Clarifying Terminology Around Canine Aggression

October 21, 2018
Ashley O. Bohn, PhD, MS, RVT

Experts agree: Standardized definitions for resource guarding and possessive aggression enable proper patient care and effective client communication.

Canine aggression is the most common problem seen by veterinary behavior specialists. The terms possessive aggression and resource guarding are often used interchangeably in communications with clients to describe an unwanted behavior by dogs in the setting of protecting or guarding an item; however, variation in the terms and definitions used in published literature contribute to confusion about their meanings.

It is imperative for clinicians to have clear guidelines and definitions of these behaviors to diagnose appropriately and recommend treatments for their patients. Researchers from the University of Guelph recently investigated differences between terms used to describe these behaviors and established a standard definition to describe protection of an item or resource. Their study aims to standardize the terms used to aid in future behavioral research.

Study Design

In this 3-part study, 85 veterinary behavior experts were asked to participate in surveys and open discussions regarding their opinions on the terms possessive aggression, resource guarding, and food-related aggression. Individuals invited to join in the study held an advanced degree (DVM or PhD) and had advanced credentials in companion animal behavior, such as Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior, Diplomate of the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavior Medicine-Companion Animal, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, or Certified Clinical Animal Behaviorist.

Thirty-six experts participated in part 1 of the survey, 29 participated in part 2, and 14 took part in the anonymous online discussion. Data were evaluated to determine whether a relationship existed between participants’ credentials and the preferred terminology used to describe these behaviors. A Fischer’s exact test was used to evaluate statistical significance among the data.

Results

Sixty-six percent of those who participated in part 2 the study preferred the term resource guarding to describe behaviors associated with protecting an item or food source, followed by possessive aggression (21%). The researchers proposed a standard definition for the term resource guarding following evaluation of open discussions with study participants: “the use of avoidance, threatening, or aggressive behaviors by a dog to retain control of food or nonfood items in the presence of a person or other animal.”

Study participants expressed concern with using possessive aggression to describe these behaviors to owners, because the term describes a subset of aggressive behaviors and implies a competition between the animal and owner. No statistically significant differences were found between participants with the same credentials and their preferred terminology.

Conclusion

The authors determined that a standard definition is needed to describe guarding or protective behaviors by dogs. The terms used to describe behaviors affect the way clinicians and owners think about these behaviors; therefore, it’s imperative to have a broad, clear definition to encourage correct diagnoses and treatments of canine patients. The term resource guarding was deemed to be a more inclusive, broad term to describe a variety of protective behaviors, including “body blocking,” running away with an item, and rapid ingestion of an item.

Dr. Bohn received her PhD and MS from Georgia State University and has been a practicing veterinary nurse for nearly 20 years. She provides freelance medical writing services through her business, Bohn Communications.