Updated: Jun 22
Resource guarding is one of my favorite topics is talking about LGDs because it is so easy to de-mystify how it can become out of balance and an issue for both dogs and owners. It is something owners seem to stumble with. As an early owner of Maremmas, I did too. When people talk about “resource guarding” and LGDs, it is usually from a negative standpoint, often with some fear thrown in as well. I’d like to add my perspective to the mix, as taught to me over the years by my many patient Maremmas.
In most circumstances, it isn’t helpful to assign human emotions to animals. Examples of this would be thinking animals can feel guilt or have the capacity to reason; they are not capable of either of these emotions. But in the case of thinking about resources, it might be helpful to put yourself in your dog’s shoes, so to speak:
Do you lock your car? Your house? How would you feel if you were in a fancy restaurant eating a steak, and the guy from the next table over came and took it? What if he didn’t actually take it but only stared at you from his table while you ate it? How would that feel to you? What if you are eating that steak inside the restaurant, the doors are locked, and you know that the people watching you through the windows while you eat cannot possibly come in and take your steak. Would you feel relaxed and comfortable while you ate?
As individuals, all of us would have different responses to these questions. Still, I suspect there would be enough commonality in our answers to get a glimpse at what worries about resources must be like for our dogs. It is worth noting that the dog’s perception of a threat is relevant, not if you think a threat is there. You may feel that having the sheep stare at a dog eating with a fence between them is fine, and for some dogs and situations, it may be, but if the dog looks worried, you need to change the environment so that the dog feels relaxed and safe as he eats.
***All animals guard resources they need for survival or comfort.***
Remember, too, that LGDs were selectively bred to protect resources; you want them to protect the resources you care about, but the dogs don’t come with an “off-switch.” It is unrealistic to expect them to protect the resources you value and give up resources they value/need.
What is a “resource” for a dog?
For a dog, a resource is anything the dog values. Examples would be a favorite place to sleep, favorite animals or humans, and of course, food. From a science standpoint, there are primary and secondary resources. Secondary resources are things the animal has learned to value. Food is a primary resource: the animal needs it for its very survival. All animals are born programmed to protect their access to food.
When access to a secondary resource is threatened, the dog is likely to respond differently than when a primary resource is threatened. A dog may acquiesce if a sheep wants to sleep in his favorite place, but the dog’s response to a sheep trying to steal his dinner may be very different! Food is necessary for the dog’s survival.
Animals live in a community. There are rules in this community, as is true in our human-animal community. Rule breakers in the community upset the harmonious balance of the community. Some transgressions are more significant than others, and the perception of the degree of the offense varies between individuals in the community.
Dogs that are put in the position of protecting their food resource have a few options. Yes, they may give in and walk away, but that is unlikely to be the repeated response from the dog because he can’t afford to give up his dinner repeatedly. Dogs will ask the threatening animal to back off using a variety of canine behavioral body language cues – to learn more about this, please purchase and read the book shown at the bottom of this blog.
A threatened dog will first respond with subtle requests for the threat to back off but will escalate its behavior as needed to handle the threat. It is likely that the next time the dog is threatened, he will begin with the behavior he learned was effective the last time.
So many times, I have heard or read the comment that the dogs and animals will work it out. That is true, but are you prepared to live with what they come up with? Here’s a story about two dogs who very successfully figured out how to protect their food and every other resource they held in common within their animal community.
The dogs in this video are Topaz and Badger. Topaz was sixteen months old when she left me, with six-month-old Badger as her working partner. Both were solid, trustworthy guardians at that time, although still adolescent dogs. Five months later, they were returned to me with the behaviors you see in the video. These dogs show me that livestock has been allowed to take resources from them. They have learned to see livestock as competitors for resources rather than as flock/family members.
This lesson has been well learned. You are looking at the end of their career as guardians of livestock. Badger went on to have a home as a property manager with a partner and is happy and productive. Topaz paid for the mistakes made in her management with her life. She was a remarkable dog and much beloved by me. The behavior you see in this video is the most common reason LGDs are euthanized in this country. It is COMPLETELY preventable and predictable.
Benson Maremmas Training Video - Resource Guarding - Angry dogs:
I hope that video took your breath away. It broke my heart as I recorded it. I worked with both dogs for nearly a year, trying every training tool I had to reverse the damage of their learned behavior and could not.
Looking for a little good news? Here’s good news:
It is entirely realistic to learn to support your dogs so that they always feel safe about their resources. If resources are plentiful and assured, the dog does not need to protect them, so the key to training against resource guarding is to make sure the dog never feels the need to.
I have a dog here I refer to as “Yeti the Bad Dog.” He is huge and fast, and when I call him this and invite visitors into his field to meet him…they often don’t want to go! Imagine that! I adore this dog, but he was the most challenging LGD I have ever encountered to raise and train, then and since. He came to me through the club rescue very early in my Maremma career. I remember getting to two years old with him, which is the promised time that LGDs grow up and behave themselves, and looking at Yeti and telling him that a deal is a deal! It did take Yeti a little longer to find his way, and the fault in that is mine. For Yeti, all his stress was about resources, and I just did not understand how deeply that went for him. Over the subsequent years, I have apologized to Yeti so many times, and what he taught me has allowed me to do a much better job for pups that came along after him.
Remember the photo at the top of this blog? Here is the rest of that photo. Notice that the Orange pup is eating in the company of her eight brothers and sisters. Even at her young age of five months, she has learned that I will make sure she is allowed to eat in peace.
In the video below, you’ll see me protecting the pups from Annabel the cow. She will actually eat the kibble. The puppies don’t know this, so they are not concerned about her presence. As a trainer and owner, I can make sure the pups/dogs never learn that livestock can be a threat at dinnertime if I do my job. Since I control when the food shows up, I can make a feeding plan. I can put livestock where I want them or the dogs where I want them, stay with my dogs when they eat, remove uneaten food, and even empty bowls when the dogs are finished.
All this assures my dogs of a blissful, stress-free dining experience. Every dog – every animal – deserves nothing less.
Benson Maremmas - Resource Guarding - Annabel Wants Puppy Food!: