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Resource guarding


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I'm posting this as part of a series of helpful articles for common problems. If you have more information to add (or disagree with anything in this post) please do so in this thread, but if you have a specific question relating to your dog, please start a new thread.

Resource guarding - Part 1

It’s a surprisingly common situation: you realise that your new dog has stolen one of your shoes and is exercising his jaws on it. Fair enough, that’s what dogs do, but of course you want your shoe back and your dog should be willing to give his possessions up to you – you’re the boss, after all. But when you approach the dog, he suddenly freezes, his head hunched over the shoe. Then you realise that what sounded like distant thunder is him growling at you! He can’t be allowed to do that, he needs to show you some respect! You march towards him, reach down to take your shoe and he snaps. But he misses… You can’t have this, you need to show you’re not afraid. You reach down again, and with a speed you could never have imagined, he lunges at you and bites you. You recoil in shock and horror. How could your sweet-natured dog do such a thing? He is too dominant, he must imagine that he is boss and that he can control all his resources. You need to show him that you are in charge!

The owner has made a number of errors here:

1) To a dog, possession is 10/10ths of the law. Dogs living in a group do not routinely take resources from other dogs, regardless of their status in the group. Guarding behaviour is nothing to do with a dog being overly assertive ('dominant'), and is often seen in dogs who also are very obedient, or lack confidence, or show submissive urination. And 'fixing' one problem commonly ascribed to 'dominance' will not 'fix' another similar problem, so no change in 'status' has occurred.

2) Freezing, and growling, are not signs of aggression. They are forms of communication: your dog was telling you that he was not comfortable in the situation and he needed you to back off. He wanted to avoid aggression. But unfortunately, you didn’t listen, so he felt the need to snap.

3) When he snapped, he didn’t miss – at least, not unintentionally. A dog’s reactions are very fast and very accurate, and if he wanted to make contact, he would have done. But unfortunately, you didn’t listen, and he was left with no option but to escalate to a bite.

Many people believe that we should be able to take anything off our dogs if we want to, and this is often justified as being for the dog’s benefit: he may try to eat or chew something that could be dangerous to him. In fact, the bigger danger isn't your dog eating/chewing something harmful, whether cooked chicken bones, boxes of chocolate, or kitchen knives; far more dogs are killed through euthanasia following incidents where they have bitten someone, possibly a child, than through eating something they shouldn't.

The confrontational approach doesn’t work – or at least, it doesn’t work reliably and safely. We’ve all met those people who ‘punished’ their dog for some transgression and never had a problem again, but there are many more who have confronted their dog and have been bitten as a result, including well-known professional dog trainers who use the ‘dominance’ approach. Even if you can scare your dog enough that he will immediately relinquish a bone, do you really want your dog to be that fearful of you? And more to the point, why would he then relinquish a possession to someone else, maybe a child who approaches him unaware of the risk?

The underlying problem here isn't that the dog thinks he has a right to keep what he has, but that he doesn’t trust the person not to take it off him and sees them as a threat. No one fears the approach of a waiter in a restaurant, because they know the waiter isn't going to take their meal away. Positive training addresses this lack of trust in a threefold way:

1) We work to make the dog see our approach not as a threat but as a positive thing.
2) We make the dog realise that if he gives something to us, he gets something better in return (trading).
3) We manage the situation so that conflicts don’t occur, during the training phase and also, in many cases, as a long-term strategy.

In some dogs, guarding behaviour is deeply ingrained, either as a result of their early environment/training or because it is genetically based. Sure, have a target of being able to take a bone from your dog (for which he should get something AMAZING in return, in addition to getting the bone back), but simply not giving bones in the first place is far easier! (NB: If you can take a bone from your dog, rest on your laurels. Repeatedly removing your dog's food is likely to lead to him thinking that he needs to protect his bone after all...)
Part 2

So, where to start?

1) Helping your dog to trust your approach

Most of the time, let your dog eat in peace on his own. But occasionally, work in helping him to welcome your approach while he is eating:

a) Throw him a tasty treat (better than what he is eating) from a distance, and walk away.
b) Take a step towards him, throw the treat, and walk away.
c) When he looks up in happy anticipation when you step towards him, you can work on reducing the distance from which you throw the treat. You need to be aware of his body language. If there is any sign of tension and suspicion, go back to throwing the treat from a greater distance.
d) Aim to get to the stage where you can walk right up to him, hand him the treat, and walk away. DO NOT attempt to take what he has away from him. The aim is to make him trust that you are NOT going to take his food.

You could also use the 'three bowl trick', starting when it is not a meal time: put down three empty bowls spaced as far apart as the room will allow, and walk a circuit between them, dropping ONE piece of kibble into each bowl as you go round. Your dog follows you eating each piece of kibble as he goes round - the bowls must be spaced out sufficiently that he can't dive at you from the previous bowl.

