Q: Our dog Rolf is a Boxer mix who loves his toys so much he’s liable to bite anyone who comes near him whenever he’s got one. What’s worse is that he doesn’t even seem to enjoy his toys. All he does is guard them. What does this mean, and why does he do it? What should we do about it?
A: Resource guarding is the term veterinarians use to describe this behavior. It typically involves custody of a prized resource (a toy, bone, food or even water).
Dogs who engage in resource guarding do so in all kinds of ways. Most will run and hide, offer submissive gestures or tightly clench the object in their mouths. But, like Rolf, others will growl, bark, snap and even lunge at passersby.
It’s believed that resource guarding behavior can be normal. After all, it’s reasonable for dogs to want to keep their food and prized possessions from humans and other dogs. But in cases like Rolf’s, where aggression and anxiety can put people at risk, the behavior has to be stopped.
Resource guarding behavior is often readily dealt with via “avoidance.” This means that dogs who tend to over-guard resources should never be put in a position where they’ll need to guard them.
In other words, avoid offering Rolf any toys while he’s in the company of others. In fact, in Rolf’s case, I would recommend skipping toys altogether. If he does manage to get a toy or anything else he really wants to guard, consider exchanging it for something “better” and less problematic, like a high-value treat.
As to why he engages in this behavior, that’s trickier: Resource guarding behavior may be inherited. However, it can also be stoked by conditions of deprivation, as with dogs who have endured starvation.
In some cases, owners may unwittingly exacerbate the problem with aggressive dominance techniques in an effort to secure “alpha-dog” status. Stick to less confrontational approaches.
Whatever the cause, I’d recommend you seek professional help for Rolf. Seeing a certified trainer or behaviorist is always required anytime pets display unwarranted aggression and an inappropriate degree of anxiety.
Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice in South Miami. Her website is drpattykhuly.com. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.