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Your sweet, playful, adorable puppy suddenly becomes tense and growls when you approach him while he’s eating.
What caused your furry bundle to act this way? Resource guarding.
Resource guarding in puppies is a natural canine behavior.
Even though it’s a natural behavior, we need to curb this behavior so that you can live harmoniously with your puppy.
So you need to teach your puppy that there’s no need for him to guard items.
It’s best to work through this issue at a young age so that it doesn’t become an ingrained behavior.
In this article, I’ll set forth what dogs guard and why.
I’ll also discuss how to manage and work with the issue. And how to read your puppy’s body language.
The information provided will be about how to work with resource guarding by puppies.
Why Dogs Guard Resources
Resource guarding is literally built into a dog’s DNA. It’s hard-wired into his survival instinct.
Canines try to protect items because they don’t know if there will be more necessary resources available in the future. It’s an important survival strategy.
A dog who guards feels a threat to valued possessions.
And every time his guarding a resource is successful, his tendency to guard escalates.
The intensity with which a dog guards is affected by many things such as the following:
- His genetics
- His history of resource scarcity
- Stress and anxiety
- Value we added to the item in the past by making a big deal when we presented it to the pup or took it away from him
- Inherent value of the item as something naturally desired by the dog
- The dog’s physical needs (such as hunger or thirst)
- The dog’s current situation (lack of enrichment, bored, tired)
- Underlying medical issues
- Actions of other people or other nearby animals in the environment
What Items Do Dogs Guard?
Dogs can guard many things that they see as a valuable resource. These include:
- Food (meals, treats, food bowl)
- Chew items (bones, bully sticks, antlers, dental chews)
- Space (crate, bed, doorways, position on furniture, feeding area)
- Stolen items (socks, shoes, tissues)
They can guard these against other animals or people.
Generally, there’s an increase in resource guarding if resources are limited.
Depending on how severe the puppy’s resource guarding is, he’ll send out various signals.
Some are conveyed through his body language and others through vocalizations.
These signals are designed to prevent conflict and to communicate to others to stay away from the valued resource.
Other dogs usually read these signals.
So you must learn to read your puppy’s message too in order to work through the issue and not escalate the guarding.
Even young puppies may send out such indicators that potential transgressors should heed.
Young puppies first learn about limited resources when they are fed by their mother.
If there are additional puppies in the litter, a pup soon realizes that he’s competing for a limited resource–the mother’s milk.
Most puppies usually learn the skill of sharing limited resources. This is an important social skill.
Resource guarding rarely escalates to serious aggression in young puppies. But it can.
There are various levels of resource guarding from mild to severe.
Low-level, Mild Resource Guarding Signals
Depending on how threatened a dog feels, he will send various signals to prospective competitors he perceives to the resources that he values.
You should look at any signals that your puppy sends out when deciding how severe your issue is. Low-level signals include:
- Visible tension on a puppy’s face such as a furrowed brow
- Tense, stiff body
- Occasional hard stares
- Turning away
- Slow body movement
- Hovering over the guarded area or item
- Eating faster
- Subtly shifting his body weight to block others from the desired resource
- Side eye staring and tracking the location of the person or animal that’s in view
- Ears pinned back flat against his head
- Taking the valued item and moving away with it
- Brief freezes
These signals often dissipate quickly when the person or dog from whom the puppy is guarding his treasure looks away or moves away or the coveted item is gone.
So, after a puppy’s finished eating, he may stop guarding his bowl. But some puppies will guard even an empty bowl.
My rescued golden retriever Riley guarded his food dish when I first adopted him. He was about six months old.
Riley would become tense, freeze, and eat faster when someone approached his bowl.
At first, I managed the situation: no one other than myself and none of the dogs could be in the room when he ate.
I then counter-conditioned and desensitized him to the presence of others when he ate. This technique is discussed below.
Within a short time, he stopped guarding his food.
He now even eats within a few feet of my sheltie Murphy with no problem.
Moderate Resource Guarding
As a puppy becomes more stressed, he may show increased signals when resource guarding.
This may occur because the items, people, or area guarded are higher value.
Or it may be that the potential threats (the people or animals) are too close to the valued possession or area.
Moderate-level signals of the guarder include:
- Extremely tense body language in which the tension remains even when the perceived threat goes away
- Baring teeth
- Air snaps
- Body contact, lunging
- Tooth contact without broken skin
Serious Resource Guarding
Serious guarding escalates to outright aggression.
Serious guarding occurs when a puppy can’t even tolerate a person or other animal within his view when the valued resource is present.
This can occur when the puppy who guards chases the animal or person perceived to be a threat away and even bites.
This results in minor to severe injuries to the potential threat.
This can result from the high value of the resource and the perceived threat that the guarding puppy feels.
The perceived threat can be extreme depending on the scarcity of the resource, the close proximity of the other dog or person, ongoing tension between the two dogs because of any past conflicts, or a person taking or threatening to take the resource in the past from the puppy.
How To Stop Resource Guarding In Puppies
Stopping resource guarding begins with a management program. With young puppies, you can often have a very successful management program.
How you manage a puppy’s resource guarding will depend on how severe his guarding is.
Mild guarding might even resolve on its own as your puppy gains better social skills and the realization that he need not guard resources because they will be available to him.
Dogs communicate with each other–and us–by body language and vocalizations regarding how they feel.
We just need to pay attention so that we can appropriately respond.
Part of successful management involves anticipating what can occur.
If your puppy guards a certain toy or type of toy, he should lose access to them. The same is true regarding high-value chews.
If your puppy guards the valued item or type of item only against other dogs not against people, you can give them to him only in your presence or in his crate or exercise pen with the door closed (as long as he can’t chew a piece off that can pose a choking or intestinal blockage hazard).
But if he guards them against you or other people too, he shouldn’t have access to them at all.
Block access to close spaces that your puppy tends to guard, such as doorways.
Pick up food bowls when all the household dogs aren’t eating.
Don’t leave laundry within the pup’s reach.
Don’t free feed if you have a dog who guards resources.
When implementing a management program with other dogs in the household, you need to take into account whether the other dogs will ignore the resource guarding puppy or whether they won’t tolerate his guarding.
Of course, if the other household dogs back off, conflict isn’t likely.
You still have to manage and work with the issue though.
But if the other household dogs will not back off, you’ll need to implement very strict management protocols in which no guarded resource is left down when the puppy and dogs can intermingle.
In either case, the puppy should not be left alone with any other animal–including household dogs or cats.
When I mention other dogs, it applies also to cats and other animals.
All people in the household and who have access to the puppy must also be aware of his resource guarding. And, for safety’s sake, all must follow the appropriate management protocols.
Always err on the side of safety if you’re not sure what to do.
Block areas the puppy guards, don’t allow him to have access to the toys or chew or types of them that he guards, and don’t allow other people or animals to go too close to things (such as beds, furniture, or crates) that he guards.
If a puppy guards his bowl by body-blocking it at mealtime, make sure that you feed your dogs far enough apart that they won’t encroach on the puppy’s threshold distance where he would be triggered.
You can accomplish this by tethers or gates that block the dogs from going too close to each other.
Also make sure that people don’t cross the puppy’s threshold where he is triggered.
If a puppy scarfs down treats quickly and gives a hard stare at other household dogs while eating treats, hand feed each dog a treat while they are not too close to each other.
Have each perform a cue (such as a sit) before rewarding.
Make sure that you don’t drop or throw the treats.
If a treat falls, the guarding puppy will inevitably guard it and the severity of the issue will escalate.
This assumes that the puppy isn’t guarding you.
Until the resource guarding issue is resolved or successfully managed, don’t have others give treats to the puppy if he guards treats.
And don’t have other dogs or people approach you if he guards you.
If the puppy stands over toys with a tense body language but becomes calmer when other dogs move away, call the other household dogs away from the puppy.
And don’t allow them to approach him when he’s near any toys.
The same is true of other people approaching him.
If a puppy with mild resource guarding blocks space such as around beds, crates, doorways, or hallways, have the puppy wait a safe distance from those areas when calling your other dogs near them.
Of course, you’ll need to teach your pup a solid wait or stay command first.
Don’t have people approach those areas until the guarding is successfully managed or resolved.
If you’re not sure what other people or animals will do, block those areas until the resource guarding issue is resolved or successfully managed.
All movable resources such as crates or beds should be placed at a safe distance away from each other and so that other dogs need not get too close to those assigned to the resource guarder.
If a mild resource guarder sees you as his valuable resource, make sure that you allow full access all around you when other dogs approach.
Make sure that the other dogs are as far away from the resource guarding puppy as possible when the puppy is near you.
This is a much more serious level, which can easily escalate to physical aggression if not successfully managed.
Feed your dogs in separate rooms if the guarding puppy snaps, snarls, or otherwise threatens when dogs approach or are too close to his bowl.
This is true too if the puppy guarding acts this way even when dogs are far away from his food bowl.
Of course, don’t let other people or animals in the room if he’s a serious resource guarder against them too.
If a puppy attempts to take all the treats you’re doling out to your dogs or tenses up with a hard stare to the others, give treats out only when the dogs are at a safe distance from each other.
