Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author
of the online dog training course “Brain Training for Dogs.”
Preventing resource guarding in puppies is something that breeders and all new
puppy owners should invest time in.
The Importance of Preventing Resource Guarding in Puppies
Prevention is always better than having to find a cure. Preventing resource
guarding in puppies is something that breeders and all new puppy owners should
invest time in. This will help to prevent potential problems later on.
Considering that resource guarding is an issue that may raise its ugly head at
some point or another in a dog’s lifetime, this issue should be emphasized
There is debate as to whether resource guarding is something that is genetic
or learned (the infamous nature versus nurture debate). To better understand
resource guarding in dogs, it helps to take a closer look into a dog’s
evolutionary history along with its early life experiences in the litter.
This Article Will Cover the Following Topics
- How resource guarding has helped dogs survive and be the wonderful pets we have the privilege of owning today.
- Early resource guarding in young puppies when they are still in the litter (what most puppy owners never get to see first-hand).
- How breeders can help prevent resource guarding from the get-go.
- Is resource guarding due to genetics? Learned behaviors? Or a combination of both?
- Subtle and not-so subtle signs of resource guarding in puppies.
- Mistakes new puppy owners make and how to avoid them.
- Exercises that can help prevent resource guarding in puppies.
In a dog’s past evolutionary history, if his ancestors failed to exhibit any
signs of resource guarding, their hard-earned meals would have ended up being
stolen by competitors.
Resource Guarding as an Adaptive Trait
Despite the fact that, nowadays, dogs are fed in shiny bowls, wear collars
studded in rhinestones and sleep on memory foam beds, they still display
traits that are reminiscent of their evolutionary past.
We see dogs walking in circles before lying down (so to step on grass and
scare off snakes and pesky bugs), burying bones (conserving them for possible
lean times ahead) and occasionally, mother dogs regurgitating for their
puppies (so they can be gradually weaned from milk to semi-solid foods).
While some of these behaviors are no longer under any evolutionary selective
pressure (most dogs no longer lead feast-or-famine lives and breeders take
care of weaning puppies and introducing them to puppy mush), these behaviors
still persist nonetheless.
Another behavior that has a highly adaptive history is resource guarding. In a
dog’s past evolutionary history, if his ancestors failed to exhibit any signs
of resource guarding, their hard-earned meals would have ended up being stolen
by competitors. Sharing food left and right is ultimately a maladaptive trait
in the wild and could have led to the extinction of a species.
While resource guarding behavior offered a cutting-edge advantage in a wild
setting, in a domestic setting, resource guarding, especially when geared
towards humans, remains a highly undesirable trait, to the point that, dogs
showing signs of it, are at risk for euthanasia in a shelter environment.
One would think that, after being selectively bred to perform various tasks
alongside humans for hundreds of years, by now the tendency to resource guard
in dogs would have gone extinct considering that humans have provided (and
continue to provide) a steady provision of food with adequate caloric intake
and have no interest in stealing the goodies doled out to them. Yet, resource
guarding is still well and alive and it is demonstrated by the countless dog
owners seeking help with this problem.
Perhaps this adaptive trait is just there, lingering somewhere just to come
out should, one day, dogs have a need to fend for themselves—as happened
during Hurricane Katrina.
Given evolutionary history and the importance of controlling access to
resources for survival, aggression around resources (i.e., “resource
guarding”) is often regarded to be within a dog’s normal repertoire of
— (Horwitz and Neilson, 2007)
Is resource guarding the result of nature or nurture? Welcome to the nature or
Genetic or Learned Behavior?
It may be natural to assume that there must be a genetic component at play
considering that puppies may resource guard a mother dog’s nipples when very
young. However, research reveals that behavior is influenced by both
inheritance and interactions within the environment.
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For instance, it is known that stress during pregnancy has the potential to
predispose the fetuses to become reactive to future stressors, startling more
quickly and having longer recovery times, which may be relevant when
considering factors that influence aggression.
For example, pregnant human females experiencing high levels of anxiety in
their late pregnancies had children with reported higher rates of behavioural
and emotional problems when assessed at both two and four years of age, even
after controlling for potential effects of postnatal anxiety and depression
(O’Connor et al., 2003)
The same has been found in dogs. Prenatal stress in mother dogs was found to
lead to behavioral deficits and molecular changes in the developing puppies
similar to those observed in schizophrenic humans, explains board-certified
veterinarian Dr. Franklin D. McMillan in his article on The Harmful Effects of
Puppy Mills on Breeding Dogs and Their Puppies.
