I want to preface this post by saying that resource guarding can be a small issue, or a dangerous behavioural problem that can end up in a bite. This post is meant as a guide for dog owners looking to learn about resource guarding, how to prevent it and solve low-grade resource guarding safely. If your dog is exhibiting potentially dangerous behaviour, such as stiff posture, teeth-baring, growling, snapping or lunging, please consult a canine behaviourist for one-on-one help with your dog, do not attempt to solve the problem on your own.
First of all, what is resource guarding? We all exhibit resource guarding to a certain degree: dogs are not so different from us on a fundamental level, and if they fear they'll lose a prized item, they'll seek to protect it, either by fight (hovering stiffly over a bone) or flight (running away with a sock from the dirty laundry basket.)
Resource guarding can be exhibited to protect space, food, toys, someone's attention, water, or just about anything considered a resource. The most common type of resource guarding is often referred to as possession aggression, and refers specifically to an object, like a toy, food or bone. This is what we'll be focusing on in this post.
If a dog is constantly having objects taken away, they may resort to any number of fight or flight responses, all of them having the common element of being undesired by us humans. As a dog owner, you're bound to have to take things away from your dog, so how can you do that without each attempt turning into conflict or a 15 minute sprint around the yard because Fido stole your barbecue tongs? The key here is to teach a dog to voluntarily relinquish whatever he has.
Teaching a dog to relinquish an object is as easy as teaching them something called the trading game. This consists in giving the dog a low-medium value non-edible object (if he eats it, you can't get it away!) and offering him something of higher value in exchange, usually food**. This is best done with something you can hold on to, like a tug toy. Enticing the dog to play a game of tug with you, get him to grip the toy fairly well by moving it around (for a video of what I mean, and also one of the many ways to turn tug-o-war into a productive teaching tool, check out our video on training your dog to open/close a door!)
When the dog is holding onto the toy, put a treat to his nose, the stronger the smell, the better! When the dog lets go of the toy to take the treat, put the toy behind your back as you give him the treat. Repeat this game a few times, until just your hand coming close to the dog's nose is enough to make him let go of the toy. At this point, you can add a verbal cue, such as "drop it."
Like anything, this is best done in several training sessions before attempting a real-life scenario,*** and best to call an expert before attempting this with a dog with a history of possession aggression. The principle is the same, but variations need to be made to ensure everyone's safety.
Gradually increase the difficulty by increasing the value of the first object, always making sure that what you're offering your dog in exchange is still of higher value. Switching to an object that you can't hold on to, like a ball, is another way to increase the difficulty of the trading game. Keeping your dog on a leash will ensure that if she's a runner, your trading game won't devolve into a game of chase.
As with any training exercise, start with a constant 1:1 exercise:reward ratio, and gradually move to intermittent rewarding.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, which is why quickly establishing good habits with a new dog is much easier than waiting for potential problems to crop up to seek help. With the trading game, you can work towards a very reliable 'drop it, ' which is something all dog owners can use, not just those with dogs with resource guarding tendencies.
** If your dog likes what you have to offer in exchange more than the original object, decrease the value of the object you wish to give your dog. Some dogs are very food motivated, so food will cause the dog to completely ignore anything else. If this is the case, use a toy to trade with, so long as the value of what you have is higher than what your dog has.
*** If your dog has an object, and you have no safe way of taking it from him, do not attempt to. Offer something from a safe distance, if he leaves what he has to come to you, lure him away from the object he was guarding, and take it away when he is out of the way. If he doesn't leave it, just wait for him to leave it on his own, even if that means that it'll get ruined.
Good luck, and happy training!