Resource Guarding and Territorial Behaviour in Dogs

Resource guarding and territorial behaviours are instinctual tendencies observed in many animals, including our canine companions. While these behaviours can sometimes be alarming or problematic in a domestic setting, they often arise from a dog’s natural impulse to protect its belongings or environment. With the right approach, owners can help their pets navigate these behaviours in a manner that’s safe and harmonious for everyone involved.

Understanding Resource Guarding and Territorial Behaviours

Before delving into mitigation strategies, it’s essential to understand what these behaviours entail.

Resource Guarding

This is when a dog becomes protective or possessive over certain items, such as food, toys, or even a favourite resting spot. Signs might include growling, snapping, or lunging when someone approaches or attempts to take the guarded object.

Territorial Behaviour

This describes a dog’s tendency to protect its space or environment, like the home, yard, or even the owner themselves. Symptoms may be barking, growling, or aggressive posturing towards strangers or other animals who encroach upon perceived territory. Dogs during gestation could also exhibit the same behaviours so be extra cautious when dealing with them.

Common Causes Behind These Behaviours

Understanding the root causes of resource guarding and territorial behaviours is paramount. Only by knowing what prompts these reactions can we effectively address and mitigate them. Here’s are some of the typical reasons that drive such behaviours:

  • Genetic Predisposition: Just as some breeds have herding or hunting instincts, certain dogs might be more predisposed to guarding or territorial behaviours. For example, breeds historically used for guarding property or livestock may exhibit stronger territorial instincts.
  • Past Negative Experiences: Dogs, like humans, remember traumatic events. If a dog has had its food snatched away without any positive reinforcement or has been startled or threatened while enjoying a toy, it might develop a protective instinct over its resources.
  • Insecurity or Anxiety: Dogs that feel insecure or anxious may resort to resource guarding as a coping mechanism. This insecurity can be a result of previous trauma, inconsistent handling, or simply a naturally anxious disposition.
  • Competition: In environments where multiple pets coexist, competition for resources – whether real or perceived – can escalate guarding behaviours. If a dog feels that its food, toys, or resting spots are constantly under threat from other animals, it may become more aggressive in protecting them.
  • Lack of Proper Socialisation: Dogs that haven’t been properly exposed to various stimuli during their critical formative weeks and months can develop guarding behaviours out of fear of the unknown. If they’re not accustomed to sharing or haven’t been introduced to various environments and beings, they might see everything as a potential threat.
  • Health Issues: Sometimes, the onset of resource guarding, especially in older dogs, can be linked to underlying health issues. Pain, discomfort, or cognitive decline can make a dog more irritable or anxious, leading them to guard resources they previously shared without issues.
  • Changes in Environment: A significant change, like moving to a new home, introducing a new family member (human or animal), or even rearranging furniture, can lead some dogs to become more territorial or protective of their resources. They might feel that their safe space has been disrupted and thus feel the need to assert themselves more.

Understanding these underlying causes is the first step to effectively addressing resource guarding or territorial behaviours. By pinpointing the trigger, owners can tailor their approach to suit their dog’s specific needs and situation.

Strategies to Mitigate or Prevent These Behaviours

Positive Reinforcement

Instead of punishing a dog for displaying undesirable behaviour, reward them for showing the opposite. If your dog doesn’t growl when someone approaches their toy, praise and reward them. This method promotes the behaviour you want to see without instilling fear.


Gradually expose your dog to the triggers causing their guarding or territorial behaviours in a controlled manner. For instance, if your dog guards food, approach their bowl at increasing proximities over days, rewarding calm behaviour until they’re comfortable with you being close.

Avoid Direct Confrontation

Confronting a dog that’s guarding can escalate the situation. Instead, work on trading up. Offer them a higher-value item in exchange for the one they’re guarding. Over time, this can teach the dog that giving up their guarded item can result in better things.

Obedience Training

Basic obedience commands like “sit,” “stay,” and “leave it” can be incredibly helpful. They provide structure and can divert your dog’s attention away from a guarded item or territory.

The Role of Proper Care and Socialization

Prevention is always more effective than correction. One of the most effective ways to prevent resource guarding or territorial behaviours is through early and consistent socialisation:

  • Puppyhood Socialization: Expose puppies to various people, animals, environments, and situations. This broadens their understanding of the world and reduces the fear of the unknown.
  • Positive Interactions: Ensure that all early experiences with new items, animals, or people are positive. Introducing new toys or food should be a fun and rewarding experience.
  • Monitor Playtime: During play sessions with other dogs, especially in puppyhood, ensure that they’re positive and don’t involve aggressive resource guarding.


While resource guarding and territorial behaviours can be concerning, understanding their origins and applying consistent, positive-reinforcement strategies can make a world of difference. By investing time in early socialisation and proper care, dog owners can pave the way for a well-adjusted canine companion that feels secure in its environment and relationships. Remember, our dogs look to us for guidance, and with patience and understanding, we can help them navigate the world with confidence and calmness.

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