Resource Guarding In Boxers: Why It Happens And What To Do

Food aggression — and the related, but milder behavior of resource guarding —  are relatively common problems that may arise with your Boxer dog.

Resource guarding generally refers to your Boxer behaving aggressively or possessively when he has something he doesn’t want to give up, or sometimes to gain control of it in the first place.

The guarding of a resource originates in a dog’s hardwired instincts and has the same drivers whether it takes the form of food aggression, toy guarding or possessiveness with coveted objects, locations or people.

This behavior can be particularly disturbing for owners because it presents in the home, and can be directed towards the very person who’s done the providing of the resource, or towards children.

Signs Of Resource Guarding in Boxers

Your Boxer may be resource guarding if he:

  • Growls, snaps or snarls when you take something away from him
  • Shows aggression — or tension — when you approach him while he’s eating or has a bone
  • Growls, freezes gives the “hard eyed” stare or refuses to move when you try to get them to give up a prized sleeping location or when you approach him in his crate
  • Gets cranky when another dog approaches in any of the above scenarios
  • Acts as though he’s “jealous” (a human emotion but you get the drift) or behaves possessively towards you as the owner or “guards” another person in the household, trying to intimidate other dogs, or even people, out of approaching
  • Guards a “mate” or dog of the opposite gender

Why Do Boxer Dogs Guard Resources?

The first thing to understand is that resource guarding is a natural behavior for dogs, one that serves their survival in the wild.

As predators who hunt in packs, guarding behavior ensures a dog is likely to get a larger share of the kill than if he willingly moves aside.

Does this mean we should accept this hangover of an evolutionary behavior when it rears its head in the modern pet dog?

No.

But it means we need to understand the strength of the underlying biological drive that we are up against.

Defending resources like food and other things of value is hardwired in a dog (as it is in all animals, including ourselves).

Survival via natural selection is, after all, a competition for resources.

Your Boxer is not “being naughty” when he does it.

He is being a dog.

See it from the canine perspective.

Know your dog, including:

  • What he considers a high value object, location, person etc
  • What he perceives as a threat
  • How he shows aggression/his conflict resolution style
  • His history including when he left the litter, whether he learned bite inhibition etc

If your Boxer is a rescue dog, make sure you also know what you don’t know.

Treat your adopted Boxer with special caution since you’re not sure what was in his past and what baggage he might be carrying, what buttons you might accidentally push.

Recognize that any dog, no matter how sweet-natured in 99.9% of situations, may bite if provoked, or afraid, or not feeling well.

Even with a Boxer you’ve raised from a pup, he is an animal.

Domesticated, sure — and living in the heart of the human family.

But still of another species, with a wild past.

He is capable of split-second reactions, driven by sheer instinct.

Like his human caretakers, he can mistakes in the heat of the moment.

He won’t always have perfect judgment.

Your Boxer has it in him to be unpredictable.

Don’t set him up for failure by expecting too much.

Types of Resource Guarding Behavior In Boxers

Your Boxer may resource guard:

  • Food
  • Toys and other objects
  • Locations like the couch or a bed (even the human’s bed)
  • People
  • Other dogs, particularly ones of the opposite sex that he considers “mates” (This instinct may be stronger if the dogs are un-neutered and un-spayed.)

It’s useful to understand the difference between actual aggression, and “ritualized” aggression as part of conflict resolution in dogs.

Growling, for instance, is first and foremost your dog communicating displeasure and issuing a warning.

Your dog is saying “back off”.

He is telegraphing his punches, or posturing, if you like.

This behavior is an attempt to head off actual violence.

A snap is a deliberate biting of the air, not the other dog or person.

I am not saying any of these lower level signs of aggression should be tolerated.

But far better to have a dog that will growl, snarl or snap than a dog that bites with lethal force out of nowhere.

Food Aggression

Food is the ultimate resource.

Note that food aggression encompasses a continuum of behaviors up to and including actual biting but also involving:

  • Hard stares
  • Freezing or tensing the body
  • Crouching
  • Eating faster or grabbing the food when someone/another dog nears

Don’t wait for it to escalate to out-and-out aggression before addressing it.

Like other forms of resource guarding, food aggression can play out between dogs or be directed at people including the owner.

Be aware that if you have just transitioned your Boxer from kibble to a fresh, natural canine diet (Good decision!) he may be more prone to resource guard his food, because it is much more appetizing i.e. he’ll regard it as higher value.

The same applies to that beloved Boxer dog food: raw meaty bones.

This is just about as precious a resource as they come!

