By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
Pet parents may view guarding behavior as scary, but it is very normal since it is what dogs have been bred to do from an evolutionary perspective to ensure survival. It may not be wanted, but it is what they do unless we teach them otherwise and ensure that they feel secure in their access to resources. After all, we hold all the cards. We make all the decisions with little to no input or influence from them, so it is no wonder that dogs can feel insecure at times. Still, pet parents may not recognize guarding behaviors as such and therefore may miss early opportunities to intervene before guarding becomes serious.
What do we mean by guarding?
Guarding behavior can take owners by surprise.
I define guarding as any behavior that attempts to control access to an object, person, or valued area. This includes behavior to prevent another person/being from coming near it or behavior that drives a person/being away from it.
It goes by many names: resource guarding, food aggression, owner guarding, possessive aggression, location guarding, territorial aggression (if it is truly about the location, not fear of strangers), amongst others.
The things dogs guard could be something we perceive as having no value, such as poop, a tissue, paper, or a stick. It could also be something like food, a soft bed, a particular person, a bully stick, etc. Scent/pheromones can play a role (dogs digging through the laundry basket to grab your underwear or socks?). There can even be unusual things that they guard, such as guarding access to the owner or a dog friend only in the context of a particular activity, or keeping a stranger or strange dogs from approaching a dog friend/sibling.
How do dogs guard?
Guarding behavior does not always look the aggressive displays that people imagine guarding to be. It is important to recognize early signs of guarding so you can help your dog to feel secure in his/her access to resources, and to teach boundaries before actual aggressive incidents occur.
1) bows and running (may look like play) to amicably gain possession
2) avoidance behavior (e.g. eating faster; slinking away with item)
3) pushy behavior (e.g. pushing other dog out of the way to gain access to treats, attention)
4) ritualized aggression (hard stares, raised lip, flared whiskers, bared teeth, hackles raised)
5) true, outright aggression
Dogs tend to use the less aggressive forms of guarding behavior to indicate their desire for the other dog to leave the precious thing alone unless the thing is of such high value that they feel deeply threatened or if they are cornered (don’t corner your dog!). There is great risk of personal injury to a dog by engaging in true aggression (a fight) so why risk it for things of low value if other options for controlling access are available? Instead, they may show avoidance, use a hard stare, stiff body posture, lip curled upward, a growl, body blocking, eat faster, hovering over another dog, etc.
The exception is that…they may offer true aggressive displays if, in the past, they have offered signals that did not work to preserve their access to the resource. If a dog gives a hard stare, a growl, or raised lips at a human or dog, but an effort is still made to take the item then things may escalate. Similarly, a dog may skip ritualized aggressive signals if they have been corrected by humans in the past. I most frequently see this with growling. If a dog has been repeatedly corrected by scolding or taps on the nose for growling, then he may not growl in the future to let someone know to stay away. The growling could also be skipped in the future if it was ignored and someone continued to move toward the thing of value. He may jump straight to what he knows most likely will work for him. This may be lunging, baring teeth, or even biting.
Why do dogs do it?
What triggers a dog to start guarding when they haven’t before?
There are a few different reasons, but typically it is related to a fear of a lack of access to resources. Not all dogs who guard have fear, but it is one common reason. Sometimes, there is a new stressor that is introduced, such as a change in the household, change in work hours, moving homes, or another stressor. Dogs cope with their lack of ability to influence things that happen to them through routine – if xyz routine happens in the day then that predicts they will soon get fed, or they will be walked, etc. If there is a change in those routines then they may feel their access to those resources is unpredictable. Another scenario where guarding occurs without a prior history is when the resource is suddenly available. This is a novel opportunity and could be something a dog views as worth fighting for, too.
Scant resources available
It was taken from them before (“Learning”)
Stress, changes in the home (who lives there, home/work balance, meal schedule, amount of exercise, etc)
Access to the thing is novel, opportunistic
Poor training and/or socialization
Lack of Understanding of Boundaries
Medical Condition and/or Medications
For some dogs, guarding is not fear/anxiety based, but is all in a day’s work. These dogs have been selected over many generations specifically for guarding or watchful behaviors (e.g. German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Livestock Guardian dogs, some terrier and herding breeds). It is not much surprise then they begin guarding their yard, a favorite spot, or their owners. Under-socialized dogs, poorly trained, under-enriched, or dogs lacking other means to practice the behavior pattern more desirably...all of these things can lead to episodes of guarding behavior with guardian breeds and those selected for watchful tendencies. That said, I frequently observe resource guarding of food and toys in certain breeds that were not used for guarding or watch dog behaviors, such as golden retrievers. This type of behavior has a strong genetic component and it can run in particular bloodlines. If you are getting a puppy be careful of the parentage. The behaviors of the parents and grandparents are very likely the same behaviors you will see in your puppy when an adult.
My own dogs were selected for watchful behaviors, as Kooikerhondje were expected to alert to poachers on the property. One of mine used to go to the cinderblock wall surrounding our large property and would stare at a spot where he had previously seen the neighbors and their dog on a few occasions. He would become frustrated and upset if they didn’t show up for him to bark at them. It was less about fear and instead was more of a game from which he derived fulfillment. We counter-conditioned the presence of people and dogs at the wall, encouraged new behaviors instead of patrolling, and taught calmer behaviors he can offer to alert me when he sees someone over the wall. The key is to make practicing these new behavior patterns a fun game in which the triggering stimuli appear non-threatening.