So is resource guarding the result of nature or nurture? According to Paul
Chance, Ph.D. in Psychology from Utah State University and author of the book
”Learning & Behavior,” asking whether heredity or the environment is more
important in determining behavior is sort of like asking: “Which is more
important in determining the area of a rectangle, width or length? The two are
inextricably intertwined and trying to separate them will not serve any
“Behavioral screening of the 103 dogs examined revealed resource guarding
(61%) and discipline measures (59%) as the most common stimuli for
— Reisner IR, Shofer FS, Nance ML; “Behavioral assessment of child-directed
Managing mealtime issues is key to preventing resource guarding in puppies.
Early Resource Guarding
Signs of early resource guarding are often seen in the litter when the pups
are very young. Initially, resource guarding may be seen as nipple guarding
when pups rely primarily on milk, and then, it transitions into food guarding
once the pups are in the process of weaning and then being weaned. Prevention,
once again, is worth a pound of cure while the puppies are in the breeder’s
Preventing Mealtime Issues
During mealtime, there are two potential problems: puppies pushing other pups
out of the way to steal food and pups being pushed out of the way. Both
situations can potentially end up paving the path to resource guarding and
Breeders may also evoke resource guarding in predisposed puppies by feeding a
large litter of puppies with one single bowl and not enough food. When supply
is limited and there is overcrowding, the pups may feel competitive and they
may start eating fast, pushing other pups, stealing food and displaying signs
of resource guarding.
Providing more food bowls than the number of puppies can help prevent early
issues and it paves the path to the opportunity for the breeder to teach the
pups polite eating habits. Those habits can come in handy the day the pups are
sent to new homes and need to eat from their own bowls.
Putting out more food than the puppies can eat (in a way that ensures there
are leftovers once the pups are done eating) is another good strategy. Mother
dog can then be allowed to finish up.
The point is to prevent puppies from needing to resource guard, and if signs
of resource guarding are noticed, care must be taken to promptly work on the
issue and prevent these puppies from rehearsing any problematic behaviors.
Supervision by the breeder during feeding time is therefore paramount. Fast
eaters and pushy pups should be prevented from stealing and pushing the slower
pups away. This can be done once again by providing more food so that the
plumper, more-eager-to eat pups don’t feel the need to take from others.
While preventing puppies from competing over food by providing plenty of it
may seem like a good plan, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Albright cautions that,
while anecdotally, providing more bowls than puppies might help prevent food-
bowl aggression in puppies, it’s important to consider that hunger isn’t the
only driving factor.
It still remains unknown what causes some dogs to develop food-bowl
aggression. While on one hand, one can assume that genetics and early learning
can potentially predispose an animal to food aggression, on the other hand,
competition for food among puppies in a litter may just be a part of it and it
is probably not the whole story, she says.
There may therefore be a need for more strategies to be implemented. For
instance, if one puppy is particularly protective despite taking precautionary
steps, what else can be done? There are several ways to handle this.
This pup can be redirected and prevented from rehearsing the problematic
behavior. Also, he can be offered a higher value treat than what he’s
consuming (and guarding) in the first place, every time other puppies approach
him. With time, the pup should come to realize that the tasty morsel is
contingent upon other puppies coming near and a positive association is
Implemented correctly and with the right timing, this can be sufficient to
change the pup’s emotional response from feeling threatened to looking forward
to the other pups coming close.
If one puppy is becoming a lot fatter than the other pups, or one puppy is a
lot thinner than the others, breeders should be suspicious of behaviors at
the food dish that may facilitate unequal feeding patterns.
— Dr. Karen Overall, veterinary behaviorist
To prevent resource guarding in puppies, a good amount of effort must be
exerted to instill trust.
A Matter of Trust
Puppy owners often assume that resource guarding in puppies directed to owners
is due to the puppy wanting to be “alpha” and trying to be “dominant” over its
owners. This is far from what the puppy is trying to do.