How To Stop Your Boxer Resource Guarding

Stamping out resource guarding or food aggression in a Boxer involves a positive reinforcement process of desensitization and counterconditioning.

Essentially the key is to reprogram your Boxer so the reactive behavior is extinguished.

Desensitization gets your Boxer used to something that is currently tweaking him the wrong way, so that he no longer reacts.

Counterconditioning links the stimulus (someone approaching) with a more positive association, so that it changes your Boxer’s emotional response.

Rather than fearing another dog or human is going to take his resource, you are going to teach your dog that the approach of another dog or person always results in higher value treats or resources coming his way.

Here’s an example of how to put this into practice.

Let’s say your Boxer displays resource guarding with a favorite toy and grabs the toy, his whole body visibly tensing up when anyone approaches.

You’re going to engineer a situation in which the resource guarding normally occurs in order to practice an alternate behavior.

These are the steps:

  1. Give your Boxer a low value toy, perhaps playing with him a little to get him interested in the toy
  2. While your Boxer has the toy, walk towards him, drop a high value treat and walk away
  3. Practice approaching and dropping treats from different angles (Your puppy will begin to expect the treat and drop the toy as you arrive. He’s now anticipating getting something rather than losing the toy.)
  4. If your dog struggles, up the value of the treat to something he finds even yummier, lower the value of the toy to something he’s less inclined to guard (or use a random, familiar object he doesn’t care about) or toss the treat from a greater distance, before your Boxer is triggered to guard the toy
  5. Work on this over different training sessions and days, gradually increasing the value of the toys to ones your Boxer loves most. Remember, at this point you have still not made any move to actually take the toy, you’re just approaching and walking on, gradually desensitizing your Boxer
  6. Now, sit near your pup when he has a low value toy. Reach towards it, say “yes” as you briefly touch the toy, then give him a treat
  7. Next, say “yes” as you pick up the toy, give a treat, then return the toy to your dog
  8. That’s it! You may be surprised at the difference this simple game makes. You may even find your Boxer spontaneously brings the toy to you and offers it up in hopes of getting a reward in return.

Note this technique is not recommended if your Boxer has severe resource guarding problems or a history of seriously aggressive behavior or actual biting.

In that case, find a trainer experienced in working with this kind of situation and who uses positive reinforcement methods.

As long as your Boxer is displaying only mild resource guarding, you can use the above technique as well as variations of those outlined in the next section (for the prevention of resource guarding in Boxer puppies).

You may well need to adapt the puppy techniques for adult dogs that are already displaying the problem behavior (as opposed to youngsters who are yet to develop it).

You might need, for instance, to train your adult Boxer on a full stomach, so his resource guarding is less pronounced.

More Tips For Dealing With A Boxer That Resource Guards Or Has Food Aggression

Remember to always view your Boxer’s resource guarding in a holistic sense, considering the whole dog rather than one aspect of his behavior in isolation:

  • What is his background? Was he removed from his litter at six weeks instead of eight to ten? Was he a shelter dog potentially undernourished or mistreated before you adopted him?
  • Has he recently been sick? Is he in pain?
  • Has he borne the brunt of another dog’s aggression?

If your Boxer has a hang up about his food being taken away that is based on it actually happening in the past, perhaps stolen by other more dominant dogs in a multi-dog household, then you will need to build trust by giving him space when he eats.

It can be a good idea to feed him away from other dogs, possibly even in a separate room, until he learns he doesn’t have to compete for or guard his food, and can relax.

Once he sees you have the situation, and the behavior of other dogs under control, it will go a long way towards him realizing he doesn’t have to resource guard, because his dinner isn’t going to be stolen from him.

The first step in correcting any problem behavior is to understand how it came about and what role you may have played in inadvertently creating it.

Your contribution can be as simple as not having given your Boxer any practice in having food taken away and then returned.

Or you may be lax in enforcing rules across the board, leading your Boxer to conclude he’s running the show and therefore within his rights to put others in their place if they try to usurp his authority by taking things away.

Part of the solution inevitably involves recalibrating or reasserting the hierarchy of the household, so your Boxer is in no doubt about who controls the resources, and access to them.

In the absence of clear leadership, a Boxer is only too happy to jump in and fill the vacuum.

This is where problems of dominance and resource guarding can arise.

Your Boxer needs to know he doesn’t make the rules — his job is to follow them.

And when he does, he will be provided for.

(It’s worth acknowledging that many Boxers love to be chased — not a great idea as it will undermine your recall command — and to play “keep away” with toys and objects.

