HOW DO I STOP MY DOG FROM RESOURCE GUARDING?
Resource guarding can be a serious problem for dog owners. Some dogs aggressively defend their food, their toys, their kennel, or even the entire sofa against their owners. But even mild cases of resource guarding can escalate. Young puppies growling whenever someone touches them during mealtimes can seem cute. But what happens once these puppies have grown up? Even mild aggression escalates, unless remedied. And as our dog’s loving leaders, we want to address this behaviour early on. Because unless remedied, resource guarding can destroy our trust in our canine companion.
WHY IS MY DOG RESOURCE GUARDING?
It can be challenging to try and “unpick” problematic canine behaviours. But when it comes to resource guarding, things are surprisingly simple. Let us explain: In the wild, canines like wolves, wild dogs and coyotes only have limited access to food. Not getting enough to eat causes hunger pains, and ultimately death. Nevertheless, wild canines hold themselves back from blindly ripping into a fresh kill. Instead, they grant their leader the right to eat first. And should they fail to do so, the pack leader will be quick to put them into their place. Canine leaders get access to the best food and the most comfortable sleeping spots. In wolf packs, only the leader has the right to procreate. In this way, nature ensures that only the strongest animal is passing on their genes to future generations.
RESOURCE GUARDING CAN BE DANGEROUS
Of course, the world we live in with our domesticated dogs looks very different. And yet, our pet’s instincts are still very similar to those of a wild wolf. After all, dogs share 99,9% of their DNA with wolves . This indicates that the principle of pack leaders getting priority access to all resources is still at work. And as this principle is deeply ingrained in our modern dogs’ minds, it explains the reason behind every form of resource guarding: The dog has assumed the leadership position in the household. As the “pack leader”, they are now demanding that the family members lower down in the hierarchy yield their access rights to them. If they fail to do so, the dog (like any canine leader in the wild) will “correct” them. At first, they might use only body language signals, such as turning their head away, or becoming very still. However, if the dog’s owners do not back off, this communication will escalate to vocal cues like growls or sharp barks. And if a person, or another pet, ignores these serious warning signs, they can get bitten.
Some people literally live under the rule of their dog. They follow their canine’s rules, boundaries and expectations – when it should be the other way around. For example, some owners avoid coming near the dog whenever they are eating something. Or they stay away from their own sofa whenever the dog is lying on it. This is neither safe, nor fair to anyone involved. And what happens if a child “breaks the rules” set up by the dog, and touches their food bowl, or the bone they are gnawing on? A severely food-aggressive dog may bite that child. This is how many children get injured by their own pets – and how many dogs end up on the euthanasia table.
This may sound quite tough, but it happens all too often. And here at Fenrir, we all are committed to keeping you, your family and your dog safe at all times. But to achieve this, YOU (and everyone in your home) have to step up, and be your dog’s calm, consistent leader.
HOW TO REHABILITATE RESOURCE GUARDING DOGS
Before we delve into measures you can take to help your dog improve, we ask you to put your own safety - and the safety of your family – first. And if you feel right now that you are in any danger from your dog, please seek help immediately: Do not wait until an accident happens. Be proactive, and reach out to an experienced balanced trainer or behaviourist in your area. Ideally, such a person would come to your house and work with your dog hands-on. An alternative to this approach are board-and-train programs designed to rehabilitate dogs with problematic behaviours. By removing the dog from the situation for a few weeks, an experienced canine professional can address the behaviour, and work on rehabilitating your dog.
