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Help! My new rescue dog is resource guarding!

Recently, I received a message from a dear friend of mine who is training to be a veterinary technologist. She adopted a dog from a rescue. This cute little chihuahua!

I'll leave personal identifiers out, but this little pup had never had anything for her own. Her owner gave her a toy chew.

Chihuahua with a dental chew

But now this little Chihuahua wants to keep this chew! When my friend tried to take it back, her dog starting growling at her.

Human taking chew away from a Chihuahua

I have seen resource guarding in puppies at their 16 week veterinary visit.

The puppy comes in for its second set of vaccines at 12 weeks, and we give them a mat or other feeding toy with wet food in it. They are mowing this down, no care in the world; they don't even feel the poke of the needle for their vaccines.

Then 16 weeks rolls around and they are back for their final set and they start to growl when you touch them while they are eating. Uh oh... they are already showing signs of resource guarding! We stop, reset, switch to single item treats where we are involved in "searching" and pointing out the snacks, and the growling is gone.

If you take away that chew, you are then reinforcing their behaviours, so that next time they need to be "louder" with their communication that they did not want you to be touching them or taking their chew away from them! The emotion behind the behaviour is anxiety. Let's keep in mind that it does mean that the dog has an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is an adaptive emotion that keeps us safe. If we did not have thoughts to survive, our offspring would not survive to the next generation. There is of course maladaptive anxiety, which I will not get into here.

So, your puppy has a chew. You reach for the chew. Your puppy growls. What do you do?

The first thing that you should consider is if you were to put yourself in their paws, it can be difficult to communicate with a different species. Everyone knows someone that will take food off your plate without asking. If it's a trusted friend or family member, you might give and take a little.

Your parent dishes everyone out ice cream. You're a little kid, and you're happily eating your ice cream and in comes your dad's spoon swooping in to take some. How many kids would be upset with this behaviour? So what happens the next time, there might be some screaming, crying. If anyone has been around a child having a tamper tantrum, guess what? Many of you were there! These are sentient beings of our own species! Yet, they also have not yet been able to regulate their own emotions. They have not yet been able to label their emotions and describe their feelings.

If your puppy could speak English, the side-eye would say "Please sir, I am not comfortable with your hand coming close to my high value chewable snack." The growl might be "Really? I told you nicely, so now you are just frustrating me." or "Is this guy really sticking his hand in here when I told him nicely, I'd better get louder"

Every viral small breed dog acting a human is due to the human's inability to read that dog's body language. Then all their prior learning experiences with that human, or generalized to all humans goes forward with them.

So, I can tell you what not to do. Telling them No. Actually taking the item away. Sticking your hands in their food bowls. These will all contribute to worsening of that behaviour. You just reinforced their thought process that something bad might happen.


If you start to notice a (bombastic) side-eye, a little lip curl, tense body, or even just pausing when you come near. Do not confront them to take the item away.

So what do you do when they have something they shouldn't have? Weigh the risks and benefits. If you have time to find an alternative to chew on, trade for that item.

Even if your dog does not show aggression when you take something from them, it is better to practice as if they would.

Practice the 'Look' and 'Touch' Cues

The pattern that you will be aiming for is this:

  • you ask for 'Look' and

  • your dog makes eye contact, then

  • you toss a treat to them. Then

  • when they get up to get the treat,

  • ask for 'Touch' then

  • they come to you, and you give another treat.

  • Slowly back up, ask for Touch and repeat

  • You can lead them out of the room, or you can do a scatter of treats while you go to retrieve the item

A dog who is constantly anxious that someone might take something away from them lives a life of pessimism. We want our dogs to be optimistic about our interactions!

Think about it this way. If you punish your dog 5 times out of 10, it is a 50:50 shot that you are going to do something bad to them every time you approach them. For some dogs, it becomes 'safer' to ere on the side of caution. Remember that anxiety is adaptive, for safety and survival to the next generation - subconsciously, not consciously. Therefore, if they have something of high value, it is a 50:50 shot you are going to do something bad or take it away from them.

Now, change your behaviour and approach your dog making it effectively 9 times out of 10 that something good is delivered to them! That's a 90th percentile that something good is going to happen when you approach. That's a glass is 90% full type of interaction.

Your dog is not a clean slate when you get them at 8 to 10 weeks of age. Or if you rescue them, at one to two years. Genetics lays the ground work and life experience molds it.

See this video for more on how to practice to prevent resource guarding.

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