpreted more accurately by owners.” Here, study participants mentioned concerns not just with the use of the word “aggression” but also with using “possessive” for fear of additional misinterpretation that resource guarding behavior might be viewed as challenging an owner with the potential of owners resorting to force in retaliation – a strategy that makes things worse not better.

No matter what we call it, how do we assess, manage and work with it? Researchers De Kuster and Jung write:

“competitive disputes over resources (including puppies) may occur with family members of all ages, but tend to occur with children more than adolescents, with adults being least frequently involved. The disputes may also occur with other familiar animals in the home, including other dogs and certain pets, such as less fearful cats…the dog feels threatened and potentially frustrated and so the under- lying emotion is negative. The choice of strategy (whether or not escalating into a bite) will depend on many factors, including actual mood state, perception of the situation, and previous learning experiences (aggressive episodes) and their outcomes…Dogs displaying aggression over resources should be screened for signs of generalized anxiety”

Motivations for this behavior may vary from territoriality, uncertainty over place in the group dynamic, fear, health issues, etc. Canine behavior experts agree that aggressor dogs are also found to have high anxiety levels and benefit from routine, schedule and owner predictability. In our homes we tend to admonish the aggressor dog and support the victim which may increase tensions between the dogs. Free ranging dogs are better able to circumvent conflict because they have the space to retreat successfully.

Jacobs, Coe, et al in another study, also looked at what factors are frequently associated with resource guarding around both other dogs and around people and found that when it came to the presence of other dogs this was a relatively fixed pattern and high impulsivity and fear increased the chance the behavior would occur. When it came to resource guarding around people they found this to be a more flexible behavior and that removing the food dish during meals was associated with increased resource guarding. Adding more palatable (yummy) food during meals when people were around was found to reduce the behavior and teaching dogs to drop items (please make it “trade” instead, more on that later) to reduce resource guarding both around dogs and around people.

Dr. Petra Mertens writes that research shows that the majority of fights between dogs in the home occur under states of high arousal/excitement, next to food or toys or next to the caregiver. Confined spaces, defending favored resting space and responding to threatening postures such as hard stare, tensed and leaning forward, growling, etc., close off the list. In the same home younger dogs or new additions to the home are the responsible parties for aggressing first. Female-female pairs represent the majority of most physical conflicts. Fights occur more frequently when owners are present or close by as opposed to when the dogs are alone.

Working with resource guarding behavior and/or possessive aggression whether with a single dog or in the multi-dog home is possible (there are never guarantees) -for it to succeed, it requires a strong commitment to managing the environment to prevent the possibility of conflict, strict adherence to a consistent, every day, behavioral program of counter conditioning, desensitization and retraining and the time to do it. Even with the best of scenarios there are latency periods – when things stay the same, such as conflicts between dogs and opportunities for human injury, before they change. Well educated and qualified behaviorists and trainers can help. Chances for success are compromised by the problem persisting for an extended period of time, if fights lead to injuries, or if fights are not predictable for the owner. (Continue Reading Below.)