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Resource Guarding in Dogs - Part II
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Canine Behavior Associates
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It's Mine!  All Mine!

Last month we discussed the various types of resource guarding - this month, we'll go through some of the methods that can be successful in modifying the behavior.  

Before we begin, it's important to assess the situation - how bad is the guarding?  Does the dog guard just his food, just his high level chewies, or just his bed?  Or does he guard many things, perhaps even surprising items or places, like tissue or his own vomit?

If it's one type of item, it's generally simple (though time consuming and not always easy) to work on.   If he guards multiple objects, both management and modification become enormously more complicated. 

Though some resource guarding can be completely extinguished, it's hard to guarantee it.   Some dogs are fine with family members, but see other people as threats.  And some see children as "puppies" who need to learn, certainly not as people who should be obeyed. The instinct to hold onto what they have is very strong, and can re-emerge when the object is valuable enough, or circumstances conspire to make it more likely.   For instance, if a dog with a bone is in an area where there are a lot of other dogs, he might be more inclined to guard the bone.   If a person then approached, his level of stress might cause him to defend the bone, even when he wouldn't ordinarily do so.  

Which is just another way of saying expect the best, but take precautions.

What Guarding Looks Like

By and large, the behavior looks like this.   The dog has something she firmly believes is hers and hers alone, and someone approaches.  In order to protect her precious thing -
1)    She covers the object with her head or body.
2)    She stiffens and/or growls when a human approaches or touches her.
3)    If the person continues to approach, the growl gets louder, but the dog continues to look at the item.

A lot of possession often stops at this point, as the dog isn't really vested in protecting what it has to the extent that she will bite.

Some dogs, however, will continue to defend their stuff, which is when it gets dangerous.
4)    If the object is portable, many dogs will take it under a chair or table to make sure you can’t get it.  If you reach under, you may get bitten.
5)    The dog looks up at the person, and gives a direct stare, meant to warn the other entity to leave.  This warning should be taken seriously.
6)    If the person continues to approach, this dog might actually launch at him or her.

Dogs that guard multiple objects can be much more dangerous, and extremely difficult to work with.  You have to convince the dog that everything belongs to you, and even if you’re successful, the behavior modification may not transfer to other people.

Let's start out with the dog who guards food only.  Again, the problem itself can range from mild (covering) to moderate (covering, hiding and growling) to severe (biting).  It can also be hind brain and reflexive or front brain and intentional.  But by and large, it's a good idea to begin with a simple protocol, and see where you go from there.

As mentioned above, most possessive dogs cover and stare before they do anything drastic – they don’t even notice who is looming over them. 
So, your goal is to redirect your dog’s attention towards you and away from the food, chewy, or toy.  Once you are successful in convincing your dog that your approach is not a threat and that you are not going to “steal” his possession his attitude is likely to change radically.

Step One: For the sake of clarity, let’s assume your dog guards bones.
  • Give him an old bone or a bone he isn’t particularly vested in.To add some attraction, you can rub a little cheese on it.
  • As he investigates or begins to chew on the bone, take one step in his direction.   Once you’ve taken a step towards him, say his name and ask him to “sit”. When he sits, tell him he’s a cool dude, and give him a treat.  Then, back away, and let him investigate or chew some more.
  • Repeat this step until he begins to look up as soon as he is aware of your feet approaching.  Once he consistently stops chewing and looks up when you approach, change the location of the training. Practice in at least two or three different locations so he can begin to generalize the behavior.
  • Although some dogs catch on very quickly, this stage may very well take a few weeks of daily practice.
This little Cocker Mix ferociously guarded his bones and chewies.   It took a few weeks, but he improved immensely.  As with all behavior modification, there are no miraculous fixes!
  • Step two: Next, give your dog something that she finds to be more attractive than the bone and repeat the training described in step one.  Gradually, up the ante by giving her higher value items. Continue to practice until you can approach her when she has something that she finds to be very compelling.
    • At NO time do you take the goodie away.  We’re actually trying to make her trust that you aren’t going to take her “stuff” from her.  This can be difficult, especially if she has learned that you will.
    • The goal behavior is for your dog to automatically, without you saying anything, look up as you approach or pass by and for her to think that you are not an imminent threat. This is the result of stepping forward first, before you say your dog’s name.  Saying her name before you take a step towards her will cue your dog to look up.  Since we would like her to be good with everyone, your voice and cue should not be necessary.
  • Step Three: Now you need to be able to take the goodie away from your dog.  By this time you have established the default behavior (sit and look at you). So, when you approach and he sits, you can give him the treat from your hand while picking up the bone he was chewing on. While he is still sitting, give the bone back to him. Do this five times or so, then stop, and let him have his bone in peace.  After you’ve practiced several times, you can pick up the bone and put it away.  You can give him another treat for being so generous with “his” stuff.
Some dogs find it extremely difficult to give things up when they are close to it.  For those dogs, we recommend teaching them to move away from the bone.  Start by teaching her to look up and sit when you approach (first two steps in this protocol), then do the following:
  • Approach your dog. When she looks up and sits, tell her “find it” and toss your treat about two to three feet to the side or behind her.  Let her return to her bone after getting the treat.  Repeat this several times.
  • The finished behavior looks like this: your dog has a bone, you approach and as you do so, your dog looks up and sits. You say “Sadie, move,” and she moves away from the bone, allowing you to pick it up.

