In this article I’m going to discuss resource guarding in cats and dogs. It is a much more important topic for dogs because it can lead to injury but this is very rarely the case for cats. Therefore, the dog section is much bigger than the cat section! One dog behaviorist assesses a dog’s adoptability on their resource guarding. On my interpretation of her technique, she’s in danger of consigning some dogs to euthanasia if they resource guard by biting.
Gia Savocchi is a New York-based dog behaviourist who uses TikTok to explain to her followers useful aspects of dog behaviour in order to improve the dog-to-human relationship. In one video she very directly shows us how she assesses whether a dog is adoptable or not. It is as black-and-white as that.
The test is simple. She shows us the difference between two dogs and how they react when food guarding. She uses a fake arm as a means to intervene in the dog’s feeding by simulating another animal trying to grab their food.
The black dog reacts angrily in guarding his food and bites. The brown dog shrugs it off and reacts more placidly and does not bite. She declares this dog to be adoptable and the black dog to be unadoptable – euthanasia beckons?
Also, with respect to the black dog she said that he failed his “day to day guarding assessment as well, even with unlimited food 24/7”. I guess what she is saying is that there was no need for this dog to guard his food so aggressively when food was so abundant.
In another video she explained that it is perfectly normal for a dog to guard possessions like food but it depends how aggressive that guarding is and whether the dog bites or not. If a dog is going to bite a person when guarding resources, they are unadoptable it seems to me in her assessment.
She says that “in real life, people will try to take things from their dogs. So, it’s important that we know that if somebody tries to take something from a dog, it may growl, it may snap. But it shouldn’t really injure them.”.
The big question which is left unanswered and which is noticed by people commenting on the video is how to address the behavioural problem in the black dog. Can it be addressed? Can it be rectified to allow the dog to become adoptable? Surely it is possible. In the video Savocchi does not address this issue.
So, I went in search of an answer. Resource guarding is also called “possessive aggression”. It can happen between dogs and people and dogs and other dogs. When a dog demonstrates resource guarding which is milder in nature they might eat faster, freeze, brace their body position over the item or pin their ears back against their head. These are some examples of resource guarding which does not result in biting.
You desensitise a dog to the anxiety that they feel in potentially losing their resource. You can do this by standing just outside their reaction zone while they are, for example, eating. This will teach them that you are not going to take their food and that you are a friend.
Secondly, you can stand just outside the dog’s reaction zone and toss them a treat. You can then approach them and drop the treats directly in front of them. This trains the dog to understand that you don’t want to take their ‘resource’.
A third step to desensitise a dog as to slowly approach the “reaction zone” i.e. they zone at which they become aggressive and then stop when they become aggressive. Do this a number of times and it should desensitise them to the point where it does not trigger aggression.
You can live with a dog who aggressively resource guards by not provoking the reaction. The problem is that if there is a child in a home they might get hurt. It seems to me that Savocchi believes that dogs cannot unlearn aggressive possession behavior.
Cat resource guarding
And so, to cats! Cats also resource guard sometimes. My cat has in the past on a few occasions if the circumstances are right such as when eating a favourite food and he is very hungry. On one occasion he growled at me and carried the food off the bowl away from me.
On every occasion that my cat brings in a mouse alive in his jaws he will resource guard that prize. If I go to him, he runs off and growls at me. And if I approach him with the mouse on the floor, he will grab it in his jaws and run off. He may growl at me at the same time. But he never bites or attacks me. This is the difference between cats and dogs. Dogs can be dangerous and harmful if they resource guard aggressively whereas cats won’t be.
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