Ask an Expert - Tackling Resource Guarding
Ask Colleen Safford
Q: I have a one-year-old Cavalier King Charles who is VERY food protective. He will guard anything from my son’s sippy cups to a spoon. He will even guard the kitchen area if he smells food. When we try to get him away from the food he sits and stares at you, refusing to move. He will growl if we try to move him. Aside from food, he is well-trained, well-mannered, and sweet. When he was a pup, I found I could not use any food training treats because he would get overwhelmed, so I always had to use positive things like toys or praise. He has slowly gotten worse. Help!—En Garde in Garden Grover
A:Your little king has a serious case of the “Mines!” Resource guarding is the term used to describe this type of behaviour in the dog training world. Have you watched Finding Nemo? There’s a scene where seagulls fly frantically about fighting for one fish saying, “Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!” This behaviour is not only common in dogs, but in most species. Those with the most resources in life have a better chance for survival. The behaviour is common, but nonetheless problematic, particularly when the guarding is aimed at the humans in the house.
The level of resource guarding that the king of your house is displaying concerns me, particularly since there are young kids of the sippy-cup age in your family. Let’s be honest, it is very unlikely that they will be able to comply consistently with the rules in order to ensure their own safety at all times. If this behaviour pattern continues, someone in your house is in a very likely position for a dog bite. For this reason, I absolutely suggest working with a humane and gentle trainer focused on positively teaching Pooh that having humans near coveted items is a good thing, not something threatening.
A knowledgeable trainer will help you change the king’s feelings about you being near him and his things. Together, you will work to ensure that he remains relaxed and actually feels happy to have you near instead of feeling tense, anxious and threatened. You will do this through a gradual system of approaching him at a distance where he remains relaxed, tossing a food reward toward him, and then retreating. This will be done over the course of various sessions. With each session you will gradually increase your proximity. Your overall goal is to be able to approach, pet, and even exchange objects with him without him tensing up and growling.
Until you can get a trainer in to work with you, I will give you a few tips to implement a management system. This is NOT the solution. This is merely a temporary plan to keep you safe and to prevent the problem from escalating.
1. Pooh cannot have access to your kitchen during food time right now. If you are doing the mommy shuffle, trying to prep food, feed restless children, and clean up all at once, you do not have the appropriate time or level of attention required to address this resource-guarding issue.
2. During mealtime, you are going to place Pooh in a crate or separate room. You may feed him his meals during this time, too—to avoid confinement boredom. Preferably, you will do this through toys, like a Kong. Stuffing his meals into a toy will avoid boredom during his separate time and will also burn a little mental and physical energy.
3. A clean and well-kept castle is an absolute must right now. I know it’s a tall order with young children, but keeping all sippy cups, food, crumbs, and utensils up and away between meals is imperative. Before the king comes out again after meal or snack times, the kitchen is tidied and cleaned.
The objective is to break Pooh’s ability to practice this behaviour. We need to teach him new appropriate behaviours and avoiding his old routine is very important. Think of it as a sport. The more he practices, the better he gets and when we’re talking about the game of MINE, we want to stop him from practicing all together.
Visit apdt.com to find a trainer in your area and please do it as soon as possible. Focusing on a peaceable kingdom ensures safety for all.
As host of The Family Pet on Pet Life Radio, dog trainer Colleen Safford raises awareness on pet-child safety, and understanding dog body language. Colleen’s companies, NY Walk & Train and Far Fetched Acres, have been voted “Best of NY” by New York magazine. Colleen receives daily training from her toddler children and is proudly owned by her rescued Boxer(ish).