With the dominance myth causing all dogs to misbehave because of a need to be
alpha debunked by research, what’s likely happening is that the puppy is
simply lacking trust. The puppy doesn’t trust his owners coming near when the
puppy is eating or guarding a resource. This lack of trust may be due to
various factors, and as seen, there may genetic and learned behaviors at play.
Dog owners may sometimes inadvertently encourage resource guarding or may
cause it to emerge if a dog was predisposed to it. This can happen in various
For instance, a puppy may feel compelled to guard items if they are often
bluntly removed by the owner or if the owner engages in behaviors that are
perceived as intimidating such as scolding or forcing the puppy to give up
items by cornering the puppy, reaching out to remove the item and/or prying
open a puppy’s mouth.
Board-certified veterinary behaviorist John Cirabassi claims “Punishment or
forced removal of items or food can increase the likelihood of the animal
escalating aggressive displays to maintain control of items. This fear-based
response can result in the aggressive guarding of benign items that may not
contain the same value as the original objects possessed by the dog.”
Playing games of “keep-away” may too be counterproductive because, to a
resource guarding puppy’s eyes, you may be chasing him to steal his
Sometimes, dogs owners may push puppies to guard their food bowls by pestering
them during mealtime. These well-meaning owners are concerned about resource
guarding and will purposely take food away, put their hands repeatedly in the
bowl or pet the puppy while eating in hopes of habituating the puppy to their
presence, but this may only worsen problems.
What all these methods have in common is that they do nothing to instill
trust. Why should a dog want the owner near if that means potentially losing
his possession? Why does a dog have to keep up with people messing with his
food by putting hands repeatedly in the food bowl? Especially those same hands
that earlier took a bone out of the puppy’s mouth!
To prevent resource guarding in puppies, a good amount of effort must be
exerted to instill trust. This is done by creating positive associations, to
the point of creating what is known as a “conditioned emotional response.”
We should be advising clients against poking and prodding a dog while
eating. It may help to tell clients that messing with a dog’s food bowl when
he is trying to eat is like somebody messing with your plate or petting your
head when you are trying to eat dinner. Nobody likes that. However, you may
be more tolerant, maybe even look forward to the person approaching if you
know that the person was going to give you a small bowl of Ben & Jerry’s
Chocolate Therapy ice cream every time approache
— Dr. Albright, veterinary behaviorist
This dog is freezing. Notice the lowered head and bone kept between the paws.
The eyes are are hard unlike the soft gaze of a relaxed dog.
A Ladder of Aggression
Most puppy owners are capable of recognizing the most obvious signs of
resource guarding, but there are many subtle signs that precede the most
obvious ones. It’s important to recognize these signs so as to nip behaviors
in the bud before they escalate. Recognizing early signs is also important for
behavior modification, so to ensure the puppy is not sent over threshold.
Following is a ladder of aggression often seen in resource guarding. Remember,
dogs don’t always follow these in a textbook fashion, and they may skip
through the rungs. If you notice any of these signs, please refer to a
behavior professional using force-free behavior modification for help.
Caution is needed with puppies who start eating faster the closer a person
approaches. These puppies are worried about their food being stolen, and
therefore, decide to take the “eat it fast and stop worrying” approach.
This behavior should be tackled considering that countless dogs end up on the
surgery table for swallowing objects and bones to prevent their owners or
other dogs from stealing from them.
It often happens along these lines: a dog may get ahold of something that he
or she perceives as very valuable. The dog tries to hide with it or run away
with it, but the moment the dog notices the owner’s interest or the moment the
owner comes near in hopes of retrieving the item, the dog gulps it down
Freezing is seen when a dog is approached while eating something perceived as
valuable and the dog feels threatened. When dogs are comfortable eating, they
will be relaxed and eat at a normal pace, without worrying.
A dog who is resource guarding is worried and getting increasingly stressed
and, will, therefore, typically stop eating and freeze.
A dog who is freezing typically will keep his head lowered over the resource
he is guarding, at the same time though his gaze may be directed at the
At some point, puppies who resource guard will growl which often is the
owner’s first wake-up call if they failed to recognize the earlier signs.
Growling is a distance-increasing behavior. The dog is telling the owner to
back off because he doesn’t want him/her anywhere near his resource.
