Resource Guarding in Dogs

Some dogs will guard food, toys, a place even a person.

What is Resource Guarding in Dogs?

Is your dog possessive over toys, food, their bed or even a person?  Resource guarding is when a dog controls access to food, objects, people and locations that are important to them through defensive body language or outward aggressive display. This is a relatively common behaviour in dogs and is influenced by a number of environmental factors as well as the situation the dog finds themselves in, including a dog’s natural instinct to survive.

Resource guarding is, in fact, a natural, normal dog behavior, and an important survival strategy. For a wild animal, loss of important resources can mean death. If they allowed other dogs or other animals to take their food away they would die.

The dog that has first access to food, for example, has nutritional advantage over others and even though thousands of years of domestication have changed the dog in many ways, instinct can remain deeply rooted. Dogs have most likely evolved from scavengers and scavengers do not need pack members to survive. In fact in this scenario, other dogs are competition for food and threaten survival, so guarding access to scraps becomes extremely important.

Why Does Resource Guarding in Dogs Occur?

Resource guarding can occur for a number of reasons. Many times it is a combination of factors that, together, create an opportunity for this behaviour to occur and unfortunately be reinforced.

Guarding resources is usually a manifestation of the dog’s deep-rooted insecurity and inability to cope well in a social situation, even with people and other dogs the know.

An insecure dog can see anyone as a potential threat to a resource whether that resource is food, toys, space, a mate or access to a person.  A resource guarder will not tolerate competition and will guard the resource to maintain priority access.  The threat of losing the resource and the good feeling that the resource provides make a dog more vigilant, angry and irritable.

Types of Resource Guarding


Kay and her brothers and sisters are fed in the same room but a few metres apart

Food guarding can occur in many different situations. Your dog may guard:

A food dish while eating

An empty food dish

A piece of food that was accidentally dropped to the floor

A treat they are receiving


Rosie is happy to share her toys, some dogs will guard them

A dog who is possessive of toys around other dogs falls into this category.  Examples of objects your dog may guard include:



Water bowl

Items your dog considers as valuable such as a stick, a item of clothing, a blanket


Alex receiving attention from Patricia

A dog may guard the person who is giving them attention, or people they are sitting near. Examples would include:

A dog who growls or snaps at other dogs when they approach it if they are being stroked by a human

A dog who growls or snaps at another human or dog who approaches them when they are sitting near a person (perhaps on a sofa or a bed) or when the dog is being held by a person.

Furniture, An Area of the Home

Some dogs will guard a particular space or area in a room

A dog may guard a piece of furniture, or a particular place in a room, or a particular room:

A sofa or chair

A bed

A room (for example if another dog enters the doorway)

A particular space (for example the dog doesn’t want another dog or person coming near them when they are lying down).

A Dog’s Body Parts

Rufus’s huge paws

A dog may growl or snap when someone touches or pets them in a certain area, such as

Rear end/tail



Many times this can indicate the dog hurts when touched in this area or has had pain there in the past.

Signs of Resource Guarding

When a dog resource guards, they usually give some form of warning to the person or dog approaching them when said dog has what he considers to be a high value item.

Example: If you own a dog possessive of toys with other dogs, you may see the following behaviours when a dog approaches your dog:

The dog will cover the toy with their head;

They may freeze with head close to toy;

Their lips will lift slightly, showing teeth;

The dog grows a very low, imperceptible growl.

The scenario varies based on a number of factors:

Resource guarding is not only dependent on the dog’s perceived value of what it is guarding, but also can be dependent on who or what is approaching the dog.

It is also varies based on the dog’s use of “warning signals.” This includes how many warning signals the dog displays and on our proficiency (or lack thereof) in noticing the signals and addressing the guarding problem before it escalates further.

Most dogs will not go from zero to “bite” with no warning. They display a number of behaviors that tell you they are uncomfortable and want you to move away. Learning to recognise these signals is the first step in addressing resource guarding in dogs.

