Archive OLDT :: Learning to Share

In the wild, resource guarding, which means protecting food or a possession, is a necessary behavior that assures an individual’s survival. In fact, each member of a wolf pack has rightful ownership of resources within his “space”, beneath his head and between his feet. Though another can try to steal or use intimidation to take the prized possession, every wolf, regardless of rank, can rightfully defend his “stuff”. The problem is that, for the canine member of a human family, this is an undesirable and very dangerous behavior.


Your dog needs to learn that having people around his food and resources is a good thing – in fact, that people have the Midas touch, making things more valuable by their contact with his things.

Around the Food Bowl

To prevent guarding of food, start by hand-feeding your pup his kibble. This will teach him that all good things in life come from you. Also, dangle your fingers in the bowl as he eats. With each handful, drop something in his bowl better than what he’s eating. The deposit of a little sliver of chicken or cheese will make you a welcome presence around his bowl rather than a threat.
   If your dog shows any signs of discomfort – stiffening, freezing, a hard eye, growling – then stop! This is a dog’s natural way of communicating, so do not punish him for his warning. In fact, if you reprimand him for expressing his discomfort, you are forcing him to escalate his expression – next time, he will have to bite! Instead, consider ways in which you can make him more comfortable with your presence.
   To gain your guardy dog’s ease with you around his food bowl, make approaches to his bowl, stopping at a distance where he shows no discomfort or guarding behavior, and then toss something of higher value than what he’s eating. Withdraw and approach over and over again, each time stopping at a distance from him where he does not feel threatened or uncomfortable. Over time, you will notice him lifting his head in expectation of you approach. This means he is now looking forward to your approaches with happy anticipation and that he no longer feels unease (at this distance, anyway)! Now you may be able to move ever so gradually closer to his bowl on your approaches, every time making sure that he remains calm and accepting of your presence.

Sharing Possessions

To make your dog happy about surrendering things to you, teach her the drop it command. If she has guarded resources in the past, then you should put away anything she’s likely to guard while you work at gaining her trust in sharing with you. Start by working with items that are of low value in her hierarchy of possessions (things she doesn’t care much about). As she becomes more comfortable about relinquishing these items to you, you can gradually work up to things of greater value to her.

Drop It
This is the command to get your dog to yield a toy or something else she’s carrying. If she’s got hold of something, say "drop it!" and then hold a treat to her nose. When she drops the toy, give her the treat and take the toy. Then offer her the toy back. The ultimate goal is for her to automatically yield the toy upon hearing the command, so make sure it’s the command first, then the lure on the nose, and finally the treat for the drop.
   There will be some articles for which you will say “drop it” and not return them to her – like your sock, for instance. The key is to do so many repetitions with articles that you immediately return to her that she comes to think drop it is a win-win situation: She gets a treat for doing it and she gets the toy back.

The Sock Hop

So why is it, then, that dogs tend to have their greatest fun with certain items of ours that they’re not supposed to have, like socks? The answer to this riddle lies in our own behavior. When dogs play with their own toys, we tend not to pay very much attention. But all hell breaks loose – or, from the dog’s perspective, heaven takes wing – when she picks up a sock. Suddenly, the game turns into a thrilling combination of chase and keep-away, and she’s the center of attention! So, to avoid this, do what you can to puppy-proof your home, teach a strong drop it for items that you will return to her, and then keep hold of your senses when she does find that errant sock under the couch.

Tips for staying safe with a guarder

  • Take precautions to keep people safe: confine the dog in a crate or another room if he has resources he might guard; otherwise the environment should be cleared of all possible resources.
  • Resource guarding tends to be relationship-based. What this means is that a dog may guard resources from one person but not another. More to the point, when one person has done work to gain the dog’s trust around food and resources, the same work must be done with the other family members; the learning the dog has done does not simply “transfer” from one person to the next. This also means that, while the dog may become comfortable with family members being near his stuff, he may have grave issues with visitors being near his stuff.
  • For dogs who guard their resources, it can be especially helpful to employ an NILIF (Nothing in Life Is Free) program. The principle of NILIF is that your dog needs to work for everything he deems valuable – whether it be food, water, toys, affection, access to furniture, going for walks, everything! Nothing should be given for free, much less for bad behavior. He needs to learn that you are the one granting him these resources. How strictly you adhere to NILIF depends on your dog. A dog who has a lot of triggers and is pushy and demanding and disrespectful of others’ space should have a more strict NILIF structure than a dog who only guards one thing and is polite, respectful and compliant.
  • Keep in mind that dogs who guard their resources are particularly dangerous in families with children. There is no telling when a child may reach for an item that the dog considers his. Or a child or young visitor to the family may carelessly drop a hot dog and, in reaching for it, get bitten by the dog. You should seriously consider whether your family will be safe with a dog who guards his resources.

* If you fear that your pup is showing signs of discomfort with people around her stuff, the book Mine! by Jean Donaldson is a great resource. You should also employ the assistance of a canine behavior specialist.