Picture this: Your soft bundle of joy suddenly turns into a snarly Tasmanian devil while playing with a toy. Yep, that might be resource guarding. It can come as quite a surprise for new dog owners who aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do. That’s alright. That’s what we’re here for.
It takes time and work to help your puppy with resource guarding, but we’re here to help you make a great start and understand why your puppy might be doing it, what the signs of resource guarding might be, and some training tips on how to avoid it.
Our Zigzag puppy training app has loads of tips for dealing with resource guarding, and much more. Along with a breed specific personalised journey to help you teach your puppy essential life skills week by week, there’s a team of puppy coaches on hand to help you 7 days a week with any of your worries too. Download a free trial of Zigzag today and learn from the creme de la creme.
Why is my puppy resource guarding?
First off, you should know that resource guarding is a relatively normal thing in the natural world. If you think about it, not protecting your food or water in the wild might lead to other animals taking it, therefore, leaving you without it. Humans do it too – we don’t get off the hook. But in a home environment, when your puppy starts resource guarding things from you, it’s not too appreciated. Actually, it can even be a big worry if your dog is willing to bite, or fight, you for anything they have; especially if there are children around. Yikes.
There are many reasons why puppies resource guard, which can be anything from behavioral to genetics.
Lack of resources
If your puppy has been raised in an environment where food or other resources were not plentifully available, they can see them as worth protecting when they have them. Kind of like when we’re kids, and we find sweets we’re not allowed to eat at home. We keep it like it’s treasure.
How we behave around the object
When you make a big deal out of your puppy picking something up, it can make them think the value is high and is worth protecting. Like when they find your slippers. Let’s not freak out about it, shall we?
Snatching the item out of your puppy’s mouth or forcing their jaws open can make them worry about you coming near them when they have it, so they react defensively. With puppies, there’s never a need to use force – they understand just fine with kindness. And treats. Lots of them.
Some dogs are more prone to resource guarding than others due to anxiety or resource guarding in their genetic make up.
How your puppy sees the object
A new fantastic toy or a delicious juicy bone can be highly prized, and your puppy might feel it’s worth protecting.
Your puppy has an underlying medical problem you’re not aware of yet that can make them more susceptible to resource guarding. Yep, weird things like that happen – you should probably call your vet if you think this is the case.
What are the signs of resource guarding?
Your puppy’s body language will tell you a lot about how they are feeling. Resource guarding in puppies can be quite subtle at first, which can make it difficult to detect. Here are some tell-tale signs of resource guarding and food aggression in puppies you should look out for:
Not literally, of course. If your puppy freezes when you come near them, as in they become completely still, this is often a sign that they’re worried. This is a sign of puppy resource guarding.
Eating items quickly
This isn’t always a sign of resource guarding in puppies, but something to keep an eye on.
The side eye
When they show you the whites of their eyes, or give you a suspicious side-eye, this can be a sign of puppy guarding. It can look pretty comical at first, but keep in mind it might mean they’re trying hard to keep whatever they have in their hands safe away from you.
Ears on the flat back of their head
This is sometimes called an ‘appeasement gesture’. When you see their ears snap to the back of their heads, it likely means that they’re feeling some negative emotions.
Some signs of resource guarding can be much easier to see than the ones mentioned above. Usually, by this point, numerous subtle indicators that your dog is unhappy have been missed or disregarded, which leaves them with no choice but to increase the intensity of their body language displays. See why it’s crucial to catch them early on?
Here are the more obvious signs of resource guarding you’ll likely see:
A low growl
You’ll know what a grumbling growl is. It sounds and feels very different to a play growl – much less friendly. It’s a clear warning that a dog is not comfortable with what’s happening and that if you come any closer, they’ll do something you won’t be happy with.
An air snap (without contact)
This is them saying ‘keep away, I’m telling you I don’t like this’. A pretty clear sign for you to back off, right? An air snap will often make you jump back. When this happens, listen well. They’re trying to tell you they’re not happy.
