If you're familiar with dogs, chances are you've seen resource guarding behaviors (hereafter referred to as "RG" for the purposes of this article). RG behaviors can be big, scary, over-the-top events between not just dogs, but also between dogs and other animal species (including humans). And while a great many dogs stop at the warning stage of an RG demonstration, others have no qualms about backing up this threat. In this blog, I'm going to talk about two ways to identify RG behaviors the moment they start in your dog's body language.
It should be noted that in the canine world, possession is important. Possession can include any item that is real and tangible, for example: the bed you're lying on, the food on your plate, or the person sitting next to you.
1. Is the dog still or frozen in place?
The mighty calm before the storm. In the very instant following this stillness, motion is often explosive and ugly. Teeth, fur, paws, flight - these are all often seen in a dog following through on an RG threat. For those who've ever intervened in an RG display, this is the moment they've capitalized on (and for many, including myself years go, ended up with a redirected bite for their trouble). Knowing whether the dog intends on following through with RG behavior usually comes down to the behaviors and body language immediately preceding the freeze.
2. The eyes have it.
Noting where your RG dog's eyes are focused will give great insight as to whether the dog intends on conflict, or is willing to defer the desired object to whatever is causing the threat. If the RG dog is looking directly at the offending party, it is highly likely that RG behaviors will ensue should the pressure continue to mount for the RG dog. If, on the other hand, the dog is looking away from the offending party, it is likely the RG dog is willing to defer the desired object.
Dilated pupils is another one to watch for here, however this can be more difficult to spot in the precious few moments before a display of RG behavior. While a trained professional like myself will spot it immediately, because I've been conditioned to look for it, most often it is an aspect of RG behavior recalled after the RG display has occurred.
Finally, blinking. A dog that blinks is friendly, malleable, and open. A hard eyed stare, on the other hand, is a threat promising further explosive action if the pressure of the situation is not relieved. These hard-eyed stares are intense, and if you've ever been the subject of one, you'll recall a feeling of time slowing down as the nature of the threat registers in your conscious brain. This is the result of adrenaline - a survival response - and it is not to be ignored!
Remember that while RG behaviors may follow the same environmental guidelines and cues most of the time, stress and context play a huge role as to when, and how severely, these behaviors will present. Possessiveness between dogs is a normal and natural set of behaviors, but that isn't to say that they can't be well managed by the savvy dog owner and in many cases, prevented altogether. Dogs skilled at their own language and the understanding of the dynamics of a group navigate these behaviors with great proficiency.
If you have an RG dog, and you're having trouble managing these often frightening behaviors, don't hesitate to reach out to a certified dog trainer or behaviorist working in your area. They can help you recognize the precursors to RG behavior in your dog, and teach you to manage your environment in such a way that RG displays are minimized.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.