April 22, 2013

How to Recognize and Prevent Resource Guarding

Puppyhood comes with more challenges than your average dog owner can count.  It’s fraught with frustrations, failures and often complete meltdowns.  Most typical problems are just part of having a puppy.  They’re harmless (albeit annoying), and will eventually work themselves out with a little maturity and time.  Some problems, however, are more serious.  These are the kind that seem to get worse over time and leave owners feeling way in over their heads.  One of these is resource guarding or possession aggression.  What starts out looking like typical puppy play growling starts to feel just a little bit scary…and it’s always around something the puppy really likes, such as his food, his toys, or his bed.  One minute he’s a squishy love-sponge in your arms and the next he’s trying to unload you of one of your fingers (after all, who needs all five?).

Let me first say that many puppies arrive with some amount of resource guarding in their behavioural repertoire.  That’s because, in the dog world, it’s not inappropriate.  With some exceptions, for the most part, dogs are able to warn each other away with minimal damage to each other and no hurt feelings.  When directed at people, however, it can become a very serious issue and should definitely be handled as one.

So how do you know if your puppy’s just being playful or if you really have a developing problem?

Look for the signs:

  1. He plays “food goalie”, hovering his food making sure nobody can get close.
  2. He “freezes” even for a second, when you approach.
  3. He eats faster when you’re nearby, as though he’s worried you’ll take it from him.
  4. He gives you the “whale eye”- The whites of his eyes show as he tries to keep his face near the object while still keeping his eye on you at all times.

These are just a few of the more common signs to look for, but if you see them, talk to your trainer immediately.  Now here’s the good news.  When they’re young it’s preventable.  There’s a lot you can do to make sure your puppy doesn’t turn into a furry Gollum every time he gets a valued item in his mouth.


For some reason, a whole lot of our well-meaning clients have been advised to do this.  They’re told that putting their hands in their puppy’s food and handling him a lot will prevent him from thinking it’s “his food”.  I dare you to try this while I’m eating McDonald’s french fries.  I dare you.  Imagine having your spouse or children pull your hair and poke your food at EVERY meal? My goodness, I’d pretty quickly start keeping a baseball bat near me while I eat.  Same thing happens to your puppies.  Only they’ve got even more efficient weapons, and they’re called teeth.  Please don’t force your puppy to use them.

Here’s an idea.  Instead of just playing with your dog’s food while he eats, why not make it worth his while? If you wanted to touch my fries, but told me you’d give me a $5.00 bill every time, I’d be a lot more agreeable.  Start by just walking past while he’s got something great, and throw him a REALLY delicious treat.  Work up to actually picking up his bowl, putting something tasty in it  and give it back to him! He’ll start to really want you to come around if he’s being rewarded for it!


Imagine it from your puppy’s point of view.  Just when he FINALLY gets something smelly and old to chew on to chew on (because all his toys are boring), mom shows up to ruin the party.  What a Debbie downer.  Not only does she take the fantastic chew toy away, but she scolds him for finding it!  I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell wouldn’t be giving up my stuff.  Not only that, but I’d make sure to run away and hide as soon as I find it.  There’s a dark, quiet corner of the basement that’s calling his name where he can chew in peace.

To prevent this from happening, make sure you always give him something BETTER when he gives up the forbidden sock.  Take the item, say “thank you” and give him a treat.  If you want to really blow his mind, give him the sock back occasionally!!!  Work on these “exchanges” or “trades”, a few times every day and before long, your pup will be begging you to take the dirty kleenexfrom his mouth.


My clients often say, “When we’re training, he’s amazing at this! But then as soon as he grabs something important he runs away and refuses to drop it.”  There’s a very good reason for this.  When you’re training, your body is giving off all kinds of clues.  You’re relaxed, you’re expecting him to pick up the paper towel.  Now picture the scene when you’re not training.  Not only are you not relaxed, but your face has morphed into some kind of beast with a bulging forehead vein and you’re screaming, “DROP IT!!!!!” while running straight at him.  He’s no dummy.  He knows he’s more likely to lose this coveted item when “the beast” asks him to drop it, versus “training-pouch” mommy.  Try to treat real life like a training session.  Keep your body relaxed and your voice matter of fact, and do an exchange like you’ve practiced a hundred times now. You’ll be fine.


It’s not enough to just expect your dog to stay away from valuable items in your home.  You’ve got to teach him what you want from him.  Teach him a rock-solid “drop it”, and work on having him wait for things that he really likes.  A little impulse-control and manners can go a long way, believe me.

So if your pup is starting to show signs that worry you, it’s not too late.  Call a trainer if you feel that it’s progressed beyond a level you feel comfortable dealing with, but otherwise, chip away at it day by day and eventually you’ll see your pup start to enjoy your presence around toys, food and anything else he loves.