My Dark Secret: I’m a Resource Guarder

Since childhood, I have felt that sharing is highly overrated. I’ve just never been a fan. It’s not that I want others to go without, I just want everyone to have their own and for everyone to leave mine alone. From the outside, it may seem that I’m selfish and rude, but the fact is, I would prefer to buy you your own bag of M&M’s rather than share a bag with you. Yes, I’m a resources guarder.

Resource guarding (protecting of stuff) is normal. We all do it to some degree. You may lock your car doors or hold on tight to your purse when you’re in public. We protect our belongings, our loved ones, our ideas, our jobs and many other resources.

It’s a big subject, so I just want to make a few points here. One is that guarding a resource doesn’t necessarily mean that we are protecting that person, place or thing for its benefit. What I mean is that we can be protective (perhaps jealous) with our beloved in a totally selfish way. It doesn’t always mean that we are protecting them, but instead protecting ourselves from the loss of them or protecting our perceived ownership of them.

This is sometimes misunderstood when it comes to dogs who resource guard their owners. Some dog owners are flattered by this behavior, take it as a sign of great loyalty or in the case of smaller dogs think it’s just plain cute. I’m telling you it’s not, and it probably isn’t as much about you as it is about the dog protecting itself from the loss of you. And by you, I don’t mean you because you’re an awesome person, but you because you have the house, the treats, the leash and everything else the dog wants.

Growling, barking and snapping when people come close to you isn’t any more “cute” than growling, barking and snapping when you try to take a tissue away from your dog. It’s the same thing. You are nothing but an object the dog doesn’t want to lose or give up. (In other words, get over yourself!)

The second point I want to bring up is how silly it is to deal with resource guarding of any kind by way of confrontation. Resource guarding is already an expression of perceived threat and an adversarial outlook on the world. If I didn’t feel threatened, I wouldn’t guard anything. If I lived in a world where no one ever stole anything, I wouldn’t lock my car doors.

Some owners, and trainers, believe that a dog who is protecting his toys, food or other things needs to learn that those are not his things and that they can be taken away at any time. I strongly disagree. That’s not at all what the dog needs to learn, as that would simply reinforce the need to guard. A dog growls at you as you approach their bone, you confront them, punish them, and take it away. Now you’ve reinforced the belief that caused the dog to growl in the first place! “Here comes a person, they’re going to take my stuff.”

If you were going to throw a rock at me because I approached you in a parking lot and you thought I was a threat, wouldn’t it make more sense for me to convince you that I’m not a threat than to tackle you and wrestle the rock from your hand?

When I work with resource guarders, my goal is to help the dog see the world in a new light. I want the dog to know that no matter what he has, the approach of a human can only make it better…not worse. I want him to know that humans aren’t out to spoil all his fun or take all of his stuff. I also want him to know that if he’s feeling uncomfortable with the situation, he CAN use his doggy language (use your words, not your teeth), growl at me and let me know he needs more space. We’ll work at the dog’s pace. I’ll respect his fears.

By slowly teaching the dog that even if I do take away his prized possession, it won’t be such an awful thing, the dog can stop feeling threatened and therefore stop protecting his stuff. I don’t want to settle for a dog that decides I’m too big a threat to fight and so retreats when I approach. That can work, but it’s a battle to get there and I don’t want that kind of relationship with my dog.

I want a win-win solution. I want a dog that looks up with a relaxed mouth and soft eyes, wags his tail and gets excited about my approach. I want a dog who believes that no matter what he has, a human coming toward his is much, much better!

If you’re a trainer, I suggest you read (and re-read) the book Mine!, by Jean Donaldson. If you’re a dog owner, I suggest you find a trainer who will help you build your dog’s confidence and trust so that he doesn’t feel the need to guard.