If you live in a multi-dog household, you’re likely to be well practiced in managing your dogs around resources and avoiding any conflicts over toys, food or spaces, but for many people, it can come as a surprise when their dog acts aggressively towards another dog over a resource.
We shouldn’t really find it so surprising, despite the years of domestication our dogs have gone through, they still have innate behaviours which will never change.
The need to protect valuable resources remains strong in so many of dogs. Of course there are exceptions, plenty of dogs go about their lives never feeling the need to defend a resource and never feeling worried by other dogs taking items from them or invading their space. For many other dogs though, this is a source of conflict and fear.
The Forms of Guarding
Guarding behaviours can appear in all manner of contexts and between dogs it can be influenced by many factors. More often than not, FEAR is the underlying emotion behind guarding behaviours, a fear of losing something perceived as important. This might be food, water, a toy, human attention, a resting place or any random item a dog has deemed important to them.
At times, especially between dogs living in the same household, there may be elements of dominance involved (dare we mention that dirty word!), before it gets thrown out of context, guarding behaviours are NEVER related to dominance when directed to humans, but it can occur between dogs. The reason behind guarding is less important here than the ways we manage and deal with it, so let’s keep it simple and remember when a dog is displaying guarding behaviours, they are predominately feeling fearful and in need of protecting something important to them.
See more on dominance here https://www.adolescentdogs.com/post/the-danger-with-dominance-training-in-dogs
Other factors can influence how and when guarding may appear, for example, when arousal levels are high, reactions are likely to be more extreme.
A dog who is highly aroused from the excitement of chasing their ball across the park is likely to display a much stronger reaction to a dog trying to steal it than they would if they were calmly lying next to their ball.
This is variable with every dog, some will defend their ball with a high level of aggression even in a calmer state, but as a general rule we can expect high arousal situations to trigger guarding more quickly or with more extreme reactions.
Food and toys are often the triggers we see with guarding, but guarding a human or space commonly occurs between dogs. We tend to only notice when the reactions are clearer, such as growling, snapping, lunging or biting, but if you observe more closely, you will probably see much earlier warning signs. Freezing is a typical behaviour change which occurs before a stronger reaction, likewise a tense body, hard-stare (usually at the valued resource or into the distance) or an attempt to move a resource away (e.g. gulping food down, taking a toy away), can all be signals of guarding and fear of losing an item.
If a dog acknowledges and respects a signal shown by another dog, conflict is unlikely to occur, the situation will be diffused and the guarder will be reinforced for displaying these lower-level signals.
However, if a dog doesn’t respect the signals given and continues to attempt to gain access to a resource, the guarder will have to show stronger signals to make themselves clearer, and this is where the growling, lunging or biting will appear. If a guarder has had signals ignored multiple times by other dogs, they may give up with the early warnings and go straight to the stronger ones.
What Do We Do About It?
To be clear, resource guarding between dogs is not something to be ‘fixed’, if you’re really really committed then maybe you could aim to ‘fix’ it but you’re looking at an awful lot of work and regardless of progress made, there will always be a level of management required. You can’t just train guarding instincts out of a dog. If you want to go down the route of seriously working through the behaviour and aiming to improve it through lots of training then it’s essential you work with an experienced, well-qualified trainer who can support you and help set-up safe and controlled scenarios.
For most people, having good management and a better understanding of the behaviour will be enough to keep everyone safe and happy. Guarding between dogs is generally a manageable problem, especially if it’s happening on walks or between dogs who don’t routinely live together.
Guarding between dogs in the same household can be hard to live with, depending on the resources involved, but managing it carefully can certainly be done.
