Resource Guarding and Dominance

The Dog Trainer explains why behaviour issues shouldn't be explained away by a catch-all term.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
2-minute read

Resource Guarding and Dominance

Suzanne Hetts and Dan Estep, aka Animal Behavior Associates, are Ph.D. behaviorists with a consulting business and a resource-rich website. Like many trainers and behavior specialists, I subscribe to their newsletter and blog – you might enjoy them, too, whether you’ve got a dog or a cat or just a general interest in animal behavior.

Drs. Hett and Estep take ideas about “dominance” with many a grain of salt. (Yay!) One common behavior issue often perceived as a matter of rank or dominance is “resource guarding.” This is the catch-all term most of us use to label aggressive behavior related to possession of food, toys, or space – hunching up, stiffening, lip curling, growling …

In their most recent blog post, Hetts and Estep point out that we usually assume this suite of behaviors is related to competition over resources – hence “resource guarding.” And definitions of “dominance” often connect rank with control over resources. But, Hetts and Estep say, in their experience “the body language of these dogs was usually quite defensive.” Often, the dogs’ history revealed that the guardians had handled them roughly around food and toys – grabbed them, pried their mouths open, alpha rolled them, whatever. So the dogs had reason to expect that if they had, say, a chewie, and their guardians approached, something bad was likely to happen. And they went on the defensive.

Do I agree? Almost completely. Though I’ve always used the label “resource guarding,” I’ve never seen guarding as a rank grab. It just doesn’t make sense to me that low rank implies giving up your goods readily; in the natural world, that would be a fast route to malnutrition. As for the body language of “resource guarding” dogs, the line between defense and offense can be narrow: push too hard against an animal who’s on the defensive and see how fast defense turns to offense. So if I met a dog whose resource-guarding body language was unambiguously offensive, I would still start from the assumption that the behavior was connected with self-defense. Finally, like Hetts and Estep, I find that many a resource-guarding dog has a history of being chased and grabbed and generally roughed up.

You do sometimes meet quite young puppies who will growl and snap over food or toys or their bed, though – they seem to have come out of the box primed to perceive approach as a threat, and to respond intensely to perceived threat. These puppies may have no history of rough handling at all. (Often, in fact, their guardians are terrified of them. Well, it is scary to have your 9-week-old fluffball erupt into a cloud of teeth and snarls!) I’m hard pressed to call these puppies “dominant,” though, especially since we know that hyperreactivity in offspring is a common outcome of severe maternal stress. Whatever’s wrong with these pups, I really doubt they have delusions of grandeur.

Does this post come with a practical tip? Maybe just this: reality-check your default assumptions about dog behavior, no matter how intuitively obvious they seem. Ah, and your dog trainer should be reality-checking her assumptions, too. 

Pinecone eater photo via Wikimedia

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).