Teach them all a sit stay and walk over to them to give them their reward treat.
If they won’t reliably stay, give your puppy treats only when the other animals aren’t around.
The same is true if he guards you.
Alternatively, you can also use other types of reinforcers such as praise and petting as long as the puppy doesn’t guard you as his resource.
If your puppy snaps and growls at your other dogs over toys, remove such over-valued items from the floor and toy box.
The puppy can play with that toy only when alone assuming he doesn’t guard it from you too.
As far as space is concerned, place the puppy behind a gate or door when other dogs are passing through tight areas like doorways or halls.
Each dog should have his own crate and bed that he knows to enter on cue.
And place the puppy’s bed in an exercise pen or crate far enough away from the other dogs so that they aren’t within the threshold distance that the puppy guards.
If your puppy guards the above areas against people, be sure that people don’t approach them too closely too.
If a puppy moderately guards you by body blocking you from your other dogs or snapping or growling when they come near, make sure that your puppy has enough “alone time” with you.
Teach him obedience commands and tricks. Play with him–just the two of you. Take him for solo walks.
Don’t allow access to you when other animals (your dogs or cats for example) are around by putting the puppy in another room or in a crate or exercise pen.
And make sure that other people don’t go too close to you too if he guards you until the resource guarding issue is resolved.
Make sure that food bowls are picked up before the puppy and other dogs are together if the puppy guards food or bowls.
Feed the resource guarder and other dogs in separate rooms.
Make sure that no other people have access to the room when the puppy eats.
Don’t give treats to other dogs when the resource guarding puppy is present.
Even giving alternate reinforcers like petting and praise can set off a serious resource guarder.
So give any such reinforcements only when other animals or people aren’t present and the puppy who guards is separated into another room or behind a baby gate or is in an exercise pen.
No toys should be accessible when a puppy who is a serious resource guarder against other dogs when they intermingle.
And don’t leave the toys down when other people are present too.
Serious resource guarders of spaces should be blocked from those spaces from other dogs and people. You can use baby gates or doors to prevent conflict.
If a puppy is a serious resource guarder of you against other household dogs, don’t give attention to the dogs when he’s present.
And give him attention only when the other dogs aren’t present.
If a puppy is a serious resource guarder of things, spaces, or people, the above guidelines are really to manage the environment until you can get assistance from an appropriate behaviorist.
The Importance of Training, Exercise, and Socialization
With any canine with behavioral issues, training is essential.
Teach him obedience commands such as paying attention to you, sit, down, stay, come, leave it, and going to a place such as a bed or crate.
Impulse control exercises such as settle also help him to be calm.
Unless your resource guarder exhibits aggression, you can even teach a “take it,” “give,” and “drop” on cue.
You would teach the pup to take an item such as a toy while you still hold onto it. Don’t do this with items that he guards.
Immediately you would state the cue “give” while simultaneously showing a tempting piece of chicken in exchange.
Provide him with the chicken immediately after he lets go of the toy.
Eventually, do the same training exercise with all of his toys and chews that he doesn’t guard so that he gives all of them up.
You want him to generalize that he must voluntarily and happily give up items.
With young puppies who learn that they get an even higher value treats than what they had, resource guarding can often be avoided altogether.
And don’t forget to provide enough mental and physical exercise for your puppy, which will help to reduce his stress level.
Proper socialization is necessary too.
This will help him get used to being around other people and friendly dogs without guarding. And he’ll be able to read their body language.
Prevention is easier than having to manage or work with resource guarding.
Counter-Conditioning and Desensitization
Management is crucial for everyone’s safety while you work on teaching your puppy that he need not guard a resource.
Of course, for some puppies, management is required for the rest of their lives.
PRO-TRAINER TIP: It’s crucial to use extremely high-value treats when working with your puppy. In counter-conditioning and desensitization, the sky’s the limit.Use meat like small pieces of boiled deboned chicken or hot dogs. Or small pieces of cheese.
The treat used has to have a much higher value than the resource that you’re replacing, such as the pup’s food, toy, chew, space around his bed or crate, space when passing through an area such as a doorway, or even access to you.
The piece of meat or cheese should be small, but large enough to entice the puppy–about half an inch long.
Counter-conditioning a dog’s natural resource guarding response teaches him that positive, good things happen when someone is in view or approaches the valued item.
Desensitization is a technique whereby the dog is exposed to the stimulus (of the person or dog) at a very low-level intensity where he is not reactive.
As the puppy progresses and is desensitized through exposure to the stimulus that otherwise would have caused him to be reactive, he can be exposed to it at gradually more intense levels.