Growling should never be punished. Suppressing a dog’s growl is like removing
a dog’s alarm system. Next time, the dog may go straight to a bite.
Some puppy owners decide to ignore a puppy’s growl. They think that, just
because the puppy is small and very young, it is not a big deal. Some may
laugh about it and keep moving toward the puppy.
An escalation of a growl is often a snarl, a dog showing his teeth. Dogs may
lift their lips and show their pearly whites silently or accompanied by
growling. This is a more serious warning. The dog is saying: “You see these
teeth? I will be using them if you keep getting closer.”
Snapping takes place when a dog bites the air, hence why it’s also known as
“air-snapping.” It’s easy to assume that snapping dogs are trying to bite, but
miss aiming, but dogs are much better than that.
Snapping dogs are purposely missing because they are trying to not bite. They
are deliberately trying to avoid using their highest level of force. Rest
assured, if a dog really wants to bite, he will bite and will do with accuracy
And there you have it: the dog’s highest level of force in action. The amount
of damage done when a dog bites is often a matter of how much bite inhibition
the dog has. It’s unfortunate when puppies or dogs are pushed to this when
they have been trying their best to warn.
Often, the cause is a dog owner who is trying to fix the resource guarding the
wrong way, increasing the dog’s tension rather than alleviating it. Some dog
owners will grab the puppy’s possession just to make a point. Others just find
it funny and enjoy threatening to steal things from their pups just to laugh
at their reactions. This will only exacerbate things, and once the puppy is
grown up, it will no longer be funny.
Snarling and snapping from a stressed dog protecting a resource.
Did you know?
Health conditions or medications known to increase appetite may result in an
increase in food guarding behaviors in dogs. Have your puppy or dog evaluated
by a veterinarian to rule this possibility out.
There are several exercises you can practice with your dog to prevent resource
9 Exercises to Prevent Resource Guarding in Puppies
The goal of these exercises is to create a conditioned emotional response to
the owner approaching while the dog is playing with a toy, eating from a food
bowl or chewing on a bone.
It’s a good idea not to overdo these exercises by doing them all together and
all in one sitting. Puppies should also be granted some free time where they
get to enjoy their toys, kibble and bones in peace.
A word of caution is needed: although these exercises can help prevent
resource guarding, instances of resource guarding can always happen despite
lots of training. All it takes is for a dog one day to find something so
valuable (like a stinky dead bird carcass, which is certainly something many
puppy owners haven’t had the opportunity to practice with) to cause him/her to
revert to this ancestral instinct.
1) Trading Toys
Dog owners should teach their puppies that great things happen when their toys
are taken away. Owners should start with low-value toys first and then move
on. It’s important to consider here personal taste. For some dogs, certain
toys may be higher in value than other types of toys. For example, some dogs
may go bonkers over squeaky toys while others may like more toys to grab and
Start with the lowest value toys. Remove the toy from your puppy and trade it
for a higher-value toy. As you move up the hierarchy of value, you may arrive
at a point where you can’t find a toy that is higher in value. In general,
consider that new toys (of the type of toy your puppy loves) should be
automatically higher in value. Smearing some food on a toy may also increase
2) Trading Food Bowls
Good breeders should start food bowl exercises with puppies from an early age
before they go to their new homes. With each puppy in a crate, they should
have access to a full food bowl. Getting those pups used to having their
unfinished foods bowls taken away requires hand-feeding them a high-value
treat and then returning the food bowl to them.
Start with the food bowl empty, grab the bowl and trade it for a high-value
treat and then return the food bowl. Then progress to practicing with the food
bowl filled with some low-value food (kibble) and then higher-value food.
3) Adding Awesome Goodies
Make it a habit every now and then of nonchalantly walking by your puppy’s
food bowl and adding some goodies to it. Do this often, once again to the
point of creating a conditioned emotional response. Your pup may wag his tail
and look happy as he knows that something really good is coming.
4) Trading Chews
Many puppies are prone to resource guarding chews. Most likely these are
particularly valuable because they are long-lasting treats. Dogs need to lie
down in a quiet area to enjoy these rather than gobbling them up in one
sitting. It’s important to consider this. I have seen people trading a chew
for a high-value treat, only for the pup to return to the area looking for the
chew. This suggests the trade wasn’t fair.
