The survival of all animals depends on finding and keeping food, water, shelter, and more. In the animal kingdom, guarding food is not a behavior problem, it's a survival instinct. Even though our dogs have been domesticated, they still have this instinct. Some dogs more than others. While it may be normal and natural behavior, it becomes a behavior problem when it creates a safety risk to people or pets.
What is a Resource?
A resource is anything the dog decides is valuable enough to protect. While food or high value chews like bully sticks are common, I've worked with dogs that guarded a whole lot of non-food resources, including:
A specific toy or ball
Plastic bottle caps
Anything found or stolen
Resource Guarding vs Possession Aggression
"Resource guarding" is a category of behaviors to protect a valued resource from a perceived threat. What the dog guards, where they guard it, and how they behave when guarding is different with every dog.
"Possession aggression" refers to a dog that uses aggression to protect a resource in their possession. But this is only one type of resource guarding.
Not All Guarding Is the Same
Most people think of resource guarding as a dog that guards their bowl of food. And many of the recommended tips for prevention focus on bowls of food (more below). In reality, resource guarding has many variations.
What the dog guards, where the resource is when the dog guards, who the dog guards from, and what the target is doing to trigger guarding behavior. Here are some of the many variables in guarding behavior:
Location of resource
Behavior of target
Bowl of food
In dog's possession
Reaches for resource
Near the dog
Same room - in sight
High value chew
Same room - out of sight
Walks toward dog
Gone, prior location
Walks between dog and resource
I've seen combinations of all of these variables, including dogs that guarded the previous location of a resource (perhaps due to lingering scents) and even a dog that severely bit a person who pet them while their food was being poured into a container in the next room.
A common misconception is that any any threat display not easily explained is assumed to be resource guarding. I've heard of "kennel guarding," "lap guarding," and "space guarding." In one instance, a dog that had gotten loose and was cornered in a doorway was reported as "guarding doorways." In these cases, the dog is more likely showing defensive behavior to approached while in a confined space with few options for escape.
Resource Guarding Behaviors
Not all resource guarding looks like aggression. These behaviors are early or mild forms of guarding and ways dogs protect resources without showing signs of aggression:
Hovering over resource
Blocking resource with head or body
Gripping or refusing to release resource
Turning or running away with resource
Eating faster if approached
Ingesting resource if approached (includes non-food items)
This German Shepherd is using their head to block the toy from the approaching Border Collie.
Even holding on to an item can be a form of guarding. This popular meme shows a situation known all too well to owners of fetch-loving dogs and is a form of guarding behavior. No take! Only throw!
This viral video of a dog playing keep away with his owner's mobile phone shows resource guarding behavior. The dog shows no signs of aggression, but is guarding. While he may also be staying out of reach of his angry owner, he continues to hold on to the stolen object.
Threat displays are warning signals dogs use to tell people and other dogs to increase or keep their distance and include:
Tense body or "freezing"
"Grumbling" (but not quite growling) while eating
Snapping - no contact
Muzzle punch - Striking with closed mouth
"Mouthing" - placing hand or arm in mouth without pressure
Biting without injury
When a dog uses a threat display, they aren't "trying to bite." Threat displays are used to AVOID fights and bites through clear communication. It's the difference between telling a food server you aren't done eating when they reach for your plate versus stabbing their hand with your fork. They are both guarding behaviors, but VERY different reactions.
An old saying goes, "Dogs don't bite when a growl will do." If a dog can protect a valuable resource by growling, they don't need to escalate to biting or fighting. While not an example of guarding behavior, this video is a great example of a dog using the mouthing behavior (in addition to a whole lot of avoidance signals) before escalating to something much more obvious.
Here's an example of two dogs using a whole lot of threat displays that never escalate to an actual fight.
Even though these dogs aren't getting into physical fights and causing injury, they are living under a huge amount of stress that could escalate to fights in the future. Chronic stress can lead to a variety of health problems.
Resource guarding is a complex behavior that looks different in every dog. Spotting the early signs of guarding allows you to intervene before the behavior gets more serious.
See Part 2 to learn what advice is unhelpful and even dangerous, and practical strategies you can use for mild guarding behavior.
On a Lighter Note
Enjoy this Corgi puppy enjoying her meal!