Resource Guarding In Puppies: How To Break The Habit

resource guarding in puppies

Puppies are cute, cuddly, roly-poly bundles of joy … until they’re not.  That’s especially true when you start to see resource guarding and aggression.

For new dog owners, resource guarding in puppies can be really discouraging. But usually, all it takes is a little time and work to get things back on track.

I received this letter a little while back that made me think it was time to cover this topic. 

Dear Jean,

I just got a new nine-week-old Rottie puppy. He’s stunning, smart and generally friendly but growls and snaps if I go near him while he’s eating. He also does this to my adult Rotties. I’ve never seen this in a puppy so young.

Is he some sort of lemon? Is he a dominant dog? Is there anything I can do? Help!

Resource Guarding In Puppies

It’s indeed alarming for most people to see frank aggression in puppies. In the case of resource guarding – food, bone, bed etc. possessiveness – there’s good news and bad news. The good news is you can start addressing it in a young, hopefully plastic, spongy puppy with weak jaws.

The bad news is some trainers think that aggression in puppies is an insidious sign of a problem. That it has deep genetic roots and is therefore fruitless to tackle. I don’t agree.

I recently had a similar case in my own foster puppy. Buffy, a stray six-week-old Chow, had resource guarding against people and dogs. And not just food, objects as well.

I elected to not touch the dog-dog issues, which is a relatively common approach. Her socialization and play skills were coming along nicely. She was developing good acquired bite inhibition as well. The guarding against people, however, needed to be actively resolved.

The following is a summary of Buffy’s food guarding exercise regime. Incidentally, Buffy also presented with socialization deficits and severe body handling problems. I addressed these too along with her object guarding. For me, the answer was clear: slow step-by-step modification.

The key to good hierarchy design is small, incremental steps. You want it so that at no point do you see the original guarding problem. In the case of a puppy, there may actually be more aggressive increment jumps. I did a few other things in the can’t-hurt-might-help category. These included impulse control (stay, off and wait) and extra soft-mouth training.

If you’re dealing with resource guarding in your own puppy, here are the steps I took to iron out the problem.

A Step-By-Step Solution

Baseline And Hierarchy

When approached while eating from her dish, Buffy would freeze. If the approach continued, she’d growl briefly and then lunge and snap. If touched while eating, she would growl along with whirling and biting. I had to solve the independent body-handling problem first (before any food exercises). Buffy did not guard an empty dish.

Step 1 (day 1): Installment Feeding Of Food

I sat on the floor next to Buffy’s dish and spooned in one mouthful. Once she swallowed, I spooned the next mouthful into her dish. By the end of the second meal, she was happy to see my spoon hand after each swallow.

Step 2 (day 1-2): Overlap

This was essentially the same as Step 1. The only difference was that I added the next spoonful to her dish while she was still eating. Of course this is always a much dicier proposition. We did this for three meals without evidence of guarding seen.

Step 3 (day 2-3): Approach Overlap

I was now standing. I spooned larger amount into her bowl then withdrew two paces. Then I re-approached and added the next spoonful while Buffy was still eating. So, this combined the approach with the overlap exercise.

We stuck with this for three meals. By the end of the three meals Buffy wagged and looked up on approach. This was a clear Conditioned Emotional Response (CER). We then repeated the exercise for one more day (5 small meals). I increased withdrawal distances and intervals.

Step 4 (day 4): Trumping

At this point I spooned her entire puppy-sized ration into her bowl and withdrew five paces. I waited 15 seconds then approached and added a (hidden) marble-sized dollop of goat cheese. I had pre-auditioned the goat cheese out of context and ascertained it to be in Buffy’s Top Five All-Time Foods. I withdrew to six paces and waited for Buffy to continue to consume – this was not immediate – then repeated.

On the third trial I got a clear CER– withdrawal from bowl on approach, orientation to me and tail wag. Clever little thing.

Step 5 (days 4-6): Covering High-Value Base

To up the ante, I tried some approaches while she was eating a top food, rather than normal meal ration level food. I trumped it with higher value stuff (gorgonzola). In two trials, I once again saw her happy anticipatory CER, a very rapid curve indeed.

Step 6 (day 4 onward): Cold Trials

To better simulate real life, I initiated random trumping. At least once per meal, from a random direction, at a random time and with a top food, I approached and added the bonus. More than 80% of the time, I got an evident “yippee” CER. At no point did she guard.

Step 7 (day 8 onward): Generalization

I recruited my husband, colleagues in my office and a neighbor to do some random trumps. I watched carefully for any evidence of regression. This included the absence of “yippee” CERs to their approach.

If this had been an adult dog, I would have recommenced the steps at the beginning with each new recruit. The hope would be to see an accelerated progress rate for each successive person.

Step 8 (day 15 onward): Body Handling

It was only here that I commenced patting, grabbing or pushing her around while she was eating. In most cases this would come earlier (before cold trials). However, with Buffy it took me this long to get the independent body-handling problem up to speed. Handling during eating consisted of the body touch, followed by a trumping addition. Later the body touch became body handling. This was repeated until the body touch/handling elicited the “yippee” CER.

Buffy’s CER consisted of a wag as well as orientation to my hand. If I stored the bonus in my other hand behind my back and reached with a blank hand, she would wag and orient to my face.

Buffy is now on maintenance with a cold trumping or body handling trial. I usually do it once per meal and use other people whenever an opportunity presents itself. I ended up adopting her.

You can even throw in bowl removals if you like. The principles are the same.

Resource guarding in puppies can be both intimidating and discouraging. But don’t lose hope. There are ways to get the behavior in check. It just takes a little extra time and effort. But, as with any type of training, the end result is well worth it. Good luck!

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