A contact bite
Okay, so when they actually bite you, this is obviously a dog that has reached their limit. If they bite you, it’s clear that they’ve been pushed too far and are feeling highly defensive. Can’t get any more crystal clear than that.
How to stop my puppy resource guarding?
Alright, so now that we know resource guarding isn’t great, here’s what you can do to stop it.
The first thing we want to focus on is the prevention of guarding. Preventing resource guarding in puppies is actually pretty easy, as long as you do continuous and structured training, we’re sure you’ll manage just fine. First, we need to teach them that whatever they want won’t run out or disappear into thin air, so there’s no need to guard it with their lives. Resources are plentiful and are to be swapped and traded.
Manage the environment to prevent puppy guarding
If you have items in your home that you’d much rather your puppy stay away from, make sure to puppy proof the house and move those items out of their reach. If your puppy can’t access your delicious sweet-smelling shoes, then they can’t start being possessive over them. That makes sense, right?
Teach your puppy to retrieve and drop
It sounds basic, but if you teach your puppy to fetch, you’re actually teaching them that handing your items leads to nice things happening – like them getting a treat. Therefore, teaching them to retrieve means you’ll get into less possession problems, and it will help prevent puppy resource guarding. A happy chain of events.
Start with retrieving toys, and move on to other material things such as shoes, so your puppy can generalise across the board and bring you whatever they have. Even the newspaper.
Give your puppy access to lots of resources
If your puppy learns that people won’t come and bother them when they’re chewing, or that the chews, raw bones, Kongs and other puzzle toys will be in plentiful supply, there is less likely to be a problem with resource guarding. Knowing there’s an abundance of fun helps quite a lot.
Keep their crate or bed as a safe space
If you have children at home, it’s an excellent idea to teach them that when the dog is in their bed, they are not to be bothered. It also teaches your puppy when they’re in their bed, playpen or crate, they can be left alone to chew in peace.
If your dog is already showing signs of resource guarding, then we recommend contacting a qualified behaviourist and trainer like a member of one of the UK Dog Behaviour & Training Charter associations.
You can also do the following steps to stop resource guarding in puppies, especially if you are knowledgeable about training. Do remember that behaviour modification should really be done with the help of a professional, we don’t want you to get hurt!
- Identifying what the triggers to resource guarding are
Puppies can resource guard for all kinds of different things. Some will guard items such as bones and chews, their food bowl, food in the street. Others will guard toys that they think of as being valuable like balls, and some will guard people or space.
Stolen or found items are often triggering for them. Of course, these are mostly items you don’t want them to have and can include socks, stale bread thrown out for the birds, tissues and chicken bones they find in the street.
Write a list of all the things your dog ‘acts weird’ or possessive over, and keep a log of what’s happening and when. This kind of information is hugely useful when you see a professional about your pup’s behaviour, and you will also need to use it in your own training.
- Manage the environment and remove access
Now that you have your list of guarded items, you will want to arrange the environment around them to prevent your dog from accessing them. It sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? Making sure your house is puppy proofed is a great start. Feel free to use puppy playpens, or stair gates to keep your dog away from things they’re guarding.
If your dog guards food bowls, let them enjoy their food in peace and quiet and take the food bowl away only when they have finished eating.
They will need to have chews, especially when teething, but make sure they’re able to eat them without the constant worry that someone will come and take it away from them. Using a playpen or crate for these times is a good idea. You can also change the type of chews you give them, like switching to feeding them their meals in a frozen Kong.
- Change how your dog feels to prevent puppy guarding
To stop resource guarding in puppies, we need to change their emotional response. By this, we mean changing how they feel about the situation. We need your dog to go from worried to not bothered at all – and potentially elated when you come near them. Therefore, instead of being triggered, they learn to feel accepting of us.