For the most part, some basic strategies will be enough, but you have to be aware of your dog’s trigger points and use your strategies to avoid these situations. We’ll cover some of the most common scenarios…
Guarding treats on walks
If your dog is likely to guard treats from dogs coming into your space, reinforce verbal praise so you can still praise them when other dogs are close by and reduce the need to give treats until you have more space from other dogs
Teach some reliable ‘get out’ cues, like walking eye contact which will enable you to quickly walk away from a risky situation
Keep your dog on a lead or longline so you can move them out of situations more easily
If your dog is a bite-risk, muzzle training is highly recommended, but even a muzzled dog can scare or harm another dog so don’t just muzzle them, you still need to manage the situations carefully
Guarding toys on walks
Teach your dog to reliably bring and drop the toy so you can easily remove it if another dog approaches
Be sensible about where and how you’re playing with your dog … launching the ball towards other dogs is asking for trouble!
Practice taking the toy in exchange for a food reward, hide it in your pocket for a minute and then give it back. Do this throughout your walk so if another dog is nearby or approaching, your dog is well-practiced at giving the ball up for a short duration
Teach other skills like walking eye contact so you can walk your dog away from situations and avoid conflicts
Don’t rely on a toy on every walk, teach your dog reliable skills with food rewards as well, so you can have some toy-free walks. Keep the toy for walks where you don’t encounter many other dogs
Guarding YOU from dogs
This can be a tricky one to manage, but the simple solution is to not interact with other dogs during your walks
If dogs approach you, encourage your dog to walk away with you, you could do a U-turn and change direction or carry on past the dog without interacting
If you do want to chat with another dog owner, don’t touch their dog and don’t hesitate to explain why. This allows you to keep your dog next to you, and the other dog walker can do the same with their dog … problem solved!
Guarding spaces or random things
Some dogs will guard things like puddles, interesting smells, sticks, a space they’ve decided to lie down in… all sorts of random things!
Be aware of what your dog may guard and watch for any situations which may trigger the behaviour
Having a reliable recall cue will generally be enough to remove your dog from a situation (e.g. call your dog back if another approaches a puddle they’re drinking from)
If your dog can’t recall reliably, keep them on a lead or longline so you can safely remove them from a situation
Guarding in a house
Whether it’s your home or a friend/family home, tensions between dogs can often be higher in the confines of a house. Management is absolutely key in these situations
Don’t allow dogs to pester each other when they’re resting, make sure they have their own spaces to settle or use separate rooms/crates if needed
Don’t give chews or toys in close proximity, keep the dogs on leads or securely separated so they can’t try to steal each other’s item
Don’t feed them near each other, even the best doggy friends can quickly fallout over valuable food, treats or toys
Be mindful when giving the dogs attention, if there are signs of tension then quickly diffuse the situation by moving the dogs away. Don’t set them up to compete over attention
It’s important to remember that guarding is not something we should leave our dogs to sort out between themselves. Watching dogs fight over who has access to a chew or a space on the sofa is not a pleasant experience and will only create more problems in the future.
Some dogs will never rebuild their relationship after a conflict, not to mention the physical and emotional damage it could cause, so it’s a huge risk to allow them to sort it out themselves.
It's far better and safer to notice the early warning signs and know your dog’s limits. If your dog guards his space from other dogs, taking him into confined cafes or houses with other dogs will be hugely stressful for him. Don’t put your dog in situations they can’t cope with, he’d probably be far happier left at home than feeling he needs to defend his space from every passing dog in the local pub.
Likewise, sending your dog to daycare when he’s struggling to cope with dogs hassling him or invading his space, is only going to make him more anxious and stressed by it. You can’t fix, or improve, guarding behaviours by continually exposing your dog to triggering situations, by telling him off, or by letting him sort it out himself. These behaviours are complex and ultimately rooted in fear, your dog needs your support and your help to protect him from difficult situations.
He needs to know he can rely on you to help him out and he needs to have the options to avoid these conflicts, which will be your responsibility!
It's also your responsibility to keep other dogs you encounter safe, another dog owner won’t know that your off-lead dog might guard their ball or the grass they’re sniffing, so be respectful of this and always keep your dog under control.
Putting your dog on a lead should signal to other dog owners that they need to keep their dog away, so this can help avoid negative situations, but you still have to prepare for those who allow their dogs to approach regardless, and have a few ‘get out’ behaviours at the ready!
Written by Naomi White