The process takes a long time and shouldn’t be rushed.
If at any time the puppy regresses, go back to the level at which he was successful.
I strongly believe in safety first.
I’ll discuss counter-conditioning and desensitization regarding a puppy who has mild resource guarding and guards his food dish.
With regard to counterconditioning and desensitizing his response to guarding other things such as areas, beds, furniture, or people, the protocol becomes more complex than can be handled in an article.
Obtain the help of a qualified behaviorist.
When other people and pets are in the household, block off the area where the puppy eats from people and pets.
It’s crucial that everyone involved leave the puppy alone when he’s with the resource he guards while you’re working through the issue.
It’s important that you know the distance at which your dog begins to guard resources such as his food dish (i.e., his threshold distance).
Discover the distance at which your puppy doesn’t even become tense when you’re in view of his food dish.
This training exercise can be used after giving your pup his meal.
I first start doing this exercise immediately after he’s finished his meal.
You can then approach your puppy but stop a few feet beyond the threshold where he begins to guard.
Toss a piece of meat or cheese, then walk away. Repeat this exercise three more times.
Toss only one piece at a time, so that the puppy eats it and isn’t given an opportunity to guard multiple pieces of food you toss.
Then end that training session.
Eventually, over time, take one step closer to him as long as he doesn’t start to guard and isn’t tense.
Again toss the valued piece of meat or cheese and retreat.
As long as the puppy isn’t stressed, repeat this exercise three times.
Decrease distance only if your pup remains calm and not stressed.
If at any time your puppy seems stressed during these training set-ups, end the session.
In your next session, go back to the point where your puppy was successful.
Your goal is for your puppy to have loose body language where he anticipates–and welcomes–your approach because you’re bringing such scrumptious treats.
Your puppy’s body language is how you can assess how successful your counter-conditioning and desensitization program is as well as whether you should progress.
The goal is for when your puppy sees you or whoever else he’s guarding his valued possession against and he is happy to see them because their presence means great things will happen: meat or cheese will appear.
With regard to guarding space and inanimate objects such as beds or furniture you can manage it by blocking access to those objects while you’re working with the issue.
Get Professional Help
Resource guarding is a very serious behavioral problem.
Some young puppies on the mild spectrum may outgrow it as they develop better social skills.
But, as the puppy becomes more mature, the problem becomes more ingrained and usually more intense.
Experienced management skills and behavior modification and desensitization abilities are then required.
If this is the first time you have worked with a dog who guards resources or if the problem cannot be successfully managed, it’s advisable to get professional assistance.
This is also true if the puppy is a moderate or severe resource guarder.
It’s crucial to get professional help when needed.
I was called to a home with a resource guarding poodle where the dog wouldn’t let anyone in the kitchen when he ate. He had become aggressive over time.
When he was a puppy, the owners thought that it was cute when he growled when they were near his food bowl.
As he grew and became a threat, they understood how dangerous he had become.
Luckily, I was able to have the owners successfully manage the issue. And we even successfully counter conditioned his response so that people in view of his dish was welcomed–because chicken, cheese, or hot dog pieces were provided.
What NOT To Do: Don’t Try This at Home
It’s important that you don’t use harsh methods when trying to manage resource guarding. Otherwise the problem can quickly escalate and the puppy can become aggressive.
Don’t punish him for his actions.
And don’t use aversives such as pinning the puppy to get the object back.
Don’t punish your puppy for growling. Suppressing the warning growl can lead to a bite.
Don’t harass your puppy by putting your hand in his bowl while he’s eating.
Instead, teach him that great rewards–like chicken–are provided as you approach his bowl.
My puppy growls when I approach her food bowl. Should I pin her down and take the food bowl from her?
No! Harsh methods can lead to aggressive behavior. Instead, teach her that great things happen when you approach the bowl. When she’s done eating and not guarding the bowl, have her watch you toss a yummy piece of cheese or chicken in it.
My puppy doesn’t give up her chew bones. She growls and bares her teeth when I get near. What should I do?
Don’t give her access to such high-value treats. Teach her to give up other resources, like toys, that she doesn’t guard using a “give” cue. Exchange a toy for a yummy piece of chicken.
My puppy tries to attack my other dogs when they pass by her when she’s eating. What should I do?
Feed them in separate rooms. Don’t leave any food dishes down. And get the help of a behavior specialist.
There are many reasons why puppies may guard valuable resources.
Management is crucial to have a safe environment.
And working with the issue is important to lessen a dog’s proclivity to guard.
Do you have a puppy who guards resources?
What have you done about it?
Was it successful?
Tell us about your experiences in the comments section below.
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