Freezing in position, staring, growling, snarling, or biting are indications of a behavior that trainers call resource guarding, or possession aggression. Even an action such as taking a toy or bone and running under furniture with it, although not threatening, is a mild guarding behavior. There are various degrees of guarding a dog may exhibit, the worse, of course, being biting. People often don’t realize guarding behaviors are natural for a dog. It is natural for a dog to protect something it considers valuable and it is not uncommon between dogs. However, it is not an acceptable behavior around humans.
Dogs have been known to guard all kinds of things, even things we don’t always understand why. Dogs sometimes guard locations such as the couch, bed or their dog bed, people, chewies, their food bowl, toys, etc. I even once worked with a Cocker Spaniel who guarded her leash when I had tethered her to work with her and I showed an interest in the leash.
Can guarding behaviors be fixed? The answer is yes, and the degree of success depends on the intensity of the behavior and how long the dog has practiced the behavior, the correct and consistent implementation of appropriate protocols, and continued maintenance of appropriate behavior for the life of the dog. Sometimes a dog that guards objects, places, or people can have other behavior problems too and a veterinary consult is important.
When deciding to work with a dog that guards, you must consider whether there are children in the home. Small children are not always capable of following instruction and it is critical that protective management be consistently followed to prevent children from being injured. You must also decide whether you are committed and have the time to practice the protocols for an unknown length of time.
What do you do if you have a dog who guards? First, let’s talk about what you should NOT do.
You should not try to teach your dog not to guard by taking away the item(s) he is guarding. This includes putting your hands in the bowl of a food bowl-guarding dog. There are videos on YouTube showing dogs growling to protect an item and the person is teasing the dog by pretending to take away the item, triggering continued growling that intensifies. This is not funny and will do nothing to teach your dog not to guard. In fact, if you do this you are just teaching your dog that he needs to guard things from you or you will take them away. If you need to take an item away, you can do a trade for a high value treat, if he will trade. Sometimes you can toss a handful of high value treats away from the dog so he gets up to get the treats and you can get the item.
You should NOT punish a dog for growling for guarding (or for any other reason, for that matter). Physically punishing a dog for growling will either intensify his reaction or may prevent him from growling in the future. A dog’s growl is information giving. He is telling you how he feels and giving you a warning. If you take away that warning by physically punishing him, then the next time he guards, he may skip the growl and go straight to biting.
While this article is not long enough to outline all the steps of the different protocols for teaching a dog not to guard, there are a few tips I can provide, then I encourage you to enroll the assistance of a reward-based trainer.
Until you can implement training protocols, implement management. Prevention of the unwanted behavior is most important. If your dog guards toys, put them up unless you can control his behavior. If he guards chewies, keep them up unless he can have them undisturbed in his crate or somewhere where no one will bother him. Consider finding a chewy that is lower value than the one(s) he guards. If he growls when you try to get him off the furniture, stop allowing him on the furniture. If he growls when one family member approaches another, then the person he is guarding should walk away. This will help him understand that inappropriate behavior makes the thing he wants (the person’s attention) go away.
The steps above are not training, they are simply ways to prevent this unwanted behavior.
Guarding protocols vary slightly depending on the item that the dog is guarding, but in general they involve teaching the dog that the approach of a person is a good thing, not a bad thing. It is a slow process that pairs the approach of the person when the dog has an object, or is near his food bowl, with a super treat. Gradually, without rushing the process, the dog learns to be happy about the approach instead of feeling the need to guard. While we work on that, we may also teach a Give for items the dog does not guard, a Leave It to possibly prevent him from getting an object he may guard, a Hand Touch cue as a way to move him away from an item he may potentially guard, and we may train him to happily accept a basket-style muzzle in case that is needed for working with him. In some cases, a dog that resource guards may also have body handling issues and we teach the dog to accept and enjoy being handled.
But what’s the best way to counteract guarding behaviors? Teach your puppy from the beginning people approaching the food bowl make something even better appear by dropping treats in the food bowl. Teach a Give or Drop by trading items the dog has for something even better, then give him back the object so he learns just because you take something away, he will probably get it back. And teach him to enjoy being handled by pairing handling with treats.