I often hear this question. It usually involves the dog lunging aggressively at someone or something that gets too close to you out on a walk. And the questioner often looks quite flattered by this acknowledgement of their own importance.
But sadly, the only person your dog is usually protecting is his poor, sorry, self.
It’s what's known as Resource Guarding.
You may think that Resource Guarding only involves food, and a typical scene would be a dog with a bone or other tasty morsel. Someone leans towards the bone with outstretched arm, the dog freezes, crouches, and lowers his head over his possession, wrinkles his lips, snarls, shows the whites of his eyes as he stares at you, deathly still. This is a very clear warning! Take one step closer and you will be bitten!
There’s no moral judgment here. We use body-blocking and turning to cover the thing we want to keep, to warn others off. We’ll shove with our elbows, shout, whine. We see this more in children who are still learning our strange social ways. Dogs do it as above. That’s the way they’re made.
They’re not bad or vicious, they just have something they want to keep.
Food, bones, a bed, old socks, toys …
And what the dog values can vary hugely. It may be a shred of dirty tissue, a dead rat, a toy, his bed. And the more value you place on the item, the more value the dog will think he has. So if you make a song and dance about your dog holding that dirty tissue, you’re making him more likely to guard it!
In my experience, dogs are either serious resource guarders or they’re not. And not many are. Coco Poodle is the first of my eleven dogs to show any resource guarding at all. You can certainly use early training to ensure that any such tendencies are not going to cause a problem.
So with your new puppy or new dog, when you feed them just leave them alone to eat. Don’t interfere. Don’t touch them. Don’t go near them. Don’t threaten their food. Some people seem to have a mad idea that taking the food away from the dog while he’s eating will show him who’s boss.
Imagine you came to dinner at my home, I put a splendid plateful of food in front of you, then just as you were about to tuck in I snatched the plate away. How would you feel? I give the plate back to you, then snatch it away again! Now how do you feel? Next time I reach for your plate you’ll probably hang on to it and, within the bounds of normal polite behaviour, resist me.
So to think this will make the dog less of a resource guarder is nutty. It’s actually likely to trigger Resource Guarding in a dog who wasn’t showing it!
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What you can do, is to give your dog his food and leave him. Then you can breeze past him and drop something really tasty down near him - something better than what he has in the bowl for preference, like chicken or beef. Gradually, over several days, you can get nearer to his bowl. He’ll now associate your approach with good things, and move his head out of the bowl so you can drop your treats into it. As Gwen Bailey says in The Perfect Puppy, “Hands come to give, not to take.”
With the exception of Coco, my dogs will all move off and relinquish a prize if another dog wants it. And they’ll happily give anything they have to me. I’ll inspect it - I may have thought they had something dangerous - and wherever possible I’ll give it back to them. If it’s something they shouldn’t have, I’ll “buy” it with a treat or a game.
And Coco will move off if the other dogs approach him when he has something he values, but he may grumble and snatch it away with him. It never advances beyond him stating his displeasure though, because nobody ever tries to force him to give up his prize.
I can ask him to give me a fresh chicken wing or bone and he will, reluctantly. Then I can give it back to him. Trying to force him to give me what he has could have resulted in a bite - probably a “covered” bite in his case, an inhibited bite which doesn’t do damage.
But some dogs - especially dogs whose history you don’t know - may have been tormented whenever they had anything they wanted to keep, be it food or otherwise, and they are very ready to defend their valued item.
What should I do?
The important thing is NEVER to challenge your dog when he has something he wants to keep. You will get bitten. Always back off and organise a diversion. This isn't "losing face" - it's just pragmatic. Sometimes scattering some treats on the floor away from him and his object is enough for him to drop the item and go foraging, leaving you able to pick it up. If the foodbowl is an issue, feed him in his crate with the door shut, so that inquisitive children and cats can’t get bitten. Put a training program into place at the same time.
Management of a behaviour problem should always be coupled with training a better response.
Practice swapping things with him - things he doesn't value at all to begin with, gradually grading up to more valuable (to him) things. Swap for a similar item, or swap for food. One day you will be able to swap a bone with him.
If you are worried that your dog will bite someone, or that this is too dangerous for you to manage on your own (and it may well be), get a force-free trainer in to help you. It's essential that it's a force-free trainer - so-called “balanced” trainers will make the situation worse. You'll find some resources to locate a trainer for you beneath this post: Is my dog a reflection of me?
Back to the Protection issue
So you can imagine that to your dog you are a very valuable resource. You provide food, shelter, comfort, play, for your dog - you are his home. So when you are out together, if your dog is the guardy type, he’s going to protect this valuable resource of his. Maybe from other people, maybe from other dogs.
There is, of course, a difference between your dog just being fearful of things and one who appears to be protecting you. You’ll find help for the generally reactive dog in lots of articles here on Brilliant Family Dog
And usually your dog is making a hullabaloo because he’s trying to keep something scary away from him. But some dogs want to take it that bit further and make it abundantly clear that no-one is going to get close to you. And that's one reason for the threatening behaviour - the other reason is just plain fear. Coco Poodle, for instance, gets on far better with other dogs at a distance from me.
The key is always to give your dog a choice. Help him make a good decision by taking the pressure off him. If it’s an item he has, back off and distract him, as above. If it’s someone out on a walk, turn away and keep a comfortable distance if you want to chat.
Resource Guarding is a natural process, not a moral issue.