Are you exacerbating resource guarding by trying to curb it?

Confession time: there’s a statement that I hear all the time that makes me cringe as a behavior consultant. 

I can take anything away from him and he’s fine. 

I understand why this phrase comes out so frequently in a behavior consultation. People often tell me this as an example of how great their pet is. I suspect that it may combat the guilt and embarrassment that can come along with detailing their pet’s worst behaviors. I get it and I’ve certainly been there. It’s hard to feel like you’re under a microscope and that someone is evaluating your pet parentship. The more great stuff we can say about our pets the better! 

I have read more articles than I can count saying that you should routinely take stuff away from your pet to curb resource guarding. It’s is a pretty standard recommendation. So if there’s so much out there saying to do this why does it make me cringe? 

Because it often has the opposite effect and exacerbates resource guarding. 

You read that right. The very recommendation that is commonly made to curb resource guarding can actually make it worse. How could that be?

  1. Think about it from your point of view. If every time you were eating a piece of cake someone came up to you and took it from you, my guess is that you wouldn’t be too happy. Even if they took it and gave it back I would be pretty peeved after a while. Can’t I just eat my cake in peace? 
  2. Think about it from a behavioral science point of view. If our animals are peacefully munching on something we take it away from them. If they start growling or even lunging at us then we leave them alone. (Note: I am NOT advocating taking things away from animals who are growling, lunging, or biting. In those moments, leaving them alone is the best option. Safety first, always.) 
  3. It comes from outdated theories. This is one of those recommendations that is usually based in Dominance Theory (the theory that dogs form packs and the alpha controls everything). The full discussion on Dominance Theory is beyond the scope of this particular article (resources here and here for more info) so I’ll just say that the original theory has been debunked in dogs for several decades and leave it at that. That frees up our understanding to look at the simpler model of interpretation in #2 above!

So what can we do instead? Leave our pets alone when they’re enjoying their food and chewies. It’s simpler on the human end and helps teach our pets that they have nothing to worry about. If no one’s trying to take their stuff there’s no reason to guard it! If you need to get something away from your pet for safety reasons then trade them for something even better. If someone took away my piece of cake but gave me $100 I’d be a pretty happy camper. 

Now what?

  • Have you said this phrase before? It’s okay! We don’t know what we don’t know and we can’t be expected to know all of the latest information about every topic. That’s what professionals are for. Be patient and understanding with yourself. 
  • Only take things from your animal if it’s a safety issue and in those cases trade them by giving them something even more valuable. Discontinue randomly taking things from your pet.
  • Does your pet growl, lunge, or bite when you try to take stuff from them or go near them when they have valuable items? Contact us to safely work on a behavior modification plan with you and your pet. 

Happy training!