Source: BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine, 2nd Ed. ((c) 2009)

In the above example of a dog possessive of toys, the behaviours listed are what those the dog displays to start with.  If these behaviours aren’t noticed or registered by you, the dog may escalate to loud growls or barking, snapping, and even biting.

Many times, dog owners miss the large majority of signs of resource guarding, then are surprised when the dog growls or snaps at a person or another dog.

Changing Resource Guarding Behaviour

Dogs guard resources because they fear losing them. Sometimes the fear is learned through experience, sometimes dogs develop this behaviour at a very early age.

Some humans seem to think they have an absolute right to take anything away from their dogs at anytime, and their dogs should let them, without protest. That’s a terrific way to create a resource-guarding behaviour. It’s rude to grab something from someone; we all learned this from a young age.

We are taught to politely hand over something we value when asked and this is how we should train dogs from an early age (politely teaching them to give up valued food or toys, by trading them for even better ones).

Other dogs show guard type behaviour from a very early age.  Even six to eight week-old puppies can show resource guarding behavior to their litter mates and to humans.

Either way, the goal is to convince dogs that a human or dog approaching them when they are in possession of a resource is not a threat to their resource, but rather, predicts the arrival of more good stuff!

Some dogs will guard their sleeping area

Managing Resource Guarding Behaviour

How you treat resource guarding behaviour in your dog depends on what your dog is guarding, and the severity of the guarding problem. It is vital as the owner you are knowledgeable in recognising signals and in reading the body language of the dog.


Sometimes management is the easiest path to avoid or extinguish resource guarding in dogs. It consists of eliminating possible guarding situations; sometimes permanently, sometimes temporarily.  This is especially important when a new dog comes into the house.  Simply putting toys and bones away and feeding dogs in separate room or crates can eliminate toy and food aggression in dogs.  This is not going to permanently solve the problem of resource guarding however, it is a bit like trying to stop eating chocolate by not having it in the house to avoid eating a whole bar in one go.  But as soon as you enter a supermarket and there are shelves of chocolate, the likelihood is you will buy some and eat the lot in one go.

For the first month after a new dog comes into your house avoid as many potential guarding situations as possible.  It’s important to know that each time your new dog has an opportunity to guard, they will learn that it works so the more situations you can avoid, the better.

Removing Opportunities for your Dog to Guard

If you have a dog that guards, take away the opportunity for them to guard until you are ready to enact a carefully prepared training program.  If you are bringing a new dog into your home, remove opportunities to guard two to four weeks and then adjust as you see fit.

Put all toys and bones away

Remove any toys or bones

Toy aggression in dogs is another common problem, but it is so simple to solve – put the toys and bones away!

You may feel guilty but your dog will be just fine without toys or bones for a few weeks.  Removing them means there is nothing to guard and nothing to fight over.  It will also allow you time to work out the personality of the new dog, assess how everyone is getting along, and watch their body language to see if there is any tension in the air.

Keep everyone off the furniture

Keep your doggies or animals off any furniture

Your dog will not decide you don’t love them anymore because you stopped letting them snuggle on the sofa for a few weeks when a second dog enters your home. If you want, put a pillow on the floor and you can snuggle with them down there.

Dogs really don’t sit and ponder the injustice of not being able to get on the bed, they live in the moment. Their soulful, heart-rending look can be switched off in an instant if you magic up a treat from your pocket and ask them to sit.

If you have trouble keeping your dogs off the furniture, try putting empty boxes, books, etc on furniture to block it off.

Provide more than one water bowl in different locations

Put multiple water bowls down to avoid conflict

Sometimes a dog will guard the water bowl, or the space it occupies. You want your dog to be able to get a drink without worry, so put multiple water bowls in different places throughout the house.  Don’t put water dishes near any dog beds.

Provide your dogs their own space

A crate or a dog bed in a quiet area can help a dog relax

Sometimes a dog guards the space around its bed, or the space where it happens to be lying down. These dogs need a quiet, safe space to relax.

Put the new dog’s bed or crate in separate room away from the busy area of the house.  Crate Training Your Dog is a useful guide if your dog is not used to using one.

