By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP
In Partnership With Dogs
In today’s society, both dog owners and non dog owners have extremely high (and perhaps unrealistic) expectations of our pet dogs. We have no tolerance for any grumpy or aggressive behaviour directed toward humans at any point in the lifetime of a dog.
What we’re really asking is that our dogs go their entire lifetime without ever losing their temper. Do you think any human could do the same – I certainly couldn’t and I don’t know anyone else who could either.
One of the more challenging behaviour issues for dog owners to modify is Resource Guarding. It’s also probably one of the most commonly misunderstood or misdiagnosed issues by dog owners.
What is Resource Guarding?
One popular, yet dangerously inaccurate, explanation of Resource Guarding is that you have a “dominant” dog. This is the mistaken belief that dogs are all about rank and that we need to be the “alpha” personality in any relationship we have with our dog. Any dog that attempts to prevent us from taking anything he has must surely be acting out of his “dominant” nature and clearly views us as being on a much lower rank – right? Nope – very, very wrong. Entire methods and programs of training are based on the myth of the “dominant dog”, and it’s an extremely dangerous approach to take.
Resource Guarding can be described as simply as a dog’s attempt to hold on to a valuable resource.
“Behaviour that discourages another to take, or get too close to, an object or valued area in a dog’s possession.” (Excerpt taken from an article on Resource Guarding by Dr. Patricia McConnell, May 3, 2013. Full article may be found at patriciamcconnell.com.)
In a dog’s world if I have it, then it’s mine – simple as that. They are unprepared for the human tendency to want to take things from them frequently or to want to invade their personal space bubble for various reasons that are unclear to the dog.
Many dog owners get very angry at the idea of their pet dogs refusing to give up a treasured object – “how dare he growl at me!”. In fact, this can often be a deal breaker, and many dogs have been given up for even normal levels of resource guarding because it is so misunderstood.
All dogs have a degree of desire to hold on to resources that are valuable to them. With some dogs, you may never see any of the behaviour associated with resource guarding during their lifetime or you may see it in only its mildest form.
In the case of other dogs, you may see it start very early then continue and often escalate as they mature. Resource guarding is a “normal” behaviour in that it exists in dogs. When dogs are afraid, feel threatened or are attempting to hold on to a valued resource, they display certain behaviour. However, extreme resource guarding behaviour, especially those displayed in the very young, can be very unsettling, potentially dangerous and most trainers and behaviourists would not consider this to be “normal” behaviour under the spectrum of resource guarding in the average dog.
Dogs commonly display resource-guarding behaviour toward:
- Food bowls or food dispensing toys
- Dropped food
- Treasured toys
- Family members
- Sleeping locations – growling as you approach dog beds, couches, human beds or any area the dog is already occupying.
- Dropped objects or found objects on walks
- Stolen items like laundry or items from the garbage
What Does Resource Guarding Look Like?
Resource Guarding may include one or more than one behaviour displayed at the same time or added as the circumstances escalate.
Some normal guarding behaviours can include:
- Speeding up eating as you’re approaching a food bowl or food dispensing toy.
- Shifting position to subtly block your approach.
- Quick and frequent glances that may speed up as you approach.
- Getting up and taking a toy further away from you as you approach or even just moving it a little bit further away from you as you sit beside him.
- Moving just a little bit closer to you as a dog or stranger approaches.
- Glancing at you out of the corner of his eye – commonly called a “whale eye” – as he attempts to keep his eyes on the prize but also track your movements (in a “whale eye” the white of the eye is visible).
- Somewhat frantic movements. You may see a faster moving tail along with faster consumption, shifting back and forth as he quickly either eats or attempts to move items to a different area. He may appear “happy” but movements are faster and more frantic than his usual friendly “happy to see you self”.
- Low growling as you approach.
More extreme behaviours can include:
- Growling that intensifies as you approach. In more extreme cases, growling can become snarling with/without teeth showing.
- Barking and lunging – often seen displayed toward an oncoming dog or person when on leash with a human.
- Freezing – completely stilling his movements as you approach. The freezing may be multiple, small seconds of freezing as he tracks your approach or longer moments of freezing if your approach continues.
- Crouching or lowering his body to hover over a treasured object.
- Hard eye – a hard open-eyed stare. This can be directed at the person or dog approaching. It may even appear that your dog is just staring out into space. The hard eye while just staring at nothing in particular can be mistaken for a lack of interest in your approach and has even been mistakenly thought of as a seizure by the unaware.
- Muzzle punches directed at the body part reaching for an item or closest to the dog.
- Quick forward lunges with or without a snap.