This is not resource guarding as such, as it’s not usually accompanied by any tensing of the body when you grab the toy.

He actually wants you to grab the toy!

Nevertheless, you probably still want to encourage him to “bring it” rather than run in the opposite direction as this gets old pretty fast and doesn’t make for the best engagement between dog and owner.)

How To Prevent Resource Guarding Developing In A Boxer Puppy

There is a lot you can do to prevent your Boxer puppy growing up to exhibit problematic resource guarding.

1. Don’t Bring Home Your Boxer Puppy Prematurely

Bite inhibition is something Boxer puppies learn amongst their littermates and from their mother.

Puppies taken from the litter earlier than eight and ideally ten weeks are deprived of this important period of socialization.

Excessive “mouthiness” or biting in a way that hurts can sometimes be traced to a puppy being rehomed early, around five or six weeks.

If your pup came to you early for whatever reason, bite inhibition or having a “soft mouth” can be taught later but it’s harder work!

2. Practice Interfering With Food

From the very beginning, pat and touch your Boxer puppy while he eats.

Reach into his bowl regularly and take his dish away, showing him that these things don’t result in him losing access to the food.

Instead, you add more food and let him go on eating.

3. Teach Strong “Leave It” And “Drop It” Commands

Train your Boxer to obey instantaneously when you tell him to relinquish an object.

The way to teach this is to replace whatever he forfeits with a higher value object — a better toy, a more delicious treat.

This way, your Boxer learns there is something in it for him to give up what he has.

It’s much safer to pick up an object that’s on the ground, than to take it directly from your dog’s mouth.

Just grabbing for something without first telling your dog what’s expected of him is never a good idea either.

A Boxer taken by surprise is more likely to react on instinct and resist the taking of a resource.

If your Boxer still looks iffy even though he’s dropped the object, require him to “Back” away and “Sit” before you reach down.

4. Be A Firm, But Gentle, Leader

By setting and consistently reinforcing rules, your Boxer and any other dogs in the household will learn respect for you as the “pack leader”.

Knowing his place as a good “follower dog” will help a Boxer feel secure and accept your control of resources as just part of the order of things.

He still may test the boundaries occasionally — this is normal — but a generally well behaved Boxer that feels loved and safe, and respects his owner’s authority, is less likely to develop resource guarding issues either towards the owner or towards other dogs.

Protecting Children From A Boxer That Resource Guards

While you are working on your adult Boxer’s resource guarding, it’s smart to put in place some rules for the kids in the household.

Make sure your children know to:

  • Leave your Boxer completely alone while eating or chewing a bone
  • Not bother your Boxer when he’s in his bed, crate or special spot
  • Never try to take toys or other objects away from him

These rules may seem like pandering to your Boxer’s inappropriate resource guarding but they won’t be forever.

This is a stop-gap measure to protect both your kids (from getting bitten) and your Boxer, by not putting him in situations he’s not yet equipped to handle.

If your kids are too young to follow these rules, supervision is the only way.

While Boxers are renowned for being wonderful with children and protective of them, it’s best practice to never leave young children alone with your Boxer.

This is doubly necessary if he has resource guarding issues at this point in time.

Will A Boxer Dog Grow Out Of Resource Guarding?

Resource guarding, if allowed to persist, may actually worsen.

It’s best addressed early and ideally when the Boxer is a puppy, before he develops the bone-crushing jaw strength he will eventually possess.

Conclusion

Resource guarding is well worth preventing, and addressing early, as dogs that display serious aggression — and, god forbid, those that bite — are more likely to be given up or worse.

It’s our responsibility as owners to teach our Boxers the skills and impulse control to overcome their essential natures when those instincts put them (or their human families) at risk.

If your Boxer’s resource guarding has progressed beyond a level where you feel competent to safetly train it out of your dog, or if it’s severe, don’t go it alone.

Seek out the assistance of an expert who uses positive reinforcement and counterconditioning.

References

Codr, David, Helping a Newly Adopted Boxer Stop Acting Possessively Aggressive, Dog Gone Problems Dog Behavior and Training, 2017

Donaldson, Jean, Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs, The Academy for Dog Trainers, 2002

Dunbar, Ian, How To Teach A New Dog Old Tricks: The Sirius Puppy Training Manual, James and Kenneth Publishers, Third Edition, 1996

Larlham, Emily, Preventing toy guarding in puppies – Resource guarding prevention game, Dog Training by Kikopup, 2015

McConnell, Patricia, Resource Guarding Revisited, The Other End of the Leash, 2014