One bonus of creating a separate space is that it can also help you avoid food aggression in dogs because you can use that separate space to feed them.

Eliminating Resource Guarding Behaviour

Eliminating food resource guarding will lead to being able to feed all your dogs together

Food and Object Guarding Solutions

There are a few different approaches to eliminating food guarding in dogs.  If the problem only occurs with other dogs, feed the dogs separately. Problem very easily solved.  If however your new dog is showing signs of food or object guarding with humans, here are some tips that help:

Hand feeding can be used as prevention or as a desensitisation. When a new dog enters the home start by feeding them one small handful of food at a time. Even if they don’t resource guard, this can help to prevent food aggression in dogs as it shows them that you are someone to be trusted.

Step by step process:

Put your dog’s meal in a bag and grab their empty food dish;

Take the dog to a quiet room away from other dogs & people;

Make your dog sit and stay;

Set empty food dish down on other side of room;

Take a small handful of food, put it in the dog’s dish, then release your dog;

Praise dog after they eat the food then repeat the process;

As you progress, add a few pieces of food to bowl while your dog is still eating;

This helps the dog associate a hand approaching the food dish with the arrival of good things.

Do this for every meal for the first few weeks so that your new arrival sees that you provide the food and you are the bearer of good things.


Some dogs will guard their toys and other objects

If your dog is guarding objects, many times “trading” will help change your dog’s reaction to you approaching them or asking them to leave the object they are guarding.

Keep some high value treats with you such as chicken or bits of meat (treats you don’t give your dog on a day to day basis);

If your dog has a toy or a bone and doesn’t want to give it up, take out a piece of your high value treat;

Call your dog’s name. If they smell the high value treat and come running, throw the treat away from the toy or bone and while your dog eats, pick up the object they are guarding;

Call your dog back to you and praise them whilst giving them their toy or bone back;

If your dog doesn’t come running, call your dogs name but throw the high value treat closer to your dog;

Once they realise how delicious the high reward treat is, the aim is that once they realise how delicious it is, the next time you call their name, they will come running.

At this stage you can continue from step 3.

Once your dog lies back down with their bone, walk to the other side of the room and repeat.

Each time your dog comes, they receive the high value treat and you proceed to pick up the toy or bone.

Have these “training sessions” each day, a few times a day.   In between sessions, put the guarded object away.

Over time, the guarding will gradually disappear as your dog begins to associate your approach with a high value treat, and not with losing their bone or toy.

It is important to remember that your dog’s guarding habits will not change over night and you need to work on this every day.

Desensitisation & Counter conditioning for Serious Resource Guarding Cases

Kai is used to sharing water from his bowl with other dogs

Desensitisation is exposing a dog to something that normally produces a negative behavior in very small increments that does not cause the negative behaviour, then gradually increasing the exposure in small steps.

It is normally combined with counter conditioning, i.e. giving a high value reward so that the dog starts to associate the arrival of a good thing with the situation that previously caused the negative behavior.

Put simply counter conditioning changes the dog’s emotional response to an object or scenario from negative to positive.

Food Guarding

Dropping treats into a bowl during the counter conditioning process can help with food guarding

Below is a step by step guide on how to desensitise and counter condition serious cases of food guarding:

Start with an empty food bowl;

Approach until you are approximately 5 metres from the empty bowl, then stop and throw pieces of food toward the bowl, then move away from the bowl;

If your dog gets the food and repeatedly doesn’t guard, approach a little closer and do the same thing;

Eventually work up to walking all the way up to the empty bowl, dropping treats in, and walking away;

Approach from different angles and change the amount of time between approaches;

Through very small changes – which need to be repeated over and over before moving to the next step – you can progress to the following:

Approach, bend towards the bowl but don’t grab it (just drop treats);

Repeat the approach, bend towards the bowl, touch it briefly, then drop treats;

Approach, bend towards the bowl, touch it for longer and longer intervals, each time dropping treats;

Approach, grasp and move the bowl, increasing to longer and longer intervals over time, adding treats;

Approach, lift bowl, putt back down, add treats;

Approach, take empty bowl to counter, add treats, return bowl.

