“This is my ball.”
“I am pretty sure I saw it first.”
“Actually, when you were playing with Charley, I had my eye on it.”
“Oh yeah, well it’s mine now!”
“Over my dead body!!”
If dogs could talk, this would be close to a resource guarding conversation. Resource guarding is when a dog acts in a confrontational manner towards a potential threat in the presence of a coveted resource. The resource can be just about anything; common ones include food, bones, toys, water bowls, people, and locations. Dogs may guard their precious resources from people and/or other dogs.
Most everyone knows that when a dog growls, snarls, barks, and/or snaps, he is not in a good mood. Dogs may engage in these behaviors when guarding an object simply because it works for them. For example, if a dog growls at an oncoming dog and that dog backs off the item, the growling is reinforced. Thereafter, if the dog wants something in his environment, he will choose to growl in order to keep it.
A dog may rehearse subtle behaviors before a growling face-off, such as: stiff body with hair raised along the back, exposing the whites of his eyes (whale eye), standing over the item, using his body to block the oncoming threat from the resource, or walking away from the oncoming threat with the resource. These behaviors are red flags that the dog’s possessive behavior may escalate, especially if the oncoming dog or other threat is not picking up on these signals and continues to pursue the resource.
If a dog does exhibit these behaviors, from getting stiff to barking and lunging, it is important not to punish him for it. If you become upset, it gives your dog one more reason to feel aggressive when, for example, another dog approaches him when he has his beloved ball. Fast forward to the next time you are in the dog park playing fetch and a novel dog approaches. Your dog is stuck between a rock and hard place. He can’t growl, since he knows you’ll get upset, but he really wants to keep his ball. He may figure that his only options are to lunge, snap, and/or bite. Rather than punishing the behavior, you can learn to avoid the situation in the first place.
Dog Park Pointers
Resources guarding often crops up in a dog park setting. Here are a few things you can do to handle the situation when it occurs.
If you decide to carry treats in the park, since you’re working on recall and other impulse control behaviors (bravo!), try to conceal where the treats are coming from. When you reward your dog, pop the treat in his/her mouth and then immediately move away and stop treating, especially if other dogs have caught on that you’re carrying treats.
Dispensing novel treats to a group of dogs can be the biggest event of their day. This automatically increases competition and is an open invitation to guarding.
Bringing balls, frisbees, chuck-its, and squeak toys to the dog park can immediately create competition. If you have a dog that loves to fetch and would rather not play with other dogs, I would encourage you to play this game in a low dog-traffic environment to avoid confrontation.
Teaching your dog to “Drop It” on cue is very beneficial. Drop It teaches your dog that relinquishing items in the presence of other dogs is a good thing. Be sure to practice this at home before you enter the dog park. If your dog is currently guarding, you may want to contact a trainer to help you teach this behavior to your dog.
Some dogs will guard locations and people. When interacting with your own dog or another dog in the park, keep it short and move away if other dogs approach. The most common location/people guarding scenarios are a dog sitting on an owner’s lap, a dog pressed up against a knelt person, or small spaces.
Avoiding common resource guarding situations is a great way to manage this “normal dog behavior” and to avoid the possibility of the behavior escalating. Employ these tips at the dog park and enjoy keeping you and your dog safe during play.