We must find ways to modify behavior in a way that gives the dog a sense of purpose, and that allows them to meet the need to perform the motor pattern. We have to work with the dog that we have, and we cannot and should not attempt to change a dog into something he is not.
Common Myths: What NOT to do
These are not only bad in the immediate moment, but can create issues long term. These behaviors will encourage guarding by sensitizing your dog to your presence. While not intended, you may inadvertently be teaching your dogs that they have to put up their guard around you and protect things from you to maintain access to them. They may also learn that indicating they are nervous or unhappy (such as showing avoidance or growling) will warrant punishment. That sounds like a ticking time bomb.
Don’t stick hands in food bowl
Don’t pet your dog while he eats
Don’t take things from your dog’s mouth unless it is something dangerous
Don’t punish growling
Don’t corner your dog
Also, another common myth is that dogs who guard resources are actually trying to dominate the owner or their children. That could not be further from the truth since the owners are the gatekeepers of most of these resources. As far as children are concerned, they are less likely to understand dogs’ body language communication and are less likely to give them appropriate space. Unfortunately, this makes children some of the most frequent recipients of bites during guarding episodes. A 2007 study published in Injury Prevention journal examined 111 cases involving bites to children and found that resource guarding and disciplinary measures were the triggers for aggression in 61% and 59% of cases, respectively. Remember, don’t corner and punish your dog! The statistics from this study show that disciplinary measures have a high probability of triggering aggression.
Resource guarding was the cause of the bites in 44% of cases of children under 6 years old. Territorial behavior was the cause of bites to unfamiliar children in 53% of cases. Unfamiliar children may come onto the property through gates, ignoring the barking of dogs on the property. These visiting children may engage in rough play with household children, which would appear inappropriate to a poorly socialized guardian breed/mix dog, or one with especially strong guarding instincts (such as a dog from a working line). This makes socialization, training, and appropriate selection of household dog all the more important.
How to address guarding: Training, Management, and/or Medical Help?
Training early is wonderful prevention to help your dog feel secure in his access to resources, and to build cooperation through mutually understood protocols for when we would like them to relinquish their access. A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Preventive Veterinary Medicine found that teaching a reliable “drop it” cue was associated with a reduced likelihood of aggression or avoidance behavior from resource guarding.
You can manage and not train in many scenarios, depending on the severity of the issue. However, the items and contexts where guarding occur would have to be specific and limited and that is not always the case. Some issues are too dangerous for management alone, such as with dogs who guard toys or food when there are children in the home. In those cases, I would be afraid of management failing. Food could be dropped, or a child’s toy that is left out could become something the dog guards. We do have the saying in the dog behavior community that management always fails at some point.
Sometimes, the guarding can appear unpredictable. With situations like this, I would find a certified dog behavior consultant – there are some who do remote consultations including myself – and find ways to address these issues. In some cases, the dog may be highly stressed and management will not address the root cause of the behavior, so the stress may pop up through other unwanted behaviors. A behavior consultant can also help assess when a visit to the veterinarian is necessary, as there are numerous medical issues that can cause (or exacerbate) guarding issues. These medical issues would need to be diagnosed and treated by a veterinarian. That 2007 study published in Injury Prevention noted that contributory medical causes were suspected in 50% of the 111 bite cases. Without addressing underlying medical issues, the behavior will not go away no matter how much training we do.
One management thing you can do is to identify the resource they are missing and provide it (need more play, chews, more comfy hideaway spots). For example, I worked a case recently where one dog started mildly guarding the female owner from another dog in the home. When I talked with them further, it turned out that she had been closing the first dog out of her office during the day, whereas in the past, he would stay with her most of the afternoon. She began allowing him to spend more time with her and the guarding stopped. The changed routine was a new stressor, and time with mom became a limited resource until she made changes to address that. Similarly with my own dogs, they began snarking about who got which bed in our computer room. There were three dogs and three beds. We added a 4th bed and the guarding ceased completely. Sometimes these solutions can solve the problem, but other times behavior modification training and/or medical help may be more appropriate.
Steps to Take If Your Dog is Guarding
1) Figure out what he is guarding – this is not always clear. Is it the bed or the person in it that is being guarded? Is it the toy or the space underneath the table where the toy is situated?
2) Put management into place to control access to the resource so he cannot practice guarding
3) Work with a certified behavior or veterinary behavior professional to figure out “why” – lack of access to the resource in question, new stressor introduced recently, changes in routine or household, learning, lack of early socialization, lack of training, lack of boundaries/rules in the home, genetics, medical condition, or medication side effects
4) A vet visit may be needed to see if any medical conditions or medications could be contributing. Increased appetite from certain medical conditions or medications can contribute to food aggression. A dog who does not feel well may be more prone to lashing out.
“Learning” includes people taking things from dogs’ mouths so they learn items will disappear unless they assert themselves. Learning is also figuring out that aggression works to get what they want. Learning is always occurring whether or not we are doing a scheduled training session, so be careful with how you handle guarding. Your dog is learning things from how we handle the situation. Let our actions be positive reinforcers for the behaviors we would like to see from them. Let our training and the situations in which we put our dogs be ones that set them up for success.
Here are more specific training tips on preventing and addressing guarding behavior in dogs: https://www.confidentcaninesdogtraining.com/preventing-guarding-behavior-in-dog
Reisner, IR. Shofer. FS, Nance, ML. “Behavioral assessment of child-directed canine aggression”. Injury Prevention. 2007. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17916894/