I am often asked about dogs guarding things. It’s not one of the most common behaviours, but it is significant. It’s a behaviour used as a means of trying to gain status by ‘guarding’ possessions. By that I mean standing/sitting, watching over it, and not being particularly happy about it if they think they are being challenged for the item they are guarding. This may lead to a variety of different behaviours including:
- Lip curling, showing teeth
- Low growling
- Snapping at you (but not making contact)
- Nipping/Biting (sometimes hard!)
What do dogs guard?
This behaviour can be related to numerous items, including (but not exclusive to):
- Their food/food bowl
- Treats and bones
- Their toys
- Any dog bed (their’s or their companion’s)
- The sofa
- Your bed
- Anything they have ‘stolen’
- You / your children / your partner
- Your house and garden (although this is the more obvious form of dog guarding, which is covered in other articles).
Who are they guarding it from?
In a word – anyone! Some dogs will be very selective, so for instance they may only challenge someone of the same sex, so you as a female may be able to take something off your male dog, but a male in your household may not, and vice versa. Some dogs will only guard things from children, or visitors. Some will only guard from your other dog, or a visiting dog…
Every dog will have a different approach to what they are guarding, and who they are guarding it from, but their reasoning will make sense to them.
Why are they doing it?!
Simply put, because they think they need to. There are a few different scenarios which can play out, but the most obvious two are below:
- Protecting the pack. If your dog is guarding you, members of your household or your house/garden from visitors, and/or other members of your household then they are most likely thinking that there is a potential threat to survival, and they are guarding to ward off a threat – to keep themselves and you safe.
- Protecting their status. If they are guarding items or areas, then it’s more likely the case that they are trying to use the item or area to maintain some ‘power’. If they sense that someone is trying to take the item, or move them out of the area, and this makes their power feel threatened. They potentially fear a hostile power struggle, so use threat of aggression (or actual aggression) to defend their position.
How can I stop my dog guarding things?
No doubt you don’t want this kind of uneasy dog behaviour happening in your household. I don’t blame you. It is important to remember that your dog’s behaviour is because they aren’t understanding the sitaution, and this is as a result of information that they are getting from you, in your normal interactions with them. It’s all a bit “Lost in Translation” so they see your normal human behaviour and perceive that to mean that they are in charge, and they are filling in the gaps.
Don’t battle them for the items, or try to dominate them into submission, instead work on a kind and calm removal of them from the position of leader. This is relatively easily achieved if you follow simple instructions. Removal of them from the leadership position does require work across a number of areas, but here are some simple tips on what to do when your dog is guarding:
- If possible, prevent access to the area they are guarding.
- If you see them ‘steal’ something or go to an area they would normal guard, completely ignore them until they lose interest in it.
- If they growl etc. at you, regardless of you ignoring them, calmly isolate them by walking away and closing the door behind you.
- DO NOT approach them when they are guarding.
It would be a good idea to get a Dog Listener in to help you and work with you as a family to ensure everyone understands all the bits you need to be doing to irradicate this behaviour – and how to stay safe in the meantime. I cover Essex and the surrounding areas (Suffolk, Kent, East London and parts of Herts). There are plenty of other Dog Listeners around the UK (and the world for that matter) who can help if you aren’t in my area, or you can start by reading “The Dog Listener” by Jan Fennell.