Remember that behavior does not remain static, so expect to have to continue sporadic training sessions over the months and years.

And, by the way, it's very important not to over-train your dog!   One or two short sessions (a couple of minutes) a day should suffice.  If you nag her, there's a possibility your modification might backfire.

Yelling, threatening or striking a dog might force him to give it up one time, but is likely to backfire as well, as he will be more prepared next time. 

If you are working with possession around your dog’s food bowl, start with a bowl that has only a few pieces of kibble in it and work your way up to higher value food.  The rest of the protocol is very similar. 

You approach, your dog looks up and sits, you reward him from your hand for sitting and looking at you.  As time goes on, he will see your approach as a good thing rather than threatening. 

Remember that dogs are not good at generalizing behavior, so you may have to establish the food bowl behavior from scratch, even after you've had success with the bone protocol.

If a young dog guards her food, and only her food, you might just try to more or less ignore the behavior, and stop bugging your dog.  Ask her to sit while you place the bowl down, then leave her alone to eat. Approach her after she is finished and offer her a little treat from your hand.  If you want, you can toss a few kibbles in her bowl while she is eating.  Most dogs will learn you aren’t going to take their food away, and will relax.  If the dog persists in growling, you should definitely work on it. 

There are many other resource guarding modification techniques, including feeding with multiple bowls - or no bowls at all - or extensive feeding by hand.  The one described above has worked best in our experience, but that doesn't mean the others aren't valuable. 
Some dogs guard spaces - particularly beds, crates or laps.  By and large, the best way to manage the first two situations is to not let them have access to those places until you give them permission.  So, you could put a bed away or close the door of a crate to prevent the problem from occurring.  To address the problem behaviorally, it's often a simple matter of offering a tasty treat while you slip into the space and hang out there for a while.  (This is very difficult with a crate!)

There's a nice, if peculiar, technique that often works with small, lap guarding dogs.   Most of them are intimidated by the direct eye contact that occurs when a person approaches their lap.  If you turn and back onto a couch, sitting next to the dog and his person, it can be very effective.  If you bring along a present (treat) to give him after you have sat, all the better!

When a dog guards resources from other dogs, it's much harder to work with...and if a dog tries to take stuff away from another dog it's even more difficult.  Each of those cases needs to be addressed on it's own. 

However, it's worth noting that, in most cases, trying to punish one dog for guarding from another is not likely to succeed. You may be able to get compliance when a human - an adult human - is in the room, but as soon as there are no people to enforce boundaries...they disappear!   Even a fearful or submissive dog might reach his limit and lash out at a chewie thief.   There's a good reason why doggie daycares don't generally have small, defendable, toys in their play areas.  

If you or someone you know would like a consultation, or to see a topic covered in this newsletter, or if you have expressive dog photo's you might like us to use, please email k9consultations@gmail.com.
Canine-Behavior-Associates.com
Trish King
Tricia Breen

Art by Robin King
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