Dog/Dog Resource Guarding in Slow Motion

Clara guarding the sprinkler

Before completing it, I showed the  movie featured in this post to two different training buddies and both responded with questions. Is it really resource guarding if the dogs don’t escalate to violence or obvious threats? How come the “winner” in the interaction is throwing stress signals right along with the other dog? I thought we were talking about aggression; how do we know this particular interaction is resource guarding? Isn’t Clara just giving play invitations sometimes? I don’t know the answers.  I think these are great questions and also inevitable when we are trying to discuss dog communication and body language in real life.

What the interactions in the movie have in common is that they all show two dogs who appear to want the same thing. The dogs communicate rapidly with body language, and one dog keeps control of the thing. There is usually a definite assertion of ownership by the guarding dog, but both dogs may also exhibit other types of body language.

Defining Resource Guarding

Jean Donaldson defines resource guarding in her excellent book, “Mine!”, as

Dogs behaving aggressively when in possession of (and sometimes to gain possession of) food, toys, bones, their owners, their resting spots and crates.

— “Mine!” p. 6

She goes on to describe ritualized aggression, where an animal behaves in truncated versions of more serious or violent behaviors. The truncated versions allow animals including humans to indicate intent but avoid bloodshed. Some of the behaviors that Donaldson categorizes under that include:

…hard stares, growling, snarling, snapping and biting without maiming force…

— “Mine!” p. 3

She describes these ritualized aggressive behaviors as:

 …the “legal” conflict resolution behaviors in dog society.

— “Mine!” p. 3

Donaldson’s book is a how-to manual on dealing with dogs who resource guard items from humans. She uses protocols of desensitization and counter conditioning to change the dog’s emotional response to a human approaching when the dog has a valued item. She makes the point that guarding is a natural behavior tied to survival, and common among dogs in a group.

There is plenty of online information on resource guarding. I like the definition of resource guarding in this blog post as well as the comprehensive list of dog behaviors that could fall under that heading.

Also, I highly recommend the FaceBook Group: Observation skills for training dogs. This group is great for anyone who wants to hone their observation skills. Members post videos, their own or others found online, and the behaviors in the videos are described and discussed. The group has a very smart guideline: the participants are asked to practice using descriptive words to describe observed behaviors and THEN (emphasis mine) attempt to interpret the behaviors they see. We humans tend to skip right to what we think the motivations of the behavior are, rather than first observing and describing what is happening. This is a great place to learn about both. I got some nice comments and encouragement there for an early draft of my movie.

Guarding against Humans

I am fortunate that none of my dogs currently resource guards items from me. This is a combination of luck with Summer and Zani, and deliberate training with Clara. Because of her feral history, Clara has abundant, strong survival behaviors. (Translation: she is very pushy.) So I made a special effort to head off potential resource guarding against me when she was a baby. This is a good idea with any puppy or new dog, and here is an article that describes some good exercises for that.

Notice I said my dogs don’t currently resource guard against me. Here’s a photo from many years ago of Cricket with a rawhide chewy. Enough said.

Small tri color terrier holding a rawhide chewy between her paws and showing "whale eye"

Cricket is ready to defend her rawhide chewy

Is it Resource Guarding or a “Discussion”?

My movie shows my dogs having “discussions” about objects and places they want to have control of. The resource guarding behaviors are mostly on the very low end of ritualized aggression, which to me is a very good thing. They are working things out without coming very close to harming each other.

In addition to the hard stares, growling, and snapping that Donaldson mentions, my dogs perform several other more subtle behaviors that I would also classify as resource guarding and these are shown in the movie. They include moving forward into the other dog’s space, standing with a stiff, straight stance, muzzle feint (my name for a mouth closed muzzle punch without contact), and even intrusive sniffing and licking.

I agree with my friends that there is a lot of different stuff going on in the movie. Clara rarely looks very stressed. At times her guarding behaviors resemble (and could be) invitations to play. In Summer’s “successful” guarding of her toy in the last interaction, she darts a furtive glance and a lip lick towards Clara, who seems to be considering stealing her toy. This does not seem to be very assertive behavior. Perhaps Summer lucked out that time, but still, the outcome of the interaction was that she got to keep her toy.

What else do you see?

Final Note

I am fortunate at the low level of aggression my dogs show. I don’t mean to minimize the real dangers that resource guarding behaviors can pose, and of course I don’t encourage them. These clips were taken over several years. I take habitual precautions: supervising heavily when valued toys are available, intervening when someone (ahem Clara) is being a jerk, and separating all four of my dogs completely when I am not home.

Resource guarding can be a very serious problem. I hope if any of you have a dog who has started guarding things from you, you can get access to an experienced trainer or behaviorist.

Discussions coming soon:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2012

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About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek.Eileen Anderson on Google+
This entry was posted in Aggression, Dog behavior, Dog body language, Resource guarding and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Dog/Dog Resource Guarding in Slow Motion

  1. Lisa says:

    This is a great movie. The slow motion and stills are awesome. The most interesting interaction for me was at around 2:22. Clara lip licks, lifts a paw and then charges Summer. I would love to see what went on next. Thanks for taking the time to put this together.

    • Thanks Lisa! I am thinking more and more that I should have included the next interaction (what went on next after Interaction #5 at the sprinkler). Clara tried one more lunge and this time Summer roared at her and chased her away a few feet. But Summer then still didn’t go to the sprinkler. In my observation, Clara enjoys that sort of thing. The old, “disapproving attention is better than none at all” syndrome. I’m discussing this on YouTube as well. It could be that Summer gained confidence that time because of Clara’s lip lick and paw lift. Or just got fed up. Again in my observation, Summer mostly defers to Clara, but has her limits and when she does react it tends to be a bit over the top.

  2. Marjorie says:

    I enjoy your videos Eileen, you have done a great job by slowing them down and marking specific behaviours. There is a lot to watch for and this really helps. It was interesting where Summer mirrors Clara’s lip lick in the second sprinkler clip and then comes the lunge forward. I know you have me watching my girls much closer, as there are times when they are like oil and water.

    • Thanks Marjorie. I see more every time I look at these clips. One thing I have learned from my teacher is that if you are wondering what one dog is saying, look at the other dog. The picture at the top of the blog says it all when I look at poor Summer’s response. Now I just wish they would all slow down in real life sometimes.

  3. 8th time’s the charm? WP does NOT want to let me comment. WIll try using google.

    It’s interesting because so many appeasement gestures accompany the guarding, like head turning and lip licking. What you said at one point about mixed signals reminded me of what I read in For the Love of a Dog (Patricia McConnell) about ambiguous feelings — that people often feel conflicting feelings, so it makes sense if dogs do, too; that real behavior in real life is not like a textbook or a picture. Even as there is resource guarding in the video, there is also a lot of tail wagging and behavior that appears to me to be relaxed. I’m thinking of human siblings, where arguments and scuffles can include teasing and joking.
    Also, I just have to say that I love watching Clara. She is just magnificent.

    • Thanks for your persistence, Sharon! (One mark of a great trainer.) Sorry you had to take all that time. It’s remarkable to me that they get along as well as they do. There seems to be an undercurrent of sociability even in the less social dogs, like Summer. And thanks for admiring Clara. I’m often stunned by her myself. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes not so good….

  4. Priscilla says:

    Great video.. I have a female corgi that does the resource guarding with our male corgi. He cant have anything she wants. food has become a no brainier they eat in separate areas my question besides separating them what can i do to help her? I haven’t had any issues in a while but brought home a turtle the other day and she laid into him because he wanted to sniff it (

  5. Just revisiting this one…Reyna resources guards people by cutting between the person and the other dog and herding them away with prolonged face licking. It’s surprisingly effective and gets misinterpreted a lot as “look how sweet!!” By the people being guarded.

    • Isn’t that clever and innocent looking! Would love to see it. Zani does a lot of that kind of stuff that looks so benign but most be tiresome to be on the receiving end of. Thanks for commenting, Nancy.

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  11. Lucy says:

    I have been enjoying a number of your videos. Thanks for posting them. I have just recently started to learn more about my dogs’ body language. I have a 3 year old male collie/greyhound cross and a 10 month old female collie pup. The pup is very high energy, as you can imagine. She definitely guards her food bowl and toys from the older boy (barking, body blocking, snarling and growling) and she appears to guard her humans too. When we pat our boy, or give him attention, she will bark in this ear-splitting, high pitched yelp as well as trying to get physically in between us. She chases other dogs away from us in the park if we’re playing with a ball and she paces around the edge of our bed if the older one tries to get on it. She also starts barking and chasing if I give attention to other dogs in the park. Thanks for posting these links – hopefully I will find some help there!

    • Hi Lucy, glad you enjoyed some videos. That sounds rough! Have you figured out how to do a little management to prevent her from practicing that so much? I think that would be the first step most trainers would suggest. Perhaps someone will chime in here. Good luck!

    • Hi Lucy!
      This blog really does contain some of the best information out there, doesn’t it? I might suggest that you enlist the services of a reward-based trainer to help you with these issues. Resource guarding is a “normal” behavior, but one that can escalate in a not so pretty way. It also sounds like you may be seeing some “bullying” behavior, which can also be addressed and will help teach your dog how to interact and play appropriately.
      Good luck!

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  13. It’s all so subtle I’m sure it’ll just fly over my head if you didn’t have the video in slow motion with your notes! Haha, it looks like playing to me sometimes. 🙂

    • eileenanddogs says:

      I think Clara is playing. Sometimes. Sort of. But I’m not sure the others think so! And thanks for the heads up in your other message about the broken link. I was able to fix it.

  14. Helina Westell. says:

    Hi there, I’ve only just discovered your site yesterday,and am so glad I did. I am at the VERY beginning of wanting to learn to be a trainer. I love the photos, but even more so the slow motion videos, what a brilliant way if studying without missing too much. I also just wanted to say how much I luv the fact that when asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, you say so!! I think I’ll be going over this site quite a few times,lol. Thankyou.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Thanks so much, Helina! That inspires me to keep going with what I think I can offer, and to stay honest about what I probably don’t know!

  15. Eileen…im happy i found you…great work , love your observation definitely i need to study all your posts

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