What to do about resource guarding

Dogs are often called “man’s best friend” and for good reason. They are loyal and protective and make great companions.

But they are also hard work! 

They need to be fed, exercised, and trained, and if you have a dog who guards their resources such as food or toys, that can add an extra layer of difficulty to your relationship.

Dr Rosalind Holland (BVSc) says that "Resource guarding in dogs is a reasonably common behaviour problem.” So, what can you do about it? The first step is to see things from your pooches' perspectives. Knowing the reasons behind a behaviour is the first step to changing it.

What exactly is resource guarding?

“It is described as a dog retaining control of a desired item such as food by using aggressive behaviour towards another person or animal.” says Dr Rosalind Holland (BVSc). Resource guarding may include quickly eating an edible item when approached, avoidance through holding the item out of reach or attempting to block access with their body, or moving with the item to a new area or room. Resource guarding may also include aggressive behaviours, such as staring, growling, barking, lunging, chasing, snapping and potentially biting or fighting. Resource guarding is seen in heaps of different species but is particularly common in dogs. They may guard food, toys or other objects that they consider to be important to them.

We get it – no one wants their tucker taken away from them.

But sometimes resource guarding behaviours can be dangerous as they lead to conflict between dogs or conflict between dogs and people. It can also make it hard work to handle your dog and look after them.

Resource guarding also has the potential to cause health issues if your dog picks up something that could make them sick and gobbles it down when approached. 

Why do dogs resource guard?

There are a bunch of reasons why dogs may do this. Dr Rosalind Holland (BVSc) says that "Dogs that are resource guarding are experiencing negative emotions such as anxiety or frustration. Management of the situation should aim to change this underlying emotional experience".

Other possible reasons for this behaviour include:

Tell "tail" signs 

Aggressive behaviours associated with resource guarding may include several behaviours synonymous with anxiety or fear, such as:

  • Freezing in place / body stiffening
  • Hold their head down and hunch over the item or food
  • Often hold their ears back
  • Widen their eyes so the whites can be seen
  • Pupils dilate their eyes; their eyes might dart or stare
  • Tail may be held stiffly down or tucked underneath them
  • Lift a lip, growl, snarl, snap or try to bite

While some of these behaviours may be seen in other contexts (e.g. playing or fighting), if you see them when your furry friend is having a feed or playing alone with their favourite toy, it's likely that they are resource guarding.

7 tips to address resource guarding in dogs

1. Understand their motivation

The first step is to understand why your dog is doing this. This behaviour is often the result of fear or insecurity. Dogs who feel they don’t have enough resources may start to guard them more carefully.

This can be especially true if your dog has had bad experiences in the past, such as being food-deprived, having their food or toys taken away or people placing their hands in the food bowl while they are eating. If your dog has had negative experiences with resources, they may view them as something that needs to be protected.

2. Provide plenty of resources

One way to prevent this behaviour is to make sure your dog has everything they need. This means providing a high-quality diet, plenty of toys and making sure they have a comfortable place to sleep.

If your dog feels they don’t have enough resources, they may guard them more carefully.

3. Give them a safe space

Make sure they have a place where they can go to escape from people or other animals. It should be where they feel safe and secure, such as a crate or a quiet room in the house.

If you have more than one dog, it’s important to feed them separately. This will help prevent resource guarding between the dogs at kai time.     

4. Don't touch their food

You should never try to take your dog’s food away or touch it while they’re eating. This will only make the problem worse.

Instead, feed them in a way that prevents them from feeling threatened. For example, offering food in their crate or in a room where they will feel relaxed.

5. Supervise children

It is difficult for young children to understand that they shouldn’t go into a dog’s bed or grab toys, or even food items for dogs. Until children are old enough to understand these rules, it is important to supervise interactions between pets and young children.

Baby gates can also be used to keep children and dogs separate when food or highly prized toys are also present.

6. Avoid punishment for resource guarding

It can be upsetting if your dog growls at you or annoying if they run away with an item they shouldn’t have!

The use of punishment is likely to increase your dog’s stress and might make the guarding behaviour worse. Instead, manage access to high value items while working on training your dog to trade items safely.

7. Seek professional advice

If you're having trouble managing your dog's resource guarding, it's a good idea to get professional help, particularly if you have young children at home. Modifying engrained behaviours in your dog is not easy, and there is no "one size fits all" solution.

A behaviourist or veterinary behaviourist's advice can assist. They will also be able to help you rule out any potential medical causes for the resource guarding.

Dr Rosalind suggests contacting your medical professional “as behavioural modification for resource guarding needs to be tailored to the individual dog and household. Your first step should be an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out any medical issues, there you can get advice on how to access high quality behavioural modification advice in your region.”

Help your dog feel safe and comfortable

Before you undertake this journey of doggy discovery, remember these key tips:

  • Be consistent: All family members should follow the same rules when it comes to interacting with your four-legged friends.
  • Be patient: It may take some time to change a behaviour that they’ve been doing for a long time.

With patience, consistency, and a bit of extra help, you can manage your dog's resource guarding and help them feel more comfortable around people and other animals.

While behaviour issues may not be covered by insurance, if your dog has an injury or suffers an illness, you can have up to 90% of eligible vet bills reimbursed (depending on the level of cover selected), thanks to SPCA Pet Insurance, which provides a choice of 3 different levels of cover.1

1. Pre-existing conditions are excluded. Limits, sub-limits, and annual condition limits may apply. A $2,000 annual condition limit applies to Everyday Cover.