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Resource guarding can be scary. Seeing your sweet pet suddenly turn into a snarling mess over a chewy or their food dish is concerning. But while it’s concerning, one of the questions that I hear more with this behavior than with others is:
Is that normal?
Most people would call leash reactivity abnormal. Or light chasing or excessive tail chasing are usually thought of as abnormal (and they are). The behaviors that the average person labels as abnormal are usually the ones that they don’t see as frequently, whereas the average person would likely say it’s normal for dogs to bark at the mailman or to be afraid of thunderstorms. Normal and desirable are not always one in the same.
The answer to this question when it comes to resource guarding is a favorite answer in the animal training community: it depends. Guarding in and of itself is normal, however, there are ways that it can present which are abnormal. As with most things in behavior, it’s not so black and white.
Guarding is normal
We all guard or protect things we find valuable. Human examples can include something like hiding the chocolate from the rest of your household or locking your door. Humans are incredible at guarding their stuff; we have billion dollar industries devoted to helping us resource guard better. When it comes to our children and pets, though, we often expect them to relinquish their valuables much more so than we would do ourselves. But I digress. That’s a whole ‘nother topic.
In short, guarding is a normal, natural behavior. It’s how our ancestors survived and it’s unrealistic to expect an individual to never guard something in any circumstance ever. That said, there are healthy guarding interactions and unhealthy guarding interactions. I think this may be more what people are after when they ask about resource guarding being normal: is this particular situation abnormal vs. the entirety of the behavior. Let’s take a look at some healthy and unhealthy examples.
Healthy examples of resource guarding
Two criteria that I’m looking at when I’m looking at how concerning a resource guarding scenario is are:
- The guarder’s communication (i.e. body language, like growling) is reasonable for the threat level
- The other individual reacts appropriately by deferring to the guarder
What this can look like:
Fido has a bully stick and is happily munching away. Rover comes over and starts sniffing the bully stick that Fido is munching on. Fido shows his teeth and growls. Rover walks away.
In that situation Fido’s communication was reasonable in that he warned Rover to leave his bully stick alone when Rover stuck his nose into the situation (literally). Rover deferred and listened to Fido’s communication by walking away. Neither dog escalated the situation. No harm no foul in this scenario.
While this may seem concerning because Fido is growling, remember that growling is simply a form of communication. It is also natural, normal, and healthy in appropriate situations. For example, no one would likely have an issue with their dog growling at an intruder. It’s not an inherently “bad” thing. We have a whole blog post here about why growling is okay and what to do about it.
One note: “appropriate” and “reasonable” are in the eye of the beholder. There’s not necessarily a hard and fast rule when it comes to what is reasonable in a situation and there are several factors to consider.
Unhealthy examples of resource guarding
It should come as no surprise that the criteria for unhealthy guarding is just the opposite of that for healthy (plus one more):
- The guarder’s communication (i.e. body language, behavior) is unreasonable for the threat level
- The other individual continues pestering the guarder or escalates the situation
- There are a lot of guarded things
Let’s look at a few examples of unhealthy guarding behavior:
Fido is happily munching on his bully stick again. Lola comes over and starts sniffing the bully stick that Fido is munching on. Fido shows his teeth and growls. Lola attacks him.
Hoo boy, not a good situation here. Fido is again showing appropriate warning signs for this particular threat, but Lola is having none of that and instead of deferring, ends up escalating the situation.
Let’s look at another example, which is similar but not as severe:
Fido is once again happily munching on his bully stick. Petey comes over and starts sniffing the bully stick that Fido is munching on. Fido shows his teeth and growls. Petey backs up a few inches, then immediately resumes sniffing the bully stick. Fido once again shows his teeth and growls. Petey continues backing up and immediately resuming sniffing the stick.
This is not as severe as the situation with Lola, of course, but poor Fido can’t eat his bully stick in peace! Petey is being pretty rude by not respecting Fido’s request for space. Let’s give Fido a rest and we’ll look at another example.
Helga is happily munching on a bully stick. Rover walks past her, about 4’ away, on his way to the water bowl. Helga lunges forward and bites him.
In this example, Helga’s reaction is not in line with the threat level. Rover is pretty far away and presumably ignoring her and the item while he’s on his way to the water bowl.
Let’s look at one more scenario. Peggy and Billy were told that Colonel Sanders was a resource guarder when they adopted him, but didn’t expect it to be anything like this! He growls if someone approaches his food or water dish, a chewy he’s working on, his bed and crate, and now Peggy whenever Billy approaches. Peggy and Billy are doing their best to avoid these scenarios, but it’s proving to be very difficult and they’re now worried about what else will set him off.
In the above scenario, Colonel Sanders is guarding a lot of things: food, water, high-value items, space, and people. While guarding in and of itself is normal, this poor kiddo is likely stressed quite a lot of the time because of how many different things he guards. And, some of those things are not as manageable as others, like people guarding. Though he’s sticking with just warning signs and Peggy and Billy are doing their best to respect his request for space, we would still label this as unhealthy if only because of how stressed everyone is in this situation. Usually when I see pets like Colonel Sanders they often have other anxiety issues as well.
One last note while looking at abnormal and normal guarding scenarios: while I used pets in almost all examples, you could easily trade out a pet for a human in each of them. Humans often escalate guarding situations, like Petey or even Lola. We often also exacerbate resource guarding by trying to prevent it. More info about that here.
- If you’ve seen resource guarding with your pet, think back to one of those situations. Do NOT illicit resource guarding for the sake of observation. Was your pet’s response reasonable for the threat? Did the threat (which may be you) respond appropriately? Which above scenario fits most closely with the situation you’re thinking about? Now you may be able to answer for yourself if your pet’s guarding seems normal or abnormal.
- If your pet is displaying guarding behavior, manage the situations so as to not illicit the behavior. This can be as simple as picking up toys that your pets fight over or feeding pets in separate rooms and picking up the bowls when they’re done. Item guarding is often quite easy to manage.
- Learn your pet’s body language. There are more subtle signs of guarding going on before the growl; we just need to know what to look for.
- If you need help with learning your pet’s body language or thinking through a management plan, our Beginning Behavior Modification Course is here to help. It goes through all of the foundation skills you need to be successful in a behavior modification plan. This is perfect for folks who have a pet displaying normal guarding behaviors but who want to make sure everyone stays safe and help keep the behavior from escalating.
- If you have a pet displaying abnormal guarding behavior, check out our free Resource Guarding workshop happening next month.