To change their emotional response, we need to change the associations in your dog’s mind by doing a behaviour modification technique called “counter conditioning and desensitisation”. Fancy terms.
We strongly suggest you have a ‘written behaviour plan’ to follow and work with, worked out by a professional so that you make sure it’s done properly. It’s not that we don’t trust you to do well, but people do tend to rush things when working alone. We already know from experience that this won’t work, and since we don’t want your dog to become a bite risk, you might want to listen to our advice. Just saying.
Training tips for resource guarding
Teach a positive interrupter
Simply put, teaching a positive interrupter is one way of ‘getting the hell out of a dodge’. It can be used to stop guarding in the moment and offer your dog the chance to make a better choice. Let us say this though – it is in no way a substitute for a full desensitisation and counter conditioning programme, but it can be useful in the moment since it can remove your dog from the thing they’re guarding. Handy if they’ve stolen your TV remote!
Don’t chase after your pup
You’ve probably heard this before, but if you chase after your puppy, they’ll think it’s a game that results in two common outcomes:
a) Your puppy learns that they get attention from you when they grab particular things
b) Whatever thing they have is worth protecting, and they should continue to do so like their life depends on it.
In this case, you can use a positive interrupter or just ignore it if it’s an item that’s no big deal for them to have. Your puppy will likely get bored when they realise they’re not getting a reaction from you. They’re just the biggest attention seekers, aren’t they?
Never punish a growl
It can be tempting to react strongly when your dog growls. It’s not what we want them to do is it? But making them quiet their communication never ends well. Your dog may feel that instead of letting you know they’re uncomfortable, they don’t feel able to express themselves and instead will go straight into biting. Eek.
Body language tends to follow a series of signs that tell us they’re not really comfortable. When we fail to listen to those signals, they have no choice but to escalate. Better get started on learning puppy body language, it seems!
Teach a reliable leave it and drop
To teach a dog to leave whatever it is they have alone, you’ll have to teach them that they’ll get a yummy treat back if they do. This works well to redirect them as they go towards the item, or you want them to come away from it.
Work with low-value items first. These will be objects your dog can leave with no problem and then gradually work up to more exciting or valuable items.
PRO TIP: Write down your dog’s favourite objects and toys in order of preference: from things they are not too fussed about like a rubber chew toy to things they love like socks. Make sure you swap low value items with something high-value that they really want, so that they learn to give you what they have in exchange for something ‘better’. If you have a puppy that’s particularly fond of guarding, teaching reliable trades can really help.
Keep rewarding them for doing things you want them to do
Puppies learn by repetition. The more you reward them for certain behaviours, the more they will want to do them. For example, if your puppy walks past a pile of takeaway boxes in the street, reward them heavily and they’ll learn not to go towards them as ignoring them comes with a yummy reward.
Keeping your puppy mentally stimulated
Using plentiful enrichment activities like brain games, Kongs and puzzle toys will keep your puppy’s brain active and out of boredom. Bored dogs tend to turn to resource guarding as there isn’t much going on in life for them to do, so make sure to keep their brains busy with fun stuff. You could also try clicker training, or other fun training games. The Zigzag app has plenty more tips and training to look at – we can guarantee that at least you won’t be bored with it.
Well done, you’ve made it to the end of our resource guarding article. The tips above will also help with food aggression in puppies – which you can probably relate to. We’ve heard how you get when someone asks you to share your chips.
After all of this, you can start to help them feel like they don’t need to be defensive around you or other people. Resource guarding in puppies has an emotional underpinning, so we definitely need to help them change their mind through the use of positive reinforcement training.
If you are struggling with resource guarding in puppies, we do recommend speaking to your Vet and getting a qualified behaviourist involved. We also have a team of experts available for all your questions in the Zigzag puppy training app. They’re very good, they don’t guard their good advice like your puppy guards their chew toy. They can also direct you to other professionals to help out. If you want even more information, check the UK dog charter for more on behaviour organisations.