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To Share or Not to Share: Understanding Resource Guarding

Updated: Jul 30, 2022

Imagine you’re sitting at your favorite restaurant with a friend. You're catching up on each other's weeks and anxiously awaiting your food. You weren’t feeling famished until you looked at the menu and now all you can think about is the amazing dish coming your way. The smells from the other tables keep wafting your direction, which isn’t helping. Your friend gets up and excuses themselves to go to the restroom, so you decide to scroll on your phone for a few minutes to kill time. You find a super interesting article and are totally immersed when all of the sudden someone yanks your phone out of your hand. You look up in shock and see a coworker who is standing at your table. “Hey! What are you doing here?!” they excitedly exclaim. They hold your phone casually while they talk with you about how great minds think alike. They tell you who they're there with and ramble on about some other small details about the workday, but you’re a bit distracted by the fact

that they took your phone so rudely and still haven’t returned it. You awkwardly laugh at their commentary about work for a minute and then ask if you can have your phone back now. They hand your phone back to you and joke that there’s no reason to get bent out of shape. Didn’t your parents ever teach you to share? They comment about seeing you tomorrow before turning to return to their own table. Your friend comes back to the table and you shrug off the interaction with your coworker as weird but the waiter just showed up with your food and you’re more focused on eating.

You’ve been so excited to try the new special. You are telling your friend about your coworker coming to say hi as you start compiling the perfect bite from your plate. You pick up your fork when suddenly your friend snatches your fork out of your hand and shoves it in their mouth. They wanted to try what you had and didn’t even ask? You admonish your friend for stealing your food and they joke with you that, “Sharing is caring.”

At the end of your meal, you pull out your wallet to get your payment ready for the waiter. You start thumbing through your cash to see whether you have enough to leave a good tip or if you should tip with your card. Suddenly your friend grabs the cash in your wallet and shoves it in their pocket. “What on earth are you doing?!” you exclaim. They tell you that they were needing some cash and thought you wouldn’t mind; you make good money. Tomorrow is payday so you’ll get more. You’re feeling a bit like you’re in the twilight zone as you sit and process what just happened.

If you think this set of situations sounds odd, you’d be right. Most people, if they found themselves in this scenario would be pretty irritated at the least, and downright angry at the most by these socially inappropriate moves. As adults, we’re not expected to share every single thing belonging to us or that we’re enjoying, and certainly not without being asked.

Why is it that we expect our dogs to be okay with having their valuable items taken from them on what seems like a whim? Due to our obvious language barrier, we can’t even explain why we need to do so. They can’t possibly know our motivations.

In the human world, it’s universally understood and rewarded to protect your resources at nearly every turn. Insurance companies even give breaks for insuring in bulk (home, auto, etc). And yet, there are very few owners who aren’t wildly concerned when their dog starts guarding their toys, food, or bones. In fact, in still-circulating but outdated advice, some people will tell owners to go out of their way to randomly snatch stuff from their dog early on in the relationship. Whether it’s a problem they have or not, to let them know it’s okay for them to take stuff is the name of the game. But this is pretty backwards thinking when you consider the message it sends.

Walking up and taking stuff away from your dog is only likely to teach them one thing: you are unpredictable and the stuff they value is not safe. In fact, I see this behavior create or escalate guarding more than it helps. This isn’t the only cause for why dogs may guard, but it certainly doesn’t make them feel less of a need to.

Part of the reason why humans miss the mark so much on this is because they aren’t looking through the dog’s lens. We often think that the dog’s stuff is readily available, so it shouldn’t be a threat or that it’s “just a toy.” Your pup may have 10 other toys out, but excusing stealing the toy they’re playing with because of this doesn’t really hold up to logic. So then that means that it’s okay for me to steal the remote out of your hand and change the channel because you have a phone to play on, another tv in the other room or could read a book instead? Of course not.

But dogs live in a different world and their toys, food or whatever else they enjoy is as valuable to them as your car, phone, house, or money is to you. Of course, just like every person, each dog has a different value system of how they view their resources. Some care more about bones but not at all about toys. Others don’t care about their kibble but access to human food is a huge deal. That’s because it’s up to the individual to determine what is the highest value in their own world. Every living being has different priorities.

Another misconception is that resource guarding is about power or ranking. This is false, as we’ve learned many times over that the pop culture understanding of dominance in dogs does not exist. Wolves don’t have a hierarchy to battle over, dogs aren’t wolves and you certainly aren’t a dog. Your dog growling when you take their favorite sock away isn’t because they’re trying to show you who’s top dog, it’s because they’re insecure, uncomfortable or fearful about you taking something important to them and they don’t understand why you need to. They just want to let you know that they aren’t interested in sharing.

Does this mean that we have to let dogs have whatever they want? Not at all. What it does mean is that in order to be successful in helping our dogs feel comfortable with us taking things from them (or other dogs for that matter), we first have to shift how we think about the behavior. Especially when, as a species, we resource guard with the best of them and it’s acceptable to do so.

If you want your dog to feel good about the interaction in the event you do need to retrieve something down the line, teaching them to trade is a good place to start. They’ll be much happier to give stuff up when they aren’t completely losing out for it. Of course, this should be done the right way and with a dog who’s not a danger to approach in these social situations.

If you have a dog who struggles with resource guarding, it can mean being beyond the point where a simple trade will fix it and a management and modification plan can be put into place to help improve guarding and change the emotional response a dog has to others interacting with their stuff. If you're interested in booking an initial consultation with us to learn more about how to live cohesively with your pup, you can make an appointment here.

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