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How to handle your dog's resource guarding behaviour

Many dogs tend to guard their toys, food, bowls, bed, or even their humans. But it becomes a problem if this habit is extreme

Dogs will growl, bark, or even attack a human or another dog if they feel a precious resource is being threatened.
Dogs will growl, bark, or even attack a human or another dog if they feel a precious resource is being threatened. (Guillame de Germain/Unsplash)

What is resource guarding? Humans do it all the time. Dogs do it too. They tend to guard their toys, food, bowls, bed, and sometimes even their humans—anything that they take a fancy to. Most dogs do this in varying degrees, but it becomes a problem when their guarding is extreme. Dogs will growl or bark and, in the worst case, even attack other dogs or humans if they feel threatened that the resource will be taken away. This situation becomes tricky as it’s hard to fathom what the dog thinks of his or her resource, which needs guarding.

I was once caught completely off guard when my dog, Khal Dogo, charged at a male Labrador. The Lab was just sniffing a spayed female Golden Retriever that Khal plays with. What surprised me was that just a couple of minutes before, Khal had completely ignored the Lab. But as soon as he approached the Retriever, Khal rushed to warn him.

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Immediately after the incident, my husband called Delano Henriques, our go-to dog behaviourist. He had trained Khal as a puppy and taught us how to handle our dog. He suggested that the reason for Khal’s behaviour towards the Lab could either be pack mentality or resource guarding—Khal either thought that the Lab was trying to harm a member of his pack, the Retriever, or he thought of her as his resource and was trying to protect her.

We, however, will never know what the reason was because it was a one-time thing, and Khal has never growled at any other male dog that plays with this particular female retriever, neutered or not. But what we did know is that we had to take immediate measures to ensure that neither the pack mentality nor resource guarding became a behavioural pattern. So, apart from keeping Khal away from that specific male dog at all times, being more alert on our walks, and focusing on his body language (the biggest telltale signs of your dog’s behaviour), we also reinforced training techniques to avoid such an incident again.

“Training your dog from a very early age is one of the most effective ways to discourage your dog from resource guarding,” says Mumbai-based dog trainer and behaviourist Aakash Shukla. First and foremost, do not snatch things away from your puppy or your adult dog. When our puppies play with our shoes, socks or expensive gadgets, the first thing we do is to take them away. It’s instinctive for us humans. But for a confident puppy, it’s a competition and a challenge, which he will keep doing, just to feel satisfied and burn his energy. For a sensitive, insecure and fearful puppy, it results in resource guarding.

To avoid either of these situations, it's best to teach your dog to leave whatever he has in his mouth on your command without you engaging in the act of snatching that thing away from him. Just a simple “leave it” should do the trick if you have trained your dog well. Sometimes, distractions work as well. Give the dog a treat, so that he leaves your expensive earphones. “But in my experience, this method ends up reinforcing his or her behaviour,” says Shukla. He might just end up frequently running away with that particular thing knowing that he will be rewarded when he leaves it.

Shukla suggests creating strong boundaries for your dog to let him know that his behaviour is unacceptable. The correct response to your dog trying to seek your attention when you don’t want to, or can’t give any, is to simply ignore him, not touch him or engage with him in any way. The dog will understand and leave you alone and may not trouble you again while you are working.

In my experience, your dog resource guarding an inanimate object could be easier to deal with than him resource guarding his humans. If he is guarding his humans, he will not let anyone else close to them. He will be constantly alert, guarding you even when outside, will pick fights with other dogs and even charge at people who he thinks are trying to harm you. “The human guarding is usually the result of the human’s behaviour,” says Shukla. If a particular person is scared, anxious or nervous, especially among other dogs, his or her dog will feel the responsibility to protect them. To avoid this, a human has to change his or her body language. Try to be relaxed and confident, at least show that through your body language, displaying that you are your dog’s protector and not the other way around. This should help to a large extent."

Shukla strongly advises that in cases of extreme resource guarding, it’s best to seek intervention from an expert. “Behavioural issues caused by the tendency to guard resources could be dangerous, so please do not try to deal with it by yourself.”

Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based journalist and a first-time pet parent.

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