What It Is? What Causes It? How Do You Cure It?
First, What Is Resource Guarding?
The behavior commonly known as “resource guarding” is where a dog growls, snaps or bites whenever a human being, another dog, or sometimes another animal (like the family cat) gets too close to something the dog has strong feelings of attraction for. Common objects-of-attraction are food, bones, toys, human attention, and sleeping spots.
However, since a “resource” is a general category of things, and since dogs don’t engage in categorical thinking, they can’t really be “guarding their resources.” A better way to put it—as Natural Dog Training creator Kevin Behan does—is that the dog isn’t guarding a “resource” but an “object of friction.”
What does that mean?
Just as a dog may have feelings of social attraction for you, for other dogs, for prey objects, and the other things listed above, he also is capable of harboring feelings of social friction. This is how fights develop at the dog run, and it’s where a dog flips from a contented, happy state to a state of near panic/fierce aggression when approached while in possession of certain objects of attraction, like food, bones, toys, etc.
What Causes Resource Guarding?
The precipitating event, if there is one, may be unknown. But the underlying cause is always the same: fear. Dominance trainers would disagree. Their assessment would be that the dog is trying to dominate his owners.  Meanwhile, some positive trainers either have no idea what causes these behaviors, or they’re simply not interested in knowing. 
In a 2014 blog article, trainer and anthropologist Patricia McConnell asks, what causes resource guarding? “That’s easy to answer: We don’t know. Seriously, we really, really don’t know.” She goes on to say, “I emailed a list of Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists to ask if there is any research on genetic or environmental factors related to RG, and and there simply doesn’t appear to be anything out there on this specific topic.”
That’s because, in general, behavioral scientists aren’t interested in understanding the causes of behavior. As Jean Donaldson says, “Where a more traditional trainer might see observable behavior as a symptom of an underlying problem, syndrome, or illness (such as dominance aggression…), the behaviorist sticks to what the dog is doing—in this case, guarding—and modifies that behavior without trying to guess what is going on in the black box.’ I can’t know what is going on in the mind of any dog at any time.”
Meanwhile, Behan says these behaviors are caused by unresolved feelings of deep inner stress and the dog acts on those feelings as an “instinctive ‘excuse’ to vent held-back energy, i.e., unresolved emotion.”
You may be wondering (again), “What does that mean?”
Stimuli are internal or external events which increase the energy quotient in a dog’s body. That increase stimulates feelings and emotions, which require a response involving physical movement—the “motion” of emotion.
For instance, you make a kissing sound at dinner time and your dog comes running into the kitchen. You yell at the dog when he’s eating cat poo, and he scoots away. The first behavior involves a positive emotion, meaning it feels good. The second involves a negative emotion; it feels bad. In both cases—in fact in almost all cases—emotion, whether positive or negative, motivates physical movement, even if it’s just a slight tremor in a dog’s tail while he’s dreaming or a slight movement of his ears going back when he feels nervous or uncertain about what to do.
Emotions are designed to move. They not only cause movement in the body, they need to move through the body to completion. Fear stops emotion from moving to completion. That’s what I mean by “unresolved emotion.”
All aggression (except most forms of predatory aggression) is based on fear. There are said to be three basic responses to a fearful stimulus: fight, flight, and freeze. In resource guarding, the dog is in the early stages of “fight” mode: he’s afraid you’re going to take something he wants/needs.
How to Cure It—Pushing for Food, Playing Tug-of-War and Push-of-War
Several years ago I had a young Welsh springer spaniel staying with me. I also had several other dogs in the house at the time. At meal time I always put everyone’s bowls in different spots so as to reduce the possibility of social friction. On the first night the springer was with me, he decided all the food in all the bowls was his. He ferociously lunged at and barked furiously at all the other dogs. I quickly grabbed his collar and pulled him away. Then I put him and his bowl in the hall, well away from the main action and carefully supervised him while he ate his dinner there.
This dog was such a sweetheart that I was totally blindsided by the intensity of his behavior. Then I remembered that his owners had recently punished him physically for jumping up onto their dinner table one evening while no one was watching: he’d climbed onto a chair, then onto the table and ate quite a bit of their dinner before they were able to stop him.
Over the next three days, I hand-fed the Welsh springer all his meals outdoors using “The Pushing Exercise.” At the end of the third day, I put everyone’s food bowl in different spots again, telling them all, “Wait…” to keep them from digging in right away
The springer started to growl a little. I simply pointed to his food bowl, said, “No, that’s yours.” He took one last look at all the other dogs and their bowls, then dug in. And he never exhibited any form of resource guarding again.
Why did this work? (A better question might be, “How could this have possibly worked?”)
The dog’s feelings of internal resistance, caused by physical memories of being physically punished while eating, were over-ridden by feelings of flow, created by doing the pushing exercise for three days, which entailed pushing through those feelings of resistance while eating, i.e., pushing for food.
It also worked because I’d nipped the behavior in the bud so to speak. In another case—a dachshund who was guarding his crate and lashing out at (i.e., biting) anyone who came near—it took much longer. This was a case of severe physical abuse.
Another—and more effective—approach would be to play “push-of-war” with the dog, where you tease the dog with a tug toy, get him to bite onto it as hard as he can, then while tugging with one hand, your push against the dog’s shoulders with your other hand.
Kevin Behan: “The dog perceives more flow in making contact with person (Pushing With) than in growling, snarling and lashing out (Pushing Against) over the food bowl, resting place, bone or toy.”
Behan also says that “If a dog doesn’t love to bite, then it needs to bite and a dog that guards something … is how that dog gets the opportunity to express that last .01% [of unresolved emotion]. It’s not that [the dog] wants the [resource] but that it needs these things in order to be granted instinctual permission to let out its last .01%. The dog then gets locked into that addictive load/overload means of energy transfer.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin comes this from trainer Jeff Silverman’s blog on Ian Dunbar’s website, Dog Star Daily: “We have a long way to go. Chaos still eats quickly and looks a little tense when he has a bowl to himself. We need to get him happily looking up from his bowl whenever we call him or approach it. We need to do lots of cold trials. We need to keep working on object exchanges until he’ll bring us things and drop them on command. The key to this kind of work is lots of repetition and lots of patience. We can’t settle for him tolerating people approaching or asking him to give something up. He must learn to actually like it…preferably a lot. Most importantly, we need to make sure that his welcoming attitude generalizes to include all humans.”
Silverman concludes, “In my experience, resource guarding is forever. If you don’t continue doing simple exercises to maintain the positive association between people approaching the dog with good stuff … then the behavior tends to return.”
The reason it tends to return is simply this: the dog is still hanging on to that .01% of unresolved emotion, and will continue hanging on to it until he gets a full release of tension and stress through playing tug-of-war, push-of-war, and pushing for food.
Anyway, that’s how I see it.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
1) On his website Cesar Millan’s formula for treating resource guarding sounds like it came directly from the +R playbook: “In rehabilitating a food aggressive dog, two things are happening. One is that you’re desensitizing your dog so that she will no longer become protective when anybody approaches her while she’s eating. The other is that you’re counterconditioning your dog by teaching her to associate people approaching her bowl with good things.”
However, on his TV show Millan often engages in blocking the dog’s access to her food bowl through a dangerous and confrontational approach, which can have disastrous results.
2) Temple Grandin once asked B. F. Skinner if he thought it would be helpful to know more about the brain works. His reply: “We don’t need to know. We have conditioning.”