Preventing Resource Guarding in Puppies Through Positive Reinforcement

preventing resource guarding in puppies training guide

Nurturing Generosity: How to Gently Discourage Resource Guarding in Your Puppy

By Will Bangura, M.S., CAB-ICB, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, FFCP, Certified Canine Behaviorist and Consultant

Defining Resource Guarding

Resource guarding is a behavior exhibited by puppies and dogs, where they show possessiveness over their resources, such as food, toys, or other valuable items. This behavior may manifest through growling, snapping, or biting when another animal or a human approaches their valued possessions (Case, 2016). The instinct to guard resources stems from the dog’s evolutionary background, where securing adequate resources was crucial for survival.

Understanding resource guarding is essential as it can affect the relationship between the puppy and the pet parent, potentially leading to dangerous situations if not addressed properly. Early recognition and intervention can help in modifying this behavior, ensuring safety and fostering a positive bond between the puppy and its family.

Resource guarding does not necessarily signify a puppy is aggressive; rather, it is a natural expression of canine behavior that can be managed effectively with proper training techniques (Herron et al., 2014). By implementing strategies aimed at prevention and management, pet parents can help their puppies learn to trust and feel secure in their environment, reducing the need to guard resources.

Importance of Addressing Resource Guarding Early

Addressing resource guarding in puppies at an early stage is crucial for several reasons, primarily impacting their long-term behavior and the quality of their relationship with their pet parents. If left unmanaged, resource guarding can escalate as the puppy matures, potentially leading to more severe forms of aggression and making future interventions more challenging (Dunbar, 2004).

Impact on Long-Term Behavior

Early intervention plays a pivotal role in shaping a puppy’s future behavior. When resource guarding behaviors are corrected early, puppies are more likely to develop into well-adjusted adults who interact safely and positively with humans and other animals. Conversely, if these behaviors are not addressed, they can become ingrained habits that are difficult to change (Horwitz & Neilson, 2007). For instance, a puppy that learns it can successfully keep others away by growling or snapping may start to use these tactics in other situations, potentially leading to broader behavioral issues.

Influence on Pet-Parent Relationships

The relationship between a puppy and its pet parent is foundational to the pet’s emotional well-being and social development. Resource guarding can strain this relationship if pet parents react negatively to their puppy’s guarding behaviors, such as with punishment or aggression. Such reactions can increase anxiety and distrust in the puppy, exacerbating the guarding behavior (McConnell, 2002). On the other hand, addressing the issue with understanding and appropriate training methods helps build trust. By teaching the puppy that the approach of a pet parent to their resources is not a threat but rather a positive experience, pet parents reinforce a secure and trusting bond.

Preventative Benefits

Early training to prevent resource guarding not only helps in avoiding future aggressive incidents but also enhances the pet’s ability to adapt to various situations, such as vet visits or interactions with unfamiliar people and pets. This adaptability significantly contributes to the overall safety and sociability of the dog, making it a more content and less stressed companion (Overall, 2013).

In conclusion, early and effective intervention for resource guarding is vital. It supports the development of a behaviorally healthy dog and fosters a positive, mutually rewarding relationship between the puppy and its pet parent. Addressing this issue promptly ensures that the puppy can integrate into family life and social settings more comfortably and safely.

Step-by-Step Training Exercises

Creating Positive Associations

One of the foundational methods to prevent resource guarding in puppies is to create positive associations with the presence of a pet parent during activities where the puppy might feel compelled to guard resources, such as eating or playing with toys. This section outlines a step-by-step process to achieve this goal, focusing on building trust and ensuring the puppy feels secure and happy when a pet parent is near their resources.

Start Early and Go Slowly

  • Begin this training as soon as the puppy arrives home. The earlier you start, the more effective the training can be.
  • Initially, sit quietly near the puppy while it is eating or playing, maintaining a distance that does not provoke any guarding behavior. Over successive sessions, gradually decrease the distance, always respecting the puppy’s comfort level (Landsberg et al., 2013).

Associate Pet Parent’s Presence with Positives

  • While sitting near the puppy, occasionally toss high-value treats towards its food bowl or near the toy it is playing with. This action should not disturb the puppy but should make the approach of a pet parent something to look forward to.
  • High-value treats might include small pieces of chicken or cheese, which are generally more appealing than the puppy’s regular food (Schultz, 2009).

Increase Interaction Gradually

  • As the puppy becomes more comfortable with your presence, start to interact more actively. This could involve adding food to its bowl while it eats or gently touching the puppy while giving verbal praise and treats.
  • It’s crucial to monitor the puppy’s body language closely. Signs of relaxation include a wagging tail and a relaxed body posture, whereas signs of discomfort include stiffening, growling, or averting the gaze (Horwitz & Neilson, 2007).

Involve Different Family Members

  • Have different family members participate in this exercise to generalize the positive associations with all humans, not just a single caregiver.
  • This variation helps the puppy understand that good things happen regardless of who approaches, reducing the likelihood of developing guarding behaviors specific to one person (McConnell, 2002).

Consistency and Patience

  • Consistency is key in reinforcing positive behaviors. Repeat these exercises regularly, ideally during each mealtime and playtime.
  • Be patient and avoid rushing the process. The goal is to build lasting positive associations, not to provoke fear or anxiety.

This methodical approach to creating positive associations aims to teach the puppy that the presence of a pet parent near their resources is not a threat but an opportunity for additional rewards. Over time, this training can significantly reduce the likelihood of resource guarding behaviors developing as the puppy matures.

This detailed training exercise not only helps in preventing resource guarding but also enhances the overall trust and bond between the puppy and its pet parent, setting a foundation for a healthy and harmonious relationship.

Use of High-Value Treats to Reward Calm Behavior

Using high-value treats to reward a puppy’s calm behavior when a pet parent approaches is a crucial technique in the process of preventing resource guarding. This approach leverages positive reinforcement, a proven method in animal training, to encourage desirable behaviors by associating them with pleasurable outcomes. Here is an in-depth look at how to effectively use high-value treats to foster calmness and acceptance in situations that could potentially trigger resource guarding.

Choosing High-Value Treats

Identify What Constitutes a High-Value Treat

  • High-value treats are typically more aromatic and palatable compared to the puppy’s regular diet. These can include small pieces of cooked chicken, turkey, cheese, or specially designed commercial treats that are known for their appeal to dogs (Case, 2016).
  • The treat must be irresistible to the puppy, ensuring it captures its full attention and overshadows any protective impulses over its resources.

Ensure Treats are Suitable for the Puppy’s Health

  • It is essential to consider the nutritional content and size of the treats to avoid any adverse health effects. Treats should be small enough to be eaten quickly and should not constitute more than 10% of the puppy’s daily caloric intake to prevent dietary imbalances (Horwitz & Neilson, 2007).

Implementing the Reward System

Timing of Treat Delivery

  • The effectiveness of the treats is largely dependent on the timing of their delivery. The treat should be given immediately after the puppy displays calm behavior in response to the pet parent’s approach. This quick timing helps the puppy make a direct connection between the calm behavior and the reward (Schultz, 2009).
  • If the treat is given too late, the puppy might not associate it with the desired behavior, reducing the effectiveness of the training.

Consistency in Application

  • Consistency is crucial. Every time the pet parent approaches the puppy while it is engaging with its resources, and the puppy remains calm, it should receive a treat. This consistency helps solidify the behavior as a regular part of the puppy’s response repertoire.
  • Different family members should also participate in this training to generalize the behavior across all humans the puppy may interact with (McConnell, 2002).

Gradual Reduction of Treats

  • Once the puppy consistently demonstrates calm behavior, begin to gradually reduce the frequency of treats. This process, known as fading, helps to transition the puppy from a continuous reinforcement schedule (a treat every time) to an intermittent reinforcement schedule, which can be more sustainable long-term and prevents overreliance on treats (Miltenberger, 2012).
  • During this phase, continue to praise the puppy verbally and with affection to maintain the association between calm behavior and positive outcomes.

Monitoring and Adjusting the Approach

  • Continually assess the puppy’s progress and be prepared to adjust the approach if necessary. If the puppy starts to show signs of guarding again, it may be necessary to temporarily increase the frequency of treats to reinforce the desired behavior more strongly.

This detailed, strategic use of high-value treats to reward calm behavior forms a core component of training exercises designed to prevent resource guarding. By carefully selecting treats, perfecting the timing of rewards, maintaining consistency, and effectively managing the frequency of treats, pet parents can help their puppies learn to remain calm and non-protective of their resources when approached.

Through the methodical application of these techniques, pet parents can effectively use high-value treats to reinforce calm and non-guarding behavior, thereby preventing the development of resource guarding in puppies.

Trade-Up Game: Teaching the Puppy to Willingly Exchange Items

The “Trade-Up Game” is an effective training exercise designed to teach puppies to willingly give up an item they value for something of higher value. This exercise not only helps in preventing resource guarding but also builds trust between the puppy and the pet parent. Below are detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to implement this training technique safely and effectively.

Understanding the Trade-Up Game

Before beginning the exercise, it’s important to understand the psychology behind the trade-up game. This training is based on the principle of positive reinforcement, where the puppy learns that giving up an item leads to receiving something better in return (Reid, 2009). The goal is to make the puppy view the exchange as a positive and rewarding experience, thereby eliminating any reluctance to give up possessions in the future.

Step-by-Step Instructions


  • Select the items for the trade-up. Choose a lower-value item that the puppy likes and a higher-value item that the puppy loves. Common examples of higher-value items include tasty treats like small pieces of chicken or cheese or a favorite toy.
  • Ensure the training session is conducted in a quiet, distraction-free environment to maximize focus and minimize stress.

Introducing the Lower-Value Item

  • Give the lower-value item to the puppy and allow it to engage with it. This could be a moderately liked toy or a less appealing treat.
  • Observe the puppy’s behavior, ensuring it is calm and comfortable with the item.

Presenting the Higher-Value Item

  • Once the puppy is engaged with the lower-value item, show it the higher-value item. Hold it close enough so the puppy can see and smell it but not close enough to grab it.
  • Use a cheerful and encouraging tone of voice to attract the puppy’s attention to the higher-value item. The excitement in your voice helps make the interaction positive.

Making the Exchange

  • Offer the higher-value item in exchange for the lower-value item, using a command such as “Trade” or “Give.”
  • If the puppy releases the lower-value item, immediately give it the higher-value item as a reward.
  • Praise the puppy enthusiastically when it makes the exchange. This verbal affirmation reinforces the behavior along with the physical reward.

Repetition and Consistency

  • Repeat this exchange several times during each training session. Consistency is crucial, as it helps the puppy learn the expected behavior.
  • Gradually increase the value of the items being exchanged as the puppy becomes more comfortable with the game.

Advanced Training

  • Once the puppy consistently trades lower-value items for higher-value ones, start using items that are closer in value to teach finer distinctions.
  • Introduce scenarios that mimic real-life situations where the puppy might need to give up an item, such as during grooming or vet visits.

Safety and Monitoring

  • Always monitor the puppy’s body language for signs of stress or reluctance. If the puppy seems uncomfortable, step back to a previous training stage and proceed more slowly.
  • Ensure that the items used for trading are safe and appropriate for the puppy’s age and size to prevent any risk of choking or other injuries.

The Trade-Up Game is a fundamental training exercise that not only helps in curbing resource guarding but also enhances the puppy’s trust and cooperation with the pet parent. By following these detailed steps and maintaining a positive, patient approach, pet parents can effectively teach their puppies to handle possessions in a calm and controlled manner.

Desensitization to Touch: Helping Puppies Accept Contact While Engaged with Resources

Desensitization to touch is a critical training approach to prevent resource guarding in puppies by teaching them to accept and even enjoy being touched while they are eating or playing. This training is essential because it helps prevent defensive reactions when someone approaches or touches the puppy during these activities. Here is a detailed, step-by-step guide on how to effectively desensitize a puppy to being touched, using a combination of gentle petting, verbal praise, and treats to reinforce non-guarding behavior.

Understanding Desensitization

Desensitization is a behavioral technique that involves the gradual exposure of the puppy to a stimulus (in this case, touch) that might otherwise provoke anxiety or aggressive responses. The goal is to reduce the puppy’s reactivity over time by associating touch with positive outcomes (Overall, 2013). This method is particularly useful for puppies who may display tendencies to guard their food or toys from perceived threats.

Step-by-Step Desensitization Process

Initial Preparation

  • Choose a quiet environment free from distractions to start the training sessions.
  • Have a supply of high-value treats ready, which will be used to reward the puppy for accepting touch.

Introducing Touch

  • Begin at a time when the puppy is calmly eating or playing.
  • Approach the puppy slowly and speak in a soft, reassuring tone.
  • Start with non-invasive touches. A good initial contact point is the back or sides, areas that are less threatening than the head or paws.

Gradual Increase in Touch

  • As the puppy becomes comfortable with light touches, gradually increase the duration and area of contact. Begin to gently pet the puppy more extensively, including areas around the neck, tail, and eventually the head and paws.
  • Observe the puppy’s body language closely throughout the process. Signs of comfort include a relaxed posture and continued engagement with their food or toy. Signs of discomfort may include tensing up, ceasing to eat or play, or growling.

Incorporating Verbal Praise and Treats

  • Throughout each session, use a calm and happy voice to praise the puppy for tolerating the touch. Phrases like “Good boy/girl!” or “Well done!” can reinforce positive behavior.
  • Offer a treat immediately after touching, especially if the puppy remains calm and accepting of the contact. This reinforces the connection between being touched and receiving something enjoyable.

Repetition and Consistency

  • Repeat these touching exercises regularly, aiming to incorporate them into the puppy’s daily routine.
  • Consistency is crucial—ensure that the training happens in a similar manner each time, allowing the puppy to predict and accept the interactions as safe and rewarding.

Handling Exercises

  • As the puppy grows more accustomed to touch, include exercises that mimic real-life handling, such as grooming or veterinary examinations.
  • Practice lifting paws, opening the mouth, and gently holding the puppy to prepare it for scenarios where such handling is necessary.

Monitoring Progress and Adjusting Techniques

  • Always be sensitive to the puppy’s responses. If any signs of discomfort or anxiety persist, decrease the intensity of the touch or increase the frequency of treats.
  • If progress stalls, consider consulting a professional dog behaviorist for further guidance and personalized training strategies.

By following these detailed steps to desensitize a puppy to touch while it is engaged with resources, pet parents can significantly enhance the puppy’s comfort and safety. This training not only helps in preventing resource guarding behaviors but also contributes to a more sociable and well-adjusted dog, facilitating easier handling by pet parents and professionals throughout the dog’s life.

Impulse Control Exercises: Teaching Patience and Control to Puppies

Impulse control is a fundamental aspect of a puppy’s training, which involves teaching them to manage their immediate reactions and behave more thoughtfully. Commands such as “leave it” and “wait” are critical in fostering patience and control, essential skills that help prevent issues like resource guarding. These commands teach the puppy to pause and look to their pet parent for guidance in various situations, thereby reducing impulsive behaviors. Here’s an in-depth guide on how to teach and generalize these commands in a variety of settings.

Teaching the “Leave It” Command

Introducing the Command

  • Begin with a treat in both hands. Show one closed fist with a treat inside to the puppy, and say “leave it.”
  • When the puppy sniffs or paws at your fist, maintain it closed. As soon as the puppy stops trying and pulls away, praise them and offer a treat from the other hand. This teaches the puppy that leaving the item results in a better reward.

Increasing Difficulty

  • Once the puppy consistently responds to the command with treats, introduce more challenging items like their favorite toy or pieces of food placed on the floor.
  • Practice in different locations and add distractions to ensure the command is followed in various environments.

Reinforcing with Positive Rewards

  • Always use high-value treats to reward the puppy immediately after they obey the “leave it” command. This reinforcement makes the command powerful and reliable in tempting situations.

Teaching the “Wait” Command

Setting the Foundation

  • Begin by asking the puppy to sit. Once sitting, hold a treat in front of them and say “wait.”
  • Use a hand signal such as an open hand facing them. If the puppy stays in place, praise and reward them. If they move, gently guide them back to the sitting position and repeat the command.

Increasing the Waiting Period

  • Gradually increase the duration the puppy must wait before receiving the treat. Start with a few seconds and build up to several minutes over multiple training sessions.
  • Consistency and patience are key. Each session should only slightly increase the waiting time to keep it manageable for the puppy.

Practicing with Doorways and Feeding

  • Use the “wait” command to teach the puppy patience at doorways, preventing them from rushing out when opened—a critical safety behavior.
  • Also, apply this command during feeding times. Have the puppy “wait” before meals are placed down and before they’re allowed to eat. This reinforces control and good manners.

Generalizing the Behavior

Varying Environments and Contexts

  • Practice these commands in different settings, such as in the park, during walks, and in new environments. This helps the puppy understand that the commands apply universally, not just at home.

Incorporating Real-Life Scenarios

  • Integrate the “leave it” and “wait” commands into daily activities. For instance, use “leave it” to prevent the puppy from picking up unsafe objects during walks.
  • Use “wait” at crosswalks or before getting in and out of the car, enhancing safety and reinforcing the command’s utility.

Continuous Practice and Reinforcement

  • Regularly reinforce these commands throughout the puppy’s life. Consistent practice helps maintain their effectiveness and ensures the puppy remains responsive.

By systematically teaching and reinforcing the “leave it” and “wait” commands, and ensuring these behaviors are generalized across different situations, pet parents can significantly enhance their puppy’s impulse control. This training not only helps in managing resource guarding but also contributes broadly to the puppy’s overall obedience and safety.

Managed Feeding Techniques: Structuring Meal Times and Hand-Feeding Practices

Managed feeding techniques are crucial in establishing a healthy, controlled eating environment for puppies. These techniques not only help in preventing resource guarding by setting clear boundaries and routines around food but also enhance the bond and trust between the puppy and the pet parent. This section details how to effectively implement structured feeding times and locations, along with the benefits of hand-feeding.

Structuring Feeding Times and Locations

Establishing a Feeding Schedule

  • Determine a consistent schedule for the puppy’s meals. Typically, puppies should be fed three to four times a day depending on their age and dietary needs. Consistency in feeding times helps regulate the puppy’s digestive system and instills a routine, reducing anxiety around meal times (Case, 2016).
  • Adhering to a strict schedule also teaches the puppy that food is reliably available at certain times, reducing the perceived need to guard resources.

Designating Feeding Areas

  • Choose a specific location in the home for feeding that is quiet and free from high traffic and distractions. Consistency in the feeding location helps the puppy associate this area with eating, which can minimize food-related aggression in other areas of the house.
  • The feeding area should be a safe space where the puppy feels secure. This security is crucial for reducing stress and potential guarding behavior during meal times.

Implementing Hand-Feeding Practices

Benefits of Hand-Feeding

  • Hand-feeding is a powerful technique to enhance the bond between the pet parent and the puppy. It builds trust, as the puppy learns to associate the pet parent with the provision of food (Horwitz & Neilson, 2007).
  • This method also allows the pet parent to control the eating pace, which is particularly beneficial for puppies prone to gulping their food, and it can be a moment to reinforce calm and gentle behavior.

How to Hand-Feed

Begin with small quantities of food in your hand. Allow the puppy to eat from your palm. Ensure your hand is flat and open, which prevents the puppy from feeling like it needs to compete or snatch the food aggressively.

  • Speak in a soft, reassuring voice while the puppy eats from your hand, reinforcing a calm atmosphere. Occasionally use verbal cues like “gentle” as reminders for the puppy to take food slowly and carefully.
  • Gradually, as the puppy becomes more comfortable with hand-feeding, integrate commands such as “sit” or “stay” before offering food in your hand. This integration of obedience training into feeding routines enhances discipline and patience around food.

Transitioning Between Hand-Feeding and Bowl Feeding

  • While hand-feeding is beneficial, it is also important for the puppy to comfortably eat from a bowl. Start by placing the bowl during hand-feeding sessions but continue to feed by hand.
  • Over time, gradually transition some of the food from your hand to the bowl. Begin feeding part of the meal by hand and part in the bowl, and slowly increase the portion in the bowl until the puppy is fully comfortable eating from it without showing any guarding behavior.

By implementing these managed feeding techniques—structuring feeding times and locations, along with practicing hand-feeding—pet parents can effectively minimize resource guarding behaviors and enhance their relationship with their puppy. These practices not only promote better behavioral health but also support a nurturing and trust-filled environment for the puppy’s development.

Emphasizing Early Intervention and Consistent Practice in Preventing Resource Guarding

The Crucial Role of Early Intervention

The importance of early intervention in preventing resource guarding in puppies cannot be overstated. Addressing resource guarding behaviors from the outset helps to prevent these behaviors from becoming entrenched as the puppy matures. Early training helps shape a puppy’s behavior and attitudes toward sharing and handling resources, thereby setting the stage for a well-adjusted adult dog. By instilling good habits early, pet parents can reduce the likelihood of future aggression and ensure their puppy develops into a sociable, confident, and safe member of the family.

The Value of Consistency in Training

Consistency is the backbone of effective puppy training. Regular practice of the techniques discussed—such as creating positive associations, playing the trade-up game, desensitizing the puppy to touch, teaching impulse control commands, and managing feeding practices—ensures that the lessons become ingrained in the puppy’s behavior. This consistency helps puppies understand what is expected of them in various situations, leading to better outcomes in their behavior and their relationships with humans and other animals.

Training should be a daily practice, integrated seamlessly into the routine interactions between the puppy and the pet parent. Each feeding time, play session, and even casual interactions are opportunities to reinforce the desired behaviors, reducing the puppy’s urge to guard resources and enhancing their overall trust and obedience.

Seeking Professional Guidance When Needed

While many pet parents can successfully manage their puppy’s training independently, some cases may require professional intervention. If a puppy exhibits persistent resource guarding behaviors, or if there are signs of aggression that could pose a risk to humans or other pets, it is crucial to seek the assistance of a certified dog behavior consultant. Professionals specialized in dog behavior can offer tailored advice and intervention strategies that are based on the latest research and best practices in animal behavior. They can provide support through structured training sessions and personalized plans that address the specific challenges faced by the puppy.

Moreover, professional canine behaviorists can offer insights that go beyond basic training—they can help pet parents understand the underlying causes of their puppy’s behavior and develop more effective strategies to manage and resolve these issues. Seeking professional help is not a sign of failure but a proactive step towards ensuring the safety and well-being of both the puppy and everyone around it.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, preventing resource guarding in puppies requires early intervention, consistent practice, and a commitment to understanding and addressing the behavior comprehensively. By fostering a positive, safe, and supportive environment, pet parents can significantly reduce the likelihood of resource guarding issues. However, when challenges exceed the scope of general training techniques, professional guidance should be sought to ensure that the issues are handled with expert care and knowledge.

By adhering to these principles, pet parents can look forward to building a harmonious and lasting bond with their puppy, characterized by mutual trust and respect. This approach not only makes for a happier and safer household but also contributes to the overall health and well-being of the puppy as it grows into a well-adjusted adult dog.


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