One common reason dogs growl or bite is when people try to take something away from them. This is called Resource Guarding: “Behaviour that discourages another to take, or get too close to, an object or valued area in a dog’s possession.” (Dr. Patricia McConnell)
We’re resource guarders too! We lock our homes, our cars, keep our money in the bank and some of us go to more extreme degrees with home security systems, gated communities, and security guards.
Problems arise when we deal with our dog the same way we deal with a person who takes something that belongs to us. We take it personally, angrily reacting by trying to “make” our dog give up what they
“stole” from us.
Resource guarding is a normal dog behaviour. Dogs are genetically wired to acquire and hold on to resources that are valuable to them – it’s part of their strong survival instinct. If something is in their possession, it’s theirs until they give it up. Previous ownership of the item is not part of the equation.
Growling and biting when you approach a dog eating his dinner is a more extreme display of resource guarding that’s hard to miss. The more subtle signs, though, can be hard for the average person to detect, like eating more quickly, moving to block their food or toy, staring, showing teeth, or becoming very still when you approach; or turning their head or running away with an item in their mouth.
A common situation that can be alarming to an owner is when they give their dog something new or special like their first raw bone or beef chew, and suddenly their sweet, cuddly pup turns into Cujo!
Proactive Prevention is Everything
Teach your dog how to trade. Offer a toy or treat in exchange and understand that the dog determines the trade value. If they can’t easily and happily drop what they have for what you’re offering, then you need to offer something more or better until they can. Don’t try the “toss and grab” - it won’t work twice!
Dogs understand trading. Everything has a value, and we need to offer the right value to make the transaction satisfactory for both parties. The concept that dogs should simply give us anything they have because we said so or because we are “dominant” is a very dangerous myth. Conflict simply isn’t necessary.
Proactively, there are some good skills that you can teach your dog, so they learn to give up what they have and move a safe distance away. Cued behaviours like “Drop It” and “Leave It” can help a lot.
Never “make” your dog give something up unless it’s an emergency. Using intimidation or physical force sets a dangerous precedent and will only make things worse. For more information, training suggestions and resources, see my blog post “On Guard” at dogpartners.ca.
Resource guarding can quickly escalate especially from adolescence into adulthood. If you have a dog who is growling and biting, please hire a professional trainer who has experience in this area. Let’s keep everyone safe!