1. Avoid Confrontation
If your dog is acting aggressively towards yourself or your family, we advise to avoid direct confrontations with them. Instead, call in a local trainer or behaviourist. Again, your safety, and the safety of everyone involved, has the utmost priority. And physically correcting an aggressive dog is not always safe. Some owners get bitten by their own dog for trying to physically remove them from the couch, for example. We are not saying that physical corrections are “bad” in any way. But if you have an aggressively resource guarding dog in the house, trying to tackle the behaviour head-on is not advisable. This principle applies whatever is the object of your dog’s fixation. This can be a toy, their food bowl, their favourite sleeping spot or even another pet in the household. Some dogs even resource guard their owner’s baby against the rest of the family. This has little to do with actual guarding, or wanting to protect the baby – the dog simply has claimed that baby as their possession. So, please do not wait for such behaviours to escalate, and result in an accident: Seek help early on. Even if your dog is still a puppy, there is no shame in consulting a canine professional. In doing so, you are setting your dog, and yourself, up for success. And ultimately, this is the best thing you can do for them.
2. Building Leadership
If we are living with a resource guarding dog, we have to step up our leadership. We need to become the calm, consistent leaders that our dogs need us to be. And the simplest way to start is by setting clear rules, boundaries and expectations for the dog. Then, we consistently reinforce these rules, boundaries and expectations. Once such rule could be: “Resource guarding is not permitted under any circumstance”.
Not jumping onto furniture is a useful boundary for dogs that have taken over the leadership position. Because like wild canines, domestic dogs instinctively understand that the leader has exclusive access to the best sleeping spots. At the same time, we want to avoid being on the same level with our dogs, both metaphorically and physically: To rehabilitate dogs that have assumed the dominant position in the family, we need to assert our leadership status. This does not mean we have to use physical force, but we must clearly communicate that we are in charge – and that our dog is in the lowest position of our family group. For this, it does not matter how many people live in our home; the dog always must be at the bottom of the hierarchy. This is the only way to keep everyone safe. And ultimately, it is the only way to keep our dog in a healthy, happy state of mind.
For a domestic dog, this desirable state of mind is marked by being calm, and by looking to us for guidance and direction. Demanding calm surrender to our leadership is not cruel or unloving. On the contrary, dogs thrive under the guidance of a calm, consistent leader. They want to be led, and having to assert leadership over us in any way is very stressful to them. This is why dogs that defend their sleeping spots, their food or their toys against their owners are never happy dogs. And this is also why, in our opinion, leadership IS love.
Dogs with good leaders in their lives have no reason to react aggressively when members of their family approach their food or their toys. Once you have become your dog’s calm, consistent leader, you are no longer the victim of their food aggression, or their defensive behaviour whenever you ask them to jump down from the bed. Instead, you are now in the driver’s seat. In this position (and only in this position), you can effectively control your dog, and give them the wonderful life you want them to have.
3. Everything Good Comes Through You
And this leads us directly to perhaps the most important principle in the context of resource guarding: Your dog gets access to everything they find desirable exclusively through you. Of course, we all want to give our pets the best life possible. We want them to enjoy healthy and happy lives, and everything that goes along with this – such as plenty of exercise in the fresh air, affection, treats, fun toys to play with and comfortable sleeping spots. The only thing our dogs have to understand is that they themselves own NOTHING. It is us, their loving leaders, who provide them with everything they need and want. Making this abundantly clear to our dogs is crucial for preventing (and counteracting) resource guarding of any kind. Everything good must come through you.
One way to teach your dog this principle is by setting up a barrier of entry. In other words, they have to earn their access to desirable things such as toys and treats. You achieve this by only giving them anything they want after they have worked for it. This can be as simple as holding a nice “Sit and Stay” for a few moments. And this “Sit and Stay” is an amazing barrier of entry for anything positive, such as walks, meals, toys and cuddles. Make it a habit to only give your dog treats, meals, or toys after they have performed a good, calm, “Sit and Stay”. Insist on it before you open the door to let them out into the yard, or take them for walks. Before too long, your dog will clearly understand that they have to come to you, and sit down calmly, to get what they want.
Being the owner of everything desirable in your dog’s life also teaches them to respect you as their leader. In nature, it is the leader who makes the decisions for the pack: It is them, and not their followers, who decide when it is time to go hunting, to eat or to rest.
