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Resource Guarding

What is Resource Guarding?

Resource Guarding refers to dogs who act aggressively while in possession of a valued resource, such as food items, toys, beds, their guardians, specific locations, or even their bodies.  Aggressive displays include such things as stiffening, freezing, growling, snarling, snapping, and/or biting.

From an evolutionary perspective, dogs that guarded their valued resources would have had a reproductive advantage (as would most animals, including humans) thereby passing this trait onto their offspring.  Therefore, guarding is a largely innate behavior - but this does not mean it cannot be changed.


How do I know if my dog is resource guarding?

Sometimes this is straightforward, such as when the dog is in possession of a specific item and reacts aggressively if someone approaches.

Other times it is not so apparent, particularly with triggers not typically associated with guarding, such as a specific location, persontouch or some combination of events - such as when you are sitting near the dog on the couch with a toy nearby and you reach out to touch him. 

Sometimes a dog will present what appears to be resource guarding, such as your dog getting in-between you and another; but this might simply be the dog seeking attention.  In these more complex cases, it is necessary to do a thorough assessment by observing the dog in various situations - best done with the help of a behavior consultant.

Sometimes pain is disguised in the form of aggression, this is particularly true of dogs with touch sensitivity, or dogs who present a sudden change in their behavior.   In these instances, take your dog in for a thorough veterinary examination prior to the start of any training.

How do we stop resource guarding?

Think about how you would react to a stranger breaking into your home.  You would likely be scared, call 911, attack, and/or flee.  But now, imagine this happening repeatedly.  And in each instance, nothing was damaged, no one was hurt, and the person left a $1000 dollars. Would your emotional response change over time?  Is it possible that at some point, we might even welcome break-ins? 

This works similarly with dogs.  If every time a person approached, and the person did not harm, scare, or threaten the dog, and better yet, left him with a steak - over time the dog would form a different emotional response to people approaching.  This is the essence of the treatment plan, to teach the dog a new CER, conditioned emotional response - done through a process called systematic desensitization and counterconditioning.

What is Systematic Desensitization and Counterconditioning (D&C)?

Desensitization is the process of exposing the dog to small exposures of the trigger such that it does not produce a reaction - i.e. keeping the dog under-threshold.  This is done by constructing a hierarchy of exposures from easiest to hardest.  For example, if a dog guards his food bowl while eating, we may begin by touching his empty food bowl, and slowly work our way towards picking up his full food bowl - without eliciting a response.


​This is combined with counterconditioning.  This means pairing a previously negative association (e.g. fearful that the person approaching will take his resource) with something positive (e.g. the person gives him chicken).  In time, the dog will welcome people approaching.  Counterconditioning is a form of classical conditioning in which the dog learns by forming new associations. To learn new associations, the order of events matter.  For example, when reaching out as if to take a guarded item:

  • ​If the treat is shown before reaching out, the treat predicts the reach, this is ineffective. This is called backwards conditioning - aka a bribe!

  • If the treat is shown while you are reaching, then neither the food nor the reach predicts an outcome.  This is called simultaneous conditioning, and is ineffective.

  • If the treat is given after reaching out, the reach predicts the treat.  This is called trace conditioning, and is effective.  This is our aim.

Never punish warning signals or bites.

Warning signals refer to all behavior prior to snapping or biting.  Punishing these serves only to teach your dog to suppress the warning signals and go straight to the bite.  It also serves to create a negative association with the person, the exact opposite of what we want to achieve.  Of course, we do not want to punish the bite either, for similar, and many other reasons. Instead, teach your dog that there is no need to bite - as people are wonderful!

The Importance of Management

Every successful treatment plan is comprised of an effective management plan.  This means making environmental changes to prevent resource guarding from happening in the first place, and is paramount to the success of the program, as it:​

Portrait of Crossbreed dog holding toy in its mouth against white background_edited.jpg
  1. Keeps everyone safe

  2. Prevents rehearsals - behavior that are rehearsed are repeated

  3. Reduces setbacks - management failures can hinder progress

  4. Acts in lieu of training - sometimes management alone is enough

Management techniques often include, but not limited to the following:

  1. Allow the dog to keep its guarded items without disturbance.

  2. Restrict access to items that the dog might guard.

  3. Instruct others - family and guests - how to interact safely - or not at all.

  4. Secure the dog when compliance is not ensured - gates or tethers might help here.

  5. Learn how to intervene safely if you must remove a guarded item from your dog.

  6. Exercise extreme caution around children to ensure their safety

Will it really work?

Behavior is anything but simple, and never comes with guarantees, but there are certainly factors that contribute to the success of a treatment plan, including:

  1. The number and range of triggers, and our ability to identify them

  2. Your commitment and compliance to the management plan and training exercises

  3. The dog’s bite inhibition and protracted warning signs

    • Dogs with good bite inhibition pose less risk.  Bite inhibition is largely learned during puppyhood from early interactions with their mom and littermates; and is commonly measured using the Ian Dunbar’s scale.

    • The best predictor of future bite severity is past bite severity.  Dogs with a history of level 1 or 2 bites are likely to remain at level 1 or 2 bites in the future.

    • Dogs that give ample warning signs before resorting to biting allow you the opportunity to stay safe.

  4. The dog’s unique characteristics such as their size, age, temperament, and learning history.

The Treatment Plan

The Treatment Plan consists of the following steps:

  1. Understand your dogs history, including bite history, triggers, and prior training.  

  2. Assess your dog to identify the types and range of triggers, and their priority.

  3. Develop a  management plan that serves to prevent resource guarding from occurring and to keep everyone safe.

  4. Create hierarchies of exposure for each type of trigger - sample hierarchies included here.

  5. Implement and modify the plan as necessary.

  6. Lean how to maintain the behavior.

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