Resource Guarding: Teaching Your Pet To Share

Resource guarding is a common behavioral problem in dogs and some cats.  It is important to note that they can guard any object they feel is valuable.  Often it is their food bowl or a special treat/bone they have.  But it can also be other objects like toys, items they have stolen from around the house, a bed or furniture, or even a person they feel is valuable.

adorable animal beagle breed
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Why does it happen?

Most times these behaviors start when they are puppies or kittens and then continue to develop.  They can happen for several reasons:

  1. Animals that were previously strays or came from hoarding situations have a higher likelihood of developing resource guarding because they needed to do it when they were on the streets. Sometimes these animals will even guard water bowls in the house if they were previously without water for long periods of time.
  2. Dogs that steal items around the house often find the game of stealing and chasing fun, so they do not want the game to end and give up the valuable item they have stolen.
  3. Multi-animal households, especially ones where people free feed.
  4. Owners often unintentionally create the problem by thinking that they should be able to take food, toys, etc. from their dog/cat anytime they want.

adorable animal animal portrait blur

Prevention goes a long way with resource guarding.

The biggest thing I see as contributing to the problem is when people think they should always be able to take things from their pets whenever they want.

The answer is, that you shouldn’t have to. 

Your dog should never worry that when you come near their food dish you are going to suddenly go to take it away for no good reason other than you feel like it.  Cause let’s be honest, that makes you a bully and there is not ever going to be an occasion when you suddenly need to take away your dogs’ dish.

So, here’s what we can do instead:

  1. When your pet is eating, instead of trying to take their bowl away, toss yummy treats (something even better than their regular food) either into the bowl or near the bowl on the floor. This will start to get your dog to associate you coming near them while eating with good things happening.
  2. If you have a multi-animal household then feed everyone in certain areas and monitor meal time. No dog or cat should be able to go up to another one while eating.  Even if they eat at different paces, they should be left alone from the other animals while eating.  The ones that finish first must learn that they are not allowed to go try to steal from the one that is still eating.  For puppies, this is most easily accomplished by putting a tether point near their dish, so they cannot physically leave the area to investigate everyone else’s meals.  For adult dogs, you can also use a tether point, or you can just body block them from going into the other dogs’ space.  For cats, tethering is not a good option, instead, either monitor while they are eating and again using body blocks; or if you have a super slow eater put them all in their own room or even crate for meal time and let them out when everyone is done.
  3. Teach a solid “leave it” command. This command could literally save their life one day by preventing them from eating something toxic, like accidentally dropping a pill on the floor.  For this command to be most effective they should never be given the item they were asked to leave.  For that reason, we do not recommend ever asking your dog to “leave it” regarding their food dish.
  4. Teaching a trade can also be a valuable training tool. This is particularly helpful for the dogs that are always looking for something and will find things you never even knew were there.  Instead of the object becoming a game of keep away, it teaches the dog that if they find something to bring it to you and you will reward them.

photography of three dogs looking up

The management works with changing how your dog feels about guarding the object.

  1. If they are guarding their food dish and you have been doing training where you try to make the dish, the first thing to do is stop trying to take it! Instead, like we talked about earlier, work on giving them tasty treats to change their viewpoint of having you near.
  2. If they are guarding their food dish against other pets in the household make sure that another one of the pets isn’t trying to bully them out of their food.
  3. If they are guarding objects they steal, then working with them to stop stealing objects is going to be key. The first is prevention, by cleaning up the house so they don’t have the opportunity to continue staling socks, underwear, etc.  Second, is that if the object they stole isn’t harmful stop chasing them.  Again, make sure they aren’t going to ingest the object as well.  But if you can just don’t engage with the game of keep away.
  4. If they are guarding furniture, either from other animals or people then they need to not be allowed on the furniture. Being on the furniture should be considered a privilege and if you cannot behave while on it you lose your privilege.  For people approaching, instead of trying to force the dog or cat off, they should use treats to lure them off to help diffuse the confrontation.
  5. If they are guarding people they view as valuable, then two things can work. First, if the person they are trying to guard gets up and leaves at any sign of aggression it helps send a message that they are not ok with the behavior.  Second, have the person approaching use treats or a toy to interact with the dog they are approaching.  Once they see you are not a threat and instead bring good things they are usually willing to let you into their circle.

Remember as with all behavioral problems, prevention is key.  If you have trouble with your dog or cat in regards to resource guarding please give the office a call and we can help you work through it!

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