Dear Julie,

My 1 year old yellow lab is the sweetest boy you will ever meet, very friendly with everyone, gentle and listens extremely well … except when he has a bone.  If myself or anyone for that matter, tries to take his bone from him he will snarl and snap at us.  This random aggression has my family on edge and we are concerned that this will only get worse as he get’s older.  What causes him to do this and what can I do about it?


Stressed out

Dear Stressed out,

It sounds to me like your little boy has the issue labeled as resource guarding.  Resource guarding is characterized as an aggressive reaction towards a person and / or animal with the intent to protect a valued resource, such as food, toys, etc.  It is believed that Resource Guarding is an adaptive behavioural response in which the dog has learned that an antagonistic behaviour display is a successful strategy to prevent the loss of a valued resource.

Research suggests that every dog has the capability to resource guard when life circumstances deem it necessary.  Simply put, in the wild, if you gave up your food to everyone who wanted it you would starve.

Each dog’s individual tolerance level, or threshold, determines how easily the behaviour is triggered and the severity of reaction.  Active resource guarders are believed to share an inherited low resource guarding threshold that appears to have a strong genetic component, which can be either encouraged or discouraged based on learning experiences that have taken place as the dog matures and develops.

A low resource guarding threshold can be compared to a human’s temper.  Some people are extremely tolerant and able to withstand high levels of conflict before they get upset, while others are easily drawn into arguments or prone to explosive outbursts.  Where each dog’s individual resource guarding threshold lies, greatly depends on their individual personality profile and past experiences.

An active resource guarding response can range from the mild; hunkering down over the item of value and growling, to fully disengaging from the item of value and attacking.  The trigger for the reaction is always the same: someone, somehow, approached the dog while he / she was protecting a high value item.

The good news is that resource guarding is highly subject to classical counter conditioning and for item guarding (such as food, toys, etc.) holds an excellent rehabilitation success rate.  Treating resource guarding is tricky business and requires an experienced professional to design a program suitable to your dog’s personality and the type of resource guarding displayed.  Tackling this issue on your own could lead to escalating the situation and or accidentally creating undesirable associations.  I recommend that you discuss this with your veterinarian and ask for a referral to an experienced professional in your area.