“Resource Guarding?” Really?

“Resource guarding” seems to be the latest term used to describe dogs that are threatening or aggressive when their owners attempt to take something away from them.  In the scientific behavior literature, this would likely be referred to as “possessive aggression” that in some sources is said to be part of “dominance aggression”.

Typical scenarios might be when the owner approaches the dog when he is near a toy, a pig’s ear or other “chewie” he’s been given; when he has a “forbidden” item taken from the trash or other off limits location; or when he’s lying on a favorite resting spot the owner wants him to vacate.

While some dogs may be carrying the items and actively moving away from their owners, just as frequently the dogs are often lying down (often under a table, in a corner, or other somewhat protected location) have placed the “resource” on the floor next to themselves, and begin threatening when someone approaches.

By labeling this behavior “resource guarding” the immediate assumption has been made that this is a competitive situation and the dog’s motivation is to maintain control of the “resource”.  But is that really the case in every instance?  We think not.

In our own experience with these problems, the body language of these dogs was usually quite defensive – ears back, head lowered, small bouts of direct eye contact (or avoidance of eye contact all together) rather than a direct stare, and if teeth were bared we would see a clear defensive threat gape as opposed to an offensive one.  In many of our cases, there was a history as well of owners prying open the dog’s mouth to take things away, and of other confrontational methods – scruff shakes, pin downs, sometimes even hitting.

More recent activities that got us to thinking about interpreting these problems differently were our review of two of John Bradshaw’s writings in preparation for a webinar about science and social dominance we’ll be giving (see the What’s New in ABA section of this ezine).  The first publication was his 2009 article in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior and the second was his recent book “Dog Sense”.

Bradshaw writes about alternatives to interpreting behaviors based on “dominance”, and one component of this re-interpretation is the dog’s expectations regarding an interaction. A dog’s behavior will be partly determined by his expectations about what’s going to happen next – based on what happened the last time in a similar situation.

The behavioral history of many of the “resource guarding” dogs, we saw revealed they had come to expect a bad outcome when their owners approached them when a “resource” was nearby or when they were occupying certain locations on a bed or couch.

For these dogs, we believe their behavior isn’t about maintaining control of the “resource”, but about preventing being man-handled and about stopping threatening behavior from their owners. Their expectations could also be viewed in terms of contextual learning.  The context consists of the dog, the “resource”, and a certain type of approach by the owner predict “bad things” that the dog can prevent by displaying threatening or aggressive behavior and keeping his owner at bay.

Like most behavior problems, ones involving dogs that are threatening or aggressive in association with “resources” may have multiple causes.  For some dogs this may be a true competitive interaction, but a growing body of evidence suggests this is likely the exception, not the rule.


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