By working in these tiny steps, your dog starts to have a positive emotional association with a situation which previously provoked a negative emotion and guarding behavior.

Your dog’s emotional response is changed from fear (of losing the resource they are guarding) to happy anticipation of a treat.

Object Guarding

Toys and bones are examples of objects your dog may guard

When a dog guards an object, your goal is to teach your dog that an approaching person signals getting a yummy treat and that they will get their treasured object back after getting the treat.

Let’s say your dog guards toys. First, you need to find an object they don’t guard or particularly care about. For instance a bone.

Make sure you have high value treats for this process.

Put the bone next to your dog.  Approach your dog from 10 metres away, pick up the bone, give the high value treat with the other hand, then return the bone.

If all goes well, increase your approach distance to 20 metres then 25 metres and change the direction you are approaching from.

Do many repetitions at each distance & angle until your dog is comfortable.

If your dog remains relaxed and happy about the swaps, add a pat on your dog’s back.

Progress to handing the unguarded object to your dog, taking it back after continually lengthening intervals, and rewarding with a high value treat.

Once your dog has mastered all of these swaps with no worries or guarding, you can move to a medium valued object, then to higher valued objects.

By working in these tiny steps, your dog starts to have a positive emotional association with a situation which previously provoked a negative emotion and guarding behavior.

Your dog’s emotional response is changed from fear (of losing the resource they are guarding) to happy anticipation of a treat.

Body Parts

Mira was rescued and doesn’t like the top of her head being touched

Dogs sometimes do not want you to touch certain parts of their body, and tell you by “guarding” when you reach out or touch them. This can be for a number of reasons including having been harmed in the past or having sustained an injury in that area.

Common body part guarding scenarios include: Feet, ears, tail, top of a dog’s head, rear end and around the neck.

The first step in any body part guarding situation is getting your dog looked at by a vet to determine if pain is causing them to not want to be touched. If the dog is hurting, it’s no wonder they don’t want you to touch the sensitive area.

Once you have ruled out pain as the cause of the guarding, you need to divide your dog’s body into parts they guard and parts they don’t. If something is near the guarded body part it goes on the medium guarding list.

Your desensitisation program is similar to the object guarding program, but instead of starting with the lowest value object you will start with the lowest value body part.

If your dog doesn’t like having their ears touched, start by placing your hand on your dog’s bottom for one  second, then give a treat to your dog with the opposite hand.

You will repeat this with varying waiting intervals in between, and in different settings (inside, outside, different rooms, etc). Eventually you will work towards placing your hand on the dog’s bottom for five seconds, ten seconds, thirty seconds and so on.

You will continue this process, in small steps, moving from your dog’s bottom to their back, the shoulders, the neck, and finally the ears.

If guarding occurs when equipment is involved (brushing or nail clipping), you need to have two separate desensitisation programs. One will be desensitising to the object, and the other desinsitising to the body part.

Nothing in Life is Free

In exchange for having a ball thrown, Maya must sit

A fantastic tool to incorporate into your daily routine which will help your dog’s resource guarding is to use something called “Nothing in Life is Free.” It teaches your dog to trust you, reinforces that you are the bearer of positive things, and builds your dog’s confidence by providing clear rules and enjoyable outcomes for good behaviour.

They will love learning and it will make them feel more secure.  The overall gist of “Nothing in Life is Free” is that throughout the day, your dog has to earn the things they want. If they want to go outside, they need to give you a nice sit. In return they get praise and a positive reward – the door opens! If they want you to stroke them, make them give you a high five first.

Patience and Time

Happy doggy Komo

There is no magic wand which will make resource guarding disappear overnight. Whether you are experiencing food aggression in dogs, toy or bone guarding, or another type of resource guarding, you must be patient.

By working hard to consistently create scenarios in which it is more rewarding for your dog to give up their high value object then to guard it, you will slowly but surely see your dog start to change.

Incorporate this with being clever and arranging your house and routines to eliminate opportunities for your dog to guard things, you will be amazed at the positive progress you and your dog will make!