- Air snapping. Some people assume that a dog “missed” when they witness an air snap. Make no mistake – when a dog means to bite he bites and can do so faster than you can blink or move. An air snap is exactly what he intends it to be – a threatening gesture without causing immediate damage.
- Full contact bites with or without any damage – minor or significant.
Extreme resource guarders can begin guarding from great distances. A dropped sock or Kleenex can elicit guarding behaviours from a dog who may be all the way across the room from the item.
What NOT to Do!
The absolute worst response to any resource guarding behaviour is to get into a conflict with your dog. Not only could you get badly injured, but also the behaviour will get worse in the future. If you were “successful” in thwarting your dog’s attempt to guard his valued resource, then you will see an escalation of his behaviour because his last attempt was not successful.
Do not use punishment-based training techniques – period. These methods involve forcing your dog to give in to you and/or stopping any behaviour they are displaying. This is a dangerous path. Punishment results in your dog beginning to hide some of his earlier and subtler resource guarding behaviour. A glance, freeze or growl may be eliminated in favor of a direct bite as he goes for more immediate success. Positive trainers use the analogy “punishing the growl is like taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm” – there are no longer any early warning signs to heed.
Proactive Prevention of Resource Guarding Behaviour
You can begin the process of preventing resource guarding at any point with your dog. If you have a new puppy or newly adopted dog, begin on day one. (If you are already seeing resource guarding behaviour, please seek the help of an experienced positive trainer who uses force-free techniques before attempting any training on your own.)
Trade vs. Take
I would get pretty darn irritated if every time somebody wanted something of mine, or wanted to sit where I’m sitting or lie where I’m lying that they simply took what they wanted or shoved me aside.
Trading for everything and taking nothing is a simple yet powerful concept and very easy to put into place. You are essentially making your dog more comfortable about giving up things that are valuable to him.
If you want what your dog has, trade for it with something he would like just as much as what he has – ideally something that is even more valuable. Present a raw bone – if he takes it into his mouth, then you can calmly pick up the kong.
I encourage people to practice this a lot when it doesn’t really matter and when there is an enormous up side to the dog to make the trade. If you practiced a lot by trading ridiculously valuable and tasty treats for toys and immediately giving the toy back – what dog isn’t going to happily go for that deal? If your dog learns that more often than not he doesn’t lose anything permanently, in fact he gains something and gets to have back what was in his possession originally, he will start to become far happier about giving up his items.
If you offer your dog a trade for what he has and it doesn’t work – he doesn’t happily drop what he has – then increase the value of the offer until he does. If I offer my dogs a raw bone for their kong, they will often prefer to keep their kongs – because I’m really good at stuffing them! I may have to offer 2 kongs to get 1 back, or I may have to offer a tasty slice of freshly cooked meat. The point is that the dog gets to decide what constitutes a reasonable trade and what doesn’t. Every dog puts a different value on things and it’s up to us to come up with something of matching or greater value.
When you are doing Trade vs. Take, don’t be sneaky about it – don’t offer your trade and quickly snatch away what he has while he investigates what’s up for grabs. We need to know how he feels about the trade, otherwise future trades won’t be successful – he won’t trust your intentions.
Trading, of sorts, also works for sleeping locations. If I want my dog to get off the couch, try calling him over and give him a very tasty treat when he complies. If calling doesn’t work – he’s really comfy and the lure of a treat just isn’t important right now – then find a better treat or item and try again. Yes, you are luring him off the couch in this case – but this is so much better than getting into conflict. If you find that a lure (bribing) is needed, then the feedback to take away is that more Recall practice needs to be done.
Proactively, I always suggest that my clients try to curb any tendency to guard sleeping locations by tossing a tasty treat any time they pass by their dog sleeping or relaxing. It’s not unusual for dogs to be a bit grumpy about being disturbed when they’re sleeping. With enough repetitions and lots of really good treats, this simple act helps turn any potentially grumpy feelings into happy anticipation.
In addition to helping your dog become more comfortable with giving up items or sleeping locations, training is a necessary addition to any plan for the prevention or management of resource guarding behaviour.
1. Teaching a “Drop-It” Cue
I have found no better method for teaching a solid “Drop-It” skill than the one presented by London trainer Chirag Patel and his training company Domesticated Manners. He has done a very good video on YouTube giving you step-by-step directions to teach this cue. (Search YouTube.com for Domesticated Manners and watch his video “Teaching Your Dog to ‘Drop’”.) It’s brilliant in its simplicity and there are self-checks involved. Whenever you see a lack of success, simply go back one step and do more repetitions before proceeding further. I started this with my puppy, Jack, the first day we brought him home and after months of continuous work, there are very few things that he will not Drop on. A well-trained “Drop It” skill helps you recover items you need to get back from your dog. Because it’s taught using positive training, your dog is also very happy to comply – leaving absolutely no need for any bribing or conflict.
2. Teaching a “Leave It” Cue
“Leave It” is another valuable cue to have. The one thing I don’t like about the “Leave It” is that people tend to rely on their presence to accomplish the goal vs. good training. Having to use an angry or loud voice, intimidating body language or repeated cues means your training is not yet reliable – more practice is needed.
I use the “Leave It” cue for something that my dog does not yet have in his possession or, in the case of dogs approaching us, is still at a comfortable distance. When my dog spots a dropped item or an approaching dog, “Leave It” results in my dog ignoring the item or dog and turning back toward me – for which he gets a lot of valuable treats and/or a quick game of tug. If he’s off leash, he will come racing back to get his reinforcement.
The training starts with your dog being heavily reinforced for choosing eye contact and works up to choosing eye contact in exchange for an increasingly valuable array of items – ultimately off leash and at some distance away from you. I have some video on my business Facebook page (In Partnership With Dogs) that teaches and demonstrates the process and the result of teaching “Leave It”.
3. Teaching a Solid Recall
Perhaps the most valuable cue of all is teaching your dog to “Come” when he’s called. Aside from its obvious value in giving your dog off-leash freedom, imagine how useful it would be to be able to successfully have your dog Recall off the bed or the couch when necessary, or ignore that piece of dropped chicken on the floor in favor of racing back to you. Many people have some version of a “Come” cue for their dogs, but few, it seems, work on it to the point where it is truly solid and likely to work most of the time. There will always be that one exception that you just can’t easily train for that may pop up in the lifetime of your dog. However, a lot of successful practice can easily make this cue a truly useful and reliable skill.
What If There is an Emergency?
What if you really need to get that item away from your dog? If your dog has something that is dangerous for him to have, then you need to do whatever you can to get it away from him. You really need to do your best to ensure that even in an emergency the situation ultimately has a positive outcome for your dog. Make a plan and be prepared.
If I had to drop an entire roast beef on the floor in order to save my dog from danger, I would do it in a heartbeat. This is so much better than having to wrestle something from your dog – you may or may not be successful and you may very well do irreparable damage to your training and to your relationship with your dog.
You need to find out what it is that your dog finds so overwhelmingly valuable that he just can’t resist it. Find this item now, keep it on hand and use it very rarely to keep it’s value high.
Use the highly prized item to trade for the dangerous one. Take the added precaution of tossing the valuable item a distance from your dog, so he will be far away from what you need to get when he drops it to investigate. In an emergency like this, you may very well need to be sneaky and quickly grab what you need while your dog is momentarily distracted. Keep a second version of the prized item on hand in case he takes the dangerous item with him to investigate before dropping it to consume his roast. Now, I don’t always have one or two cooked roasts on hand, but I always have leftovers of some kind, a block of cheese or meat in the freezer. My dogs consider any sort of human protein pretty valuable even if it’s frozen and a whole ton of it dropped on the floor for them is mind blowing.
Sometimes a large handful of less valuable but quickly accessible treats tossed at a great distance away may be sufficient for your dog to drop what he has and race over to investigate. However, if it’s not really valuable, it won’t likely work a second time.
Spend as much time training solid, useful skills as you can so emergencies just don’t happen or can be easily managed.
Some Additional Notes
- If you are seeing any signs of Resource Guarding in your dog or if you are unsure what you are seeing, please enlist the services of a professional, positive dog trainer who is experienced in this area. Having an experienced trainer design a training plan, step you through it and be there for follow up is important and well worth the investment. It’s not always obvious to the average dog owner when things are starting to turn around and skilled observations are necessary. All (age-appropriate) members of the family need to be involved in the training and be coached by the trainer. Dogs do not transfer these newly learned skills to another person easily – again, professional assistance is a must.
- The most critical part of any training plan is Management. Again, an experienced professional’s advice is invaluable here. If you have children living in your home, then management and experienced, professional advice is doubly important!
- You will likely find that sharing items with your dog rarely results in any resource guarding behaviour. Many dogs are happy to chew on something that you are holding onto, join you on the couch when invited, or come over for a pat when you are already petting another dog. This is simply a display of “when you have it, it’s yours” and is well understood by most dogs.
- If you have a new puppy, get to a positive reinforcement puppy class that actively practices the prevention of this behaviour.
- If you’re looking for a good book on the subject of Resource Guarding, check out “Mine!” by Jean Donaldson.
As always, keep it Positive, have fun with your dog and start your training now!