Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to evaluate a puppy who at the tender age of 15 weeks, had begun to resource guard. At this point, he was freezing over one of his toys and chews and would growl and run away to hide if the owners tried to take the items away. He is perfectly fine around his food bowl, letting the owners touch him, the bowl, and the food without any issues whatsoever, so the owners were surprised to see this behavior with toys and chews. They had reached out to me for help because they wanted to make sure this problem didn't escalate and because they have grandkids, they want to make sure this puppy continues to be safe with them as well.
Resource guarding in and of itself is not inherently a bad thing, nor unexpected. We all have our own stuff and we would all likely take offense if someone just took those things away from us without just cause! Dogs are no different; they have things that they, too, don't really want to share. A dog of any age might freeze or stiffen over an object or their bowl, effectively blocking it from being taken away. Running off with a favored item is pretty common among dogs as well. Where dogs (and their humans) get into trouble is when the behavior moves past simply not wanting to give something up to outright aggressively defending the item. So, some dogs move well past that stiff posture and the stare to growling, snarling, snapping, and biting as well. Obviously, we don't want any of those things to happen, particularly when we are talking about an impressionable puppy who is regularly around kids as my clients' dog certainly is.
Our first step was to figure out what toys/treats he would guard, versus those which he would readily give up. We discovered that there was just one toy he would guard, a flavored ball on a rope, and he would guard bully sticks and chews equally, but not his dental bones. All of his other toys (soft toys, Nylabones, squeaky toys, interactive toys like his Kong, etc.) were easy to take away from him. So beginning with the toys he didn't guard, we taught him "drop it" and traded him each item for a high value reward (rotisserie chicken). He happily traded everything and very quickly caught on to the game. At this point, we decided to see if he'd trade a bully stick for a large piece of chicken. While holding onto the bully stick, I let the puppy chew on the other end, but not take it away from me. I then brought up my other hand and offered him the large piece of chicken to let go of the bully stick. I could see him weighing his options, but since we were both holding onto the bully stick at the same time, he gave up his end and took the chicken. Progress! We did the same thing with the ball on the rope, and once again he resisted momentarily, but did not escalate, and gave up the favored item for the large piece of chicken. I asked the owners not to give him any bully sticks or chews, other than his dental chews, and put the ball on a rope away. Those items should only be given to him when they can practice the drop it and trade that we did together during our appointment. My hope is that with repeated training sessions, this puppy will learn that having something taken away from him (even his favorite things) is a-okay and a behavior that will always result in him getting something even better.
Not all dogs are as predictable or easy as this puppy though. I've seen dogs who begin to growl and stiffen over an object simply when someone walks into the same room, and if you make eye contact with them, they will charge at you, growling and snarling, even though you made no overt move toward their coveted object. Dogs like this simply cannot have access to objects they will guard and/or can only have them in highly controlled situations. I've certainly known clients who only give their dogs bully sticks in their dog runs or crates where they can be safely confined until they finish eating the item. Some dogs, however, don't consume the favored object, or the object may be a non-consumable like a toy, a pair of socks, etc. These dogs are harder to work with because they will often opportunistically search out items to guard and will behave aggressively toward anyone who tries to intervene. Dogs who opportunistically resource guard and/or who are unpredictable in what they will covet can be quite dangerous in a home with children or others who aren't capable of reading the dogs cues and body language and knowing when to back off to avoid a confrontation that could result in a bite.
I know a lot of dog owners who've compromised with their resource guarding dogs, meaning they understand the behavior, know it's not a curable problem, but have found creative ways to make it safer, and better manage the issue. These folks feed their dogs in crates or kennels (if the dogs guard their bowls); some feed on the ground, avoiding bowls all together; some just never give their dogs bones or chews; and there are some who can only have a few toys to play with that are well-worn and less desirable. And I have a few clients who muzzle their dogs to keep them from picking up items and then guarding them or becoming aggressive.
I always get asked if some dog breeds are more likely to resource guard than others, and I just don't think the answer is that simple. Sure, there are breeds who are more prone to the problem, but I've seen resource guarding Chihuahuas, Pugs, and Cavaliers, just as often as I've seen resource guarding German Shepherds, Border Collies, and Rottweilers. ANY dog is capable of developing resource guarding aggression. And the dogs that people often think would be most likely to resource guard (former street dogs, for example), actually don't exhibit the behavior any more than the prized pooches obtained from breeders. Resource guarding aggression is a heritable issue, however, so if you choose a puppy whose parent(s) or grandparent(s) had issues in resource guarding, then in is likely your puppy will as well.
If you are a new puppy owner, start early with the food bowl exercises explained in almost every puppy class and training book; touch your puppy, their bowl, and their food during meals, adding food, adding treats, etc. so that they learn that meal times are happy, social occasion and good things come to puppies who share. Work on leave it and drop it with every single toy and chew you give your puppies so that they learn that while those items are great, puppies who happily trade will get something even better. And always have something better readily available for those puppies who do successfully trade.
Finally, some of you may have dogs who will give up anything to you, but will resource guard from other dogs in your home. Again, this isn't necessarily a big issue unless the resource guarding is escalating into aggression. If your dog has a toy, bone or chew, and another dog tries to take it from them, it's perfectly normal and expected that your dog may try to turn away to keep the item, eat it faster, or even growl/snap to tell the other dog to back off. Now, if it's your puppy that has the item and your adult dog tries to take it, your puppy should show some respect and relinquish it. Funny thing: puppies will often taken food and treats from adult dogs in their households and the adult dogs just let them do it. It's all about relationships and learning boundaries and rules. Unless a knockdown-dragout occurs between your dogs, let them sort out smaller issues with respect to resources on their own. Humans often make it worse by trying to force their dogs to be "fair" with one another and share. Dogs are not children and there is no such thing as fair in their world. While dogs who live together will often share many things, they likely will have things that they don't want to share either and that's okay.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.