4. Resource Guarding Food
If your dog is resource guarding food in particular, there are a few specific things to consider. Again, always ensure that you are safe. If you have children in the home, keep them away from your dog whilst they are eating at all times. Carefully supervise any interaction between your dog and your children whenever food is involved. To stay safe, no member of your household should touch the dog or their food bowl whilst they are eating.
Adult dogs that aggressively defend their food against people and other pets can be rehabilitated. But it takes time, patience, and perseverance. And we highly recommend you hire an experienced canine professional who can work with your dog in your home. Food aggression is the cause for numerous bite incidents, and you should not take the risk of getting injured by your own dog. Rehabilitating food-aggressive dogs is a task that requires the assistance of a reputable canine behaviourist, rather than a standard dog trainer: This is potentially dangerous work that calls for effective behaviour modification. Dog trainers mainly teach dogs new skills, but stopping food aggression goes far beyond this.
However, if your dog is still a young puppy and/or they are only showing mild tendencies to resource guarding food (or toys), there is a few things you can do yourself. One of the easiest methods is to teach a command for dropping whatever they are holding in their mouth. This can be “Leave it!” or “Drop it!”, for example. Also, you always want to have an alternative at hand: Have a few tasty treats in your pocket whenever you are at home, or on walks, with your puppy. Then, once they pick up something they deem edible, give the “Drop it!” command. If they hesitate, show them the extra-tasty treat you have brought along for such occasions. Once they have dropped what they were holding, mark the behaviour with a “Yes!” and give them the treat.
To practise the “Drop it!” command during mealtimes, use a “Sit!” after giving the “Drop it!” cue. In this way, your puppy ‘s mouth is at distance from the food bowl. Then, once they are politely sitting down, offer them their reward. When practising “Drop it!” during mealtimes, we recommend using high-value treats like hotdog or pieces of fried chicken: Some dogs get quite fixated on their dinner. But we want to teach our puppies that interrupting their meal on our cue is guaranteed to give them something even much better – such as pieces of meat, sausage or cheese.
Many dogs that are protective of their meals are highly food-driven. In other words: They love to eat, and oftentimes, they quickly devour whatever is given to them. However, eating too fast is not healthy - neither for humans nor for dogs. But for canines, this habit of practically inhaling their food can be deadly: Eating too quickly can cause gastric torsion, also known as bloat. Unless surgically treated, this condition is fatal. To keep our dogs safe and to ensure they are digesting their food optimally, we need to slow down their eating. For this aim, we have developed the Fenrir Foraging Mat and the Puzzle Bowl. The Foraging Mat makes mealtimes more fun for dogs and provides mental stimulation: Having to use their nose to detect pieces of kibble in the snuffle mat emulates a canine’s natural way of eating. After all, wolves in the wild do not use food bowls. Instead, they often have to forage for food on the ground.
Another effective tool for slowing down your dog’s eating is the Puzzle Bowl. Like the snuffle mat, this heavy-duty bowl comes in the shape of our Fenrir logo – the wolf head. By preventing dogs from “wolfing” their food, the Puzzle Bowl is perfect for safeguarding your canine companion from the lethal danger of bloat. As a side-effect, this slow feeding tool provides mental stimulation, as dogs have to systematically extract their food from the bowl. Both products are suitable for dogs of all ages.
Depending on your dog’s breed and age, their resource guarding behaviour can be quite intimidating. Especially novice owners often struggle when their dogs suddenly start to snarl and snap at them whenever they come near their food bowl, for example. But even experienced dog owners can find themselves in difficult situations. We encourage you to seek professional help in cases of severe resource guarding. The same applies if you are not feeling comfortable with implementing the strategies suggested here. This is also recommended if the behaviour persists despite your efforts. Please remember that you are not alone – and there is light at the end of the tunnel. We are saying this because we firmly believe in you, and in your capability to make the right decisions for yourself and your dog.