Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author
of the online dog training course “Brain Training for Dogs.”

Is your dog overly protective of their bones?

Is your dog overly protective of their bones?

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

Why Do Dogs Guard Their Bones?

Bones are high-value items for many dogs, which means that from a dog’s
perspective, bones are extremely prized and precious. Unlike kibble that can
be gulped down in a handful of minutes, bones are long-lasting for the most
part, and dogs want to chomp on them undisturbed. This may create some
conflicts when defensive mechanisms kick in.

It may be shocking for a dog owner to hear their dog growl upon walking past
him when chewing on a bone. At times, such dogs are erroneously labeled as
“dominant” and owners feel compelled to remove the bone just to show them who
is “boss”. Unfortunately, this only exacerbates the behavior and puts the
owner at risk of being bitten.

The reason for this is that dogs who guard possessions are not really
“dominant”; rather, they are most likely simply afraid of losing their prized
possession. Fortunately, there is a way to try to change a dog’s emotional
state when it comes to bone-guarding.

This dog is a bit too protective of its bone.

This dog is a bit too protective of its bone.


What Are the Signs of Resource Guarding?

Resource guarding does not only include bones; indeed, many dogs are also
possessive of toys, food, and even little treasured items such as a candy
wrapper or a dead animal. While most dogs manifest possession quite obviously,
some give much more subtle signs that may not be detected right away by an
inexperienced observer. Many times, the subtle warning signs escalate as the
person gets closer.

Signs of Resource Guarding in Dogs

  • Tense body
  • Hard staring
  • Whale eyes
  • Freezing
  • Snarling
  • Growling
  • Barking
  • Lunging
  • Biting

How Serious Is Bone-Guarding Behavior?

The issues can be very serious, especially in families with children. A
possessive dog with a bone may have no problem at all in biting a child should
the child get too close or touch the dog. For this reason, resource guarding
is taken very seriously. Shelters carefully assess dogs for resource guarding
issues before placing them in a home. Dog trainer Sue Sternberg is the
inventor of the “Assess-a-Hand” tool that mimics a hand and is used to assess
dogs by placing it inside dog food bowls.

So is all lost if you own a dog that is a resource guarder? Not necessarily.
In some cases, you can work on the issue by using counter-conditioning and
desensitization. However, this behavior modification program needs to be done
along with a reputable dog behaviorist, and there are no guarantees it will
work and make your dog safe again.

If you have a family with children, take action now to have your dog evaluated
by a dog behavior specialist. And remember: It is unethical for a dog trainer
or behavior specialist to make guarantees, as outlined in my article: “Can Dog
Behaviors be Changed Once and For All?”

How to Reduce Resource Guarding in Dogs

As mentioned previously, the behavior can be reduced by utilizing an
appropriate behavior modification program. Desensitization which is the
process of gradually exposing the dog to something perceived as threatening
sub-threshold and counter-conditioning which is the process of changing the
dog’s emotional state are two effective strategies.

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Because a resource guarder’s biggest fear is to ultimately lose its
possession, it helps to show the dog that not only is it not your intent to
remove the bone, but actually you are adding to it. Here is a step-by-step
guide for various behavior modification programs. These are samples ONLY and
may not work for all dogs. Medium- and high-value treats and other low-,
medium-, and high-value items are needed. Follow these steps only under the
supervision of a dog trainer/dog behavior expert and understand that it may
take weeks for progress to be made.

Exercise 1: Great things happen when my owner walks by!

  1. Give your dog an item that he does not guard fiercely.
  2. Casually pass by a distance your dog does not appear to mind you.
  3. Toss pieces of medium-value treats as you walk by in your dog’s direction.
  4. Repeat several times until your dog looks at you passing by in hope of the treats.
  5. In the few next days, give a medium-value item and gradually get closer and continue tossing the treats increasing the value of the treats as you get closer. Finally, give your dog a bone and give high-value treats (i.e. shift from hot-dog slivers to freeze-dried liver).
  6. Continue by giving treats as you walk by until your dog looks up at you for treats. Progress is made when the dog no longer freezes and tenses up but rather licks its lips and wags its tail in anticipation of you coming closer to deliver treats.

Exercise 2: Great things happen when I give up something!

  1. Give your dog an item your dog does not value much.
  2. Ask him to “drop it” or “trade”.
  3. Lure him with a medium-value item and as he gets it, remove the other item.
  4. Ask again to “Drop it” or “trade”.
  5. Lure him with a high-value item (i.e. a stuffed Kong, which is both a toy and a treat) and as he gets it, remove the other item.

Exercise 3: Great things happen when hands are in the food bowl!

  1. Have your dog sit in front of the empty food bowl.
  2. Reach the food bowl and place a bit of food in it with your hand.
  3. Once done have your dog sit again.
  4. Reach the food bowl again and place a bit more food in it with your hand.
  5. Continue until you feed your dog’s daily ration.

Exercise 4: Great things happen when my owner takes my bone!

  1. Give your dog a hollow bone.
  2. Ask “drop it” or “trade”.
  3. Fill the hollow bone with some peanut butter or a Kong stuffer.
  4. Have the dog empty the bone.
  5. Ask “drop it” or “trade”.
  6. Fill again with more peanut butter or a Kong stuffer.

A Note About Safety

  • If your dog growls, you may be getting too close too fast. You must work under the threshold.
  • The above behavior modification programs should be done with extreme caution only under the guidance of a dog behavior specialist.
  • If your dog is affected by resource guarding, please consult with a dog behavior specialist and follow the guidelines. The above behavior modification programs should be done in mild cases only and with extreme caution. Reader assumes full responsibility.

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
veterinarian immediately.

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli