What is wrong with my dog?
Recently, there has been much discussion about resource guarding, particularly since a certain famous self-proclaimed dog trainer incited a dog to bite him while guarding her food dish. There are many misconceptions about what dog experts call “resource guarding”, that is, the act of guarding something that a dog considers of value. This could include food, treats, toys and even people and other companion animals. The most common type of resource guarding, and the most misunderstood, is that involving food.
While there are various ideas among dog lovers as to why a dog might guard his food, the main reason is simply instinct. Guarding of resources is an innate survival impulse. According to the natural law of animals, “what is in my mouth or between my paws is mine.” There is no disputing this. If you try to take something from the dog that he doesn’t wish to part with, he will often feel that it is his “right” to guard it. This has nothing to do with status seeking; instinct tells animals that if they don’t guard their food, they may starve to death. Can you imagine a non-resource guarding dog in the wild? It would not survive.
For a more human perspective, think about U.S. law: it states that a search without a warrant is unlawful. If the police show up without one and you lock your doors, you are not defying authority; you are exercising your rights under the law as you understand it. So it is with dogs. A dog that guards food or toys is not defying your authority. He is simply asserting his rights under his perception of the natural law.
One of the reasons that many people have a hard time understanding this is that we have bred the resource guarding instinct out of a lot of dogs over the centuries, so they simply won’t do it. Think of the majority of Labradors and Golden Retrievers – not only have they lost their instinct to resource guard, but they and many other dogs actively seek to bring you things!
So, how do you teach your dog to give up a cherished resource? If you are fortunate enough to begin with a puppy, teaching a “drop it” command is an easy first step. Start by giving the pup a toy that he considers low in value. When it’s firmly in his mouth, tell him “drop it” as you wave a tasty treat in front of his nose. As soon as he lets go of the toy, give him the treat. Then return the toy to him. By receiving the toy back, the pup will learn that responding to “drop it” is always worthwhile. Otherwise, a smart pup may actually begin to weigh options: “do I prefer this or that?” As the “drop it” response improves, work with gradually higher value items, until you can tell him to drop a meaty bone, give him a treat, and return the bone to him.
With a puppy at the food bowl, walk nearby while he’s eating. As you go by, toss a yummier morsel into the bowl, such as a piece of hotdog or cheese. As the pup becomes comfortable with your being closer, slowly work up to picking up the bowl, dropping in the treat, and setting it back down. This teaches the pup that good things come when someone takes your food bowl. Eventually, the pup will be happy to have you nearby when he’s eating.
Hand-feeding is also easy to incorporate into your puppy’s routine – there is no rule that meals must be served in a bowl. By hand-feeding your dog, you have the opportunity to further improve your relationship, remind him that you are the source of good things, and emphasize that having you around while he is eating is a positive thing. This is particularly beneficial with puppies, but can be incorporated with adult dogs as well.
What if you have an adult dog that is already resource guarding? The process in this case must proceed much more slowly. You can start by simply teaching the dog that “drop it” means there are tidbits of food on the floor, as in the video by Domesticated Manners. Over time, you can eventually move to the point where the dog will actively drop items in his mouth when he hears the words “drop it.”
If your dog is a serious resource guarder, to the point of being dangerous, or if he displays resource guarding around people or companion animals, talk to a professional behavior counselor or trainer for assistance, and make sure they are using the most modern methods. Note the completely different techniques and vastly superior results in this video from my colleague, Lisa Mullinax, as she teaches a dog not to guard a food bowl.
Most importantly, remember the natural law and try not to break it outright. With patience and consistency, you can teach your dog that it is to his benefit to give up the things that you ask for and thus he won’t feel the need to guard them from you.