It’s best to trade for another long-lasting treat such as Kong stuffed with
goodies or taking away the chew and smearing something tasty on top and giving
it right back.
5) Trading for Bones
Bones are often at the very top of a dog’s hierarchy of value. Not only
because they are long-lasting, but because they often have meat to nibble on.
Many dog owners wonder what to trade these with. By putting oneself into a
dog’s mind it is possible to find several options.
For instance, a bone that has been chewed down a lot can be traded for some
long-lasting edible that can be fully consumed (e.g. bully stick). An empty
marrow bone can be removed and then immediately returned with something tasty
smeared in the middle (like cream cheese or peanut butter). Of course, these
are just examples. Use bones at your own risk and discretion and make sure
they are appropriate for the age of your puppy.
6) Just Random Trading
Every now and then, when you catch your puppy showing signs of really “being
into” something, get a super high-value goodie and practice an exchange.
Surprise your dog! You want him to look forward to these little exchanges
because they are so valuable! Do this when you have a chance every now and
7) Mouth Inspections
Getting your puppy used to having his mouth checked is good for getting your
puppy used to having his teeth brushed and mouth checked by your vet, but also
in case you ever need to retrieve some item out of his mouth.
Every now and then, open your puppy’s mouth open and stick a tasty treat
inside. At some point, if you catch your pup with an item in his mouth (that
he isn’t prone to guarding), let him sniff a super high-value treat as you
gently extract the object from the mouth, promptly replacing it with the tasty
treat. This will make your puppy more collaborative and help him learn that
when you remove something from his mouth, something tasty will follow.
However, aim to train your puppy to “drop it” so he’s a willing participant
and you no longer have to manually extract things.
8) Management of the Environment
Every now and then, make it a habit to check your pup’s environment. In the
yard, make it a routine to scan for items that your pup may get a hold of.
Look for things like candy wrappers, food wrappers, dead birds, dead mice,
etc. Even the most immaculate yards may contain these things.
Also, on walks (once your vet has told you it is safe), scan your environment
to prevent walking your puppy in the direct path of some tempting items on
road. It’s a good idea to always carry a treat bag on you, so you are prepared
to reward your pup for leaving stuff or dropping stuff.
9) Teaching Good Manners
And of course, all puppies benefit from better impulse control and frustration
tolerance. Make sure your puppies learn to sit for their meals, are fluent in
responding to the leave it and drop it cues, and know to hold sit stays and
down stays and going to their mats.
Also, make sure to dedicate time to teaching good bite inhibition making sure
to train your puppy to play-bite softly before progressing into teaching to
not bite at all.
Avoid Doing This
- Avoid touching or picking up dogs when they are eating or have something valuable.
- Avoid chasing your puppy around to retrieve an item he has in his mouth (even if just for play).
- Avoid prying your dog’s mouth open and retrieving something out of their mouth by force.
- Avoid confrontational methods such as scruff shakes, alpha rolls, etc.
A Note About Safety
The above exercises are for prevention of resource guarding, and are,
therefore, not intended to be used as part of treatment. If your puppy has
been showing signs of resource guarding, please see a professional.
- Understanding Canine Resource Guarding Behaviour: An Epidemiological Approach by Jacquelyn Jacobs A Thesis presented to The University of Guelph
- DVM360: 5 things you need to know about food aggression
- Reisner IR, Shofer FS, Nance ML; “Behavioral assessment of child-directed canine aggression” Inj Prev. 2007 Oct;13(5):348-51
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It
is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription,
or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional.
Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a
© 2019 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 05, 2020:
Hi Peggy, it’s interesting how certain toys bring out this trait that seems
otherwise buried deep. My male did that too when we gave him a special toy,
but fortunately my female dog cared less about it so it was never a big issue.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 05, 2020:
Our dogs were always good at sharing food items. One time we were given a
stuffed animal that we intended to give away to a child. One of our dogs
appeared to fall in love with it, and showed some resource guarding traits. To
keep the peace, we removed it when she was out of the room and did get rid of
it. It was the only instance of that, and in the beginning, we thought that it
was cute. But we did not want it to get out of hand and end up in a dog fight.
She started growling if our other dogs approached her when she was near the
Adeeb Ur Rahman from Gurgaon on February 16, 2019: