Scamp, a 5yo Cockapoo, was in for his annual vaccinations and check up on a sunny Wednesday morning. The vet, Clare, had given him a full examination and declared him wonderfully healthy, including good oral hygiene and a perfect body condition score. His owner, Kev, was very pleased that his attention to Scamp’s teeth and diet were paying off! Scamp was very brave for his vaccinations, and Clare filled in his vaccination card.
When Clare asked if there was anything else Kev would like to discuss about Scamp, he hesitated. He wasn’t sure whether Clare could do anything to help, but…
Table of contents
- What is resource guarding?
- Signs of resource guarding
- Management of food guarding
- The vet had regular updates from Kev and Scamp
- You might also be interested in:
Plucking up courage, Kev explained that Scamp was getting really funny about anyone approaching him when he was eating. He’d started growling when at anyone who approached when he was at his bowl, and yesterday had snapped at Kev when he went to pick up the bowl after Scamp had finished eating. Kev was worried that these behaviours had appeared out of nowhere!
Vet Clare was concerned. This behaviour sounded like resource guarding, and behaviours like this can escalate if not managed appropriately.
What is resource guarding?
Resource guarding refers to when a dog becomes very defensive about a particular item/bed/food/person (the ‘resource’) that they highly value. This guarding is often displayed as discomfort, fear or even aggressive behaviours, designed to protect the resource and warn anyone or anything approaching to move away. Resource guarding is a much-needed behaviour in the wild but can become very difficult in a domestic setting. Warning behaviours can escalate and even become aggressive.
Clare asked a few more questions about Scamp’s behaviour.
She explained the basics of resource guarding with Kev, asked him to start keeping a diary of Scamp’s routine and behaviours, and arranged for him to come back in for another appointment to discuss how to manage this.
Kev and Scamp returned a few days later, and vet Clare had prepared some information on resource guarding. After further conversation, Clare identified that Scamp had shown some unease around food for quite a while, but some early warning signs had been missed. Scamp had now progressed to early-aggressive behaviours such as growling. Clare gave Scamp’s mouth a thorough exam and checked him over for signs of pain or illness, even though he’d had a full check-up recently. She explained that behavioural issues can be linked to health problems, such as pain, and she wanted to be absolutely sure that there was no underlying issue.
Signs of resource guarding
When the valued item (the resource) is approached, affected dogs show a variety of symptoms. These start with subtle signs of discomfort:
- Tense posture
- Ears back
- Showing whites of eyes
- Blocking item with body or freezing over it
- Dogs may eat faster, or run away with an item and hide it.
If these signals are ignored, dogs may escalate to more overt behaviours:
- Baring teeth
The vet was concerned that Scamp’s behaviours were escalating
Furthermore, there was a threat of aggression. She recommended that Kev seek advice from a professional veterinary behaviourist. Kev was willing to seek expert advice, but was concerned about the costs. A consult with an advanced professional in clinical animal behaviour sounded like it might be expensive, and Clare warned that management of behavioural issues can take some time.
He told the vet he wasn’t sure he could afford the referral, and Clare asked if Scamp was insured. Some insurance policies now cover behavioural costs, which luckily turned out to be the case with Kev’s insurance. Aside from paying the excess, the costs of the referral and behaviourist consultation were covered by Scamp’s comprehensive policy.
Scamp and Kev had their behavioural appointment booked for just a few days later
The behaviourist went over Scamp’s history (as much as they knew of it!), his daily routines and his behaviours in great detail. After discussion, she made up a tailored behavioural modification plan for Scamp for the next few weeks, at which point he’d be reassessed.
Management of food guarding
Treatment of this behaviour will depend on individual circumstances, but there are a few key areas to work on.
1) Environmental management
Never punish a dog for resource guarding, as this will likely escalate the behaviour. If the dog is guarding food, set aside a quiet area for them to eat, and don’t approach them while eating until under instruction from a behaviourist. Keep mealtimes at consistent times of day, and never withhold food or place demands on a dog for them to get their food.
2) Positive reward training
Dogs who guard resources need to learn that their food is not under threat. The process to teach this is called desensitisation and counter conditioning. The aim is to slowly teach your dog that you being around their food is a positive thing, by adding to their food rather than taking it away. This is started by standing a distance away from their bowl and throwing a tasty morsel towards your dog whilst they are eating. Gradually, the distance is reduced until you can approach and add a treat to their bowl as they eat. This process needs to be done slowly and carefully.
Each behavioural case is different and the best option for management is for a qualified behaviourist to assess the dog and devise a behaviour modification plan specific to that patient.
The vet had regular updates from Kev and Scamp
The behavioural work took time, but Scamp slowly reached the point where he was happy with people being around his food bowl, as he came to learn that they always added to his bowl, rather than taking anything away! Kev was delighted that he had his friendly pooch back!
If you have a behavioural concern with your pet, speak to your vet. They’ll be able to rule out any underlying medical causes and refer you on to a reputable behaviourist if needed.
If you want to search for a behaviourist, here are some helpful resources:
- Animal Behaviour and Training Council
- Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors
- Fellowship of Animal Behaviour Clinicians
- Search the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons register to find a vet with advanced or specialist status in animal behaviour
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