Guarding is when a dog aggressively protects something precious to him–most commonly food, toys, or a favorite spot in the house (such as his bed). It’s triggered when a person or animal gets so close that the dog feels he’s in danger of losing this valuable resource. Think of the Cocker Spaniel who growls as you approach his bowl of kibble or the Retriever who snaps if you reach for his chew toy. Growling, lip curling, snarling, direct eye contact, and freezing in place are all signs that a dog will snap or bite if pushed past the point he can tolerate.
The reason dogs guard their resources is very straightforward: they don’t want to lose something valuable. Part of this is instinctual–in the wild, protecting one’s hard-won food was very important. But the behavior can also be learned: “The last time I let that tennis ball out of my sight, it was taken away–I’d better not let anyone near it.”
How to treat the problem
Important: Working on an existing guarding problem can be dangerous. To avoid getting bitten, don’t do any of these exercises without the guidance of a skilled dog behaviorist or trainer.
In most cases, desensitization is the preferred way to treat guarding. Whether it’s his food bowl, a tennis ball, or the chair by the window, the idea is to create positive associations between the resource and the approach of a person (or people).
Physically punishing, scolding, or taking away the food or toy does not work–these techniques only reinforce the idea that your dog needs to be aggressive in order to protect his resource.
To treat food guarding
- Start the desensitization process at mealtime.
- Keep a safe distance–“safe” meaning the distance you must remain from your dog in order for him not to demonstrate any guarding behavior–and offer him a treat he finds utterly irresistible. (The rule is that the treat must be something much more exciting than the kibble he’s having for dinner.)
- Allow him to take the treat and return to his meal.
- Repeat this exercise over the course of many meals, gradually moving closer and closer to his food bowl. Approach from different angles and vary the treats he receives, and keep at it until you can casually meander right up to his food bowl and drop in a treat without any aggressive displays whatsoever.
To treat object guarding
Begin when he’s playing with something that you know he’s not completely crazy about. The key: don’t start by using his favorite toy.
- With one hand, pick up the toy.
- At the same time, with your other hand, produce a treat from behind your back. In order to enjoy the treat, he must release the toy.
- Return his toy to him after he’s finished his treat.
- Repeat this exercise over many sessions, varying your path of approach, the type of reward you give, and the toy your dog is playing with. Always replace his toy with a treat or toy of a higher value, thereby teaching your dog that giving up something good results in getting something better.
To treat location guarding
- Approach your dog’s bed (or whatever spot he guards) with a high-value treat that he can smell as you get nearer.
- Give him the treat while he’s still on his bed. The idea is that he’ll start associating something positive (the treat) with a person approaching him in his special spot.
- Over the course of days and weeks, vary the angle at which you approach as well as the types of treats you offer.
- Eventually, as your dog becomes more at ease, practice luring him away from his bed by using the most desirable and delicious treats.
All of these exercises usually take weeks–desensitization doesn’t happen over the course of just a few sessions.
How to prevent the problem
The key is to start when your dog is a puppy, so he learns early on that you control the resources. Teach the commands “off” and “leave it” and always reward with something more valuable than what you’re asking him to relinquish. Think of it as preemptive desensitization: even if he’s in the middle of dinner or chewing on his favorite toy, your dog learns that great things happen when people approach. He has nothing to worry about–his prized resources aren’t going anywhere.
In addition, spay or neuter your dog–it makes for an all-around mellower pet, and it helps reduce aggressive guarding behavior.
Bottom line: Guarding is born out of the desire to protect such valuable resources as food and toys. Through systematic desensitization, you can safely teach your dog to be comfortable and relaxed around those resources, even in the presence of humans.