The idea is that he associates you and empty bowls with food arriving so, eventually, when he is eating and he hears a person moving around or sees them out of the corner of his eye approaching or walking by, he thinks 'Oh… human, more food?' and not 'Argh human, might steal food'...

After you have introduced the very basics of the three bowl trick, you have a number of ways in which you can progress - you can do the sessions nearer to his meal time, so the food has more value because he is hungrier. You can reduce the number of bowls (and thus each bowl will have a higher potential value), increase the value of what you drop into the bowls, you could ask someone else in the household to do the session instead of you, you could increase the amount of kibble you drop into each bowl, or you could reduce the distance between the bowls.

Pick whichever one you think, based on what you have seen so far, will be the LEAST likely to cause your dog to make a mistake. If you think any of those changes would cause him to make a mistake then you are not ready to make a change yet.

Stick to changing just one thing at a time, unless you think you need to go back a step - so maybe you think he is ready to have the bowls closer together, but perhaps do this session when he has only finished his breakfast an hour ago and so isn't that hungry.

Eventually you should be down to one bowl with his actual meal and when you approach, he should look at you relaxed and waggy and then you can drop a handful of something tasty into the bowl as he is eating.

Some people like to go further and teach the dog that it is OK for them to pick up the bowl whilst the dog is eating - I personally don't think that is necessary as there should be no need to remove a dog’s food bowl from him.

2) Trading

Start out by trading a piece of cheese for a piece of boring toilet roll tube, or a piece of hot dog sausage for a relatively low value toy. This is the beginning of your 'give' behaviour, where eventually you will be able to ask him to give you whatever he has in return for a reward 'at some point soon' as opposed to 'right now under your nose'.

Warning: some dogs are ridiculously suspicious. When Jasper was much younger, I once saw him chewing a plastic measuring spoon and for some reason decided that I needed to be able to remove it for him. I offered him the lamb steak I had in my hand (this shows just how desperate I felt about his guarding issue), and he responded by lunging at me and biting me on the shoulder! To his mind it was his spoon, and I wanted it, so he’d have to protect it at all costs. Possibly the sight and smell of the lamb steak increased his arousal leves and therefore the intensity of his response, or he might have figured that if I wanted the spoon so much I’d offer him a steak in exchange, it must really be worth protecting. This may seem irrational to us, but I'm sure it made perfect sense to his doggy brain! However, he was rather an extreme case. Know your dog, be aware of what will and will not make him anxious, and work within his comfort zone. Also, make sure that you are safe at all times. If you think there is a chance that you might get bitten at any point, you are almost certainly going too far too soon.

3) Managing

Ensure (as far as possible) that there is nothing that your dog can get hold of that is valuable to you or dangerous to him. This is easier said than done and there will be setbacks, but it will become easier with experience and, if you have a young dog, as he matures he won’t be so set on chewing everything that he can get in his mouth. Also bear in mind that if he is playing with your kitchen knife and he knows you want it, he is likely to clamp down on it and run off and will be at risk of injuring himself badly. If you ignore him, chances are he will soon decide that it really isn't that interesting or fun to play with after all and wander away from it to find something more entertaining.

a) Recall: Teach a really good recall in the house. I did this by occasionally standing in front of him, saying ‘sausage’ and giving him a piece of sausage. I then increased the distance from which I said the word until he would come racing to me from the other end of the house when I called. It is important that once the dog has had the sausage he can go back to whatever he was doing beforehand, even if he was destroying something… Some dogs are extremely suspicious and are very quick to figure out that you are trying to separate them from their (your) cherished possession.

Once he is totally enthusiastic about the recall, ask for a sit before giving him the treat, then release him. Then ask for a sit and some other command. Then ask for a stay as well and walk to the other side of him, treat and release. Then ask for a stay, leave the room, come back in and reward. What you are aiming for is to give a few commands so he forgets what he was up to before you called him and for you to be able to leave the room, shut him in if necessary, and reclaim what he had if he really, really shouldn’t have it. Then, of course, you give him a jackpot reward!

b) Drop/leave: Work on teaching drop/leave. Remember that your tone of voice should be as positive as if you are calling ‘Teatime!’ Positive training is not about making your dog do what you ask even though he’d rather not – it’s about making your dog think that what you ask him to do is a REALLY GOOD IDEA and an opportunity to get a wonderful treat. It may be better to use a different word to the usual one, particularly if your dog has already built up negative associations with a word. For instance, I find it difficult to call 'LEAVE!' without sounding annoyed, but 'SAUSAGE!' always sounds cheerful!

Be aware of your dog’s limitations. If he’s just found a dead squirrel on a walk, don’t even bother calling ‘leave’ or ‘drop’ if you know he will ignore you,because he will simply learn that ignoring you is an option.It is far better just to walk on, calling him cheerfully, in the hope that he’ll follow you and leave the squirrel. But even if he eats the whole squirrel, it’s very unlikely to do him harm.

c) Fetch: Some dogs are natural retrievers, but many struggle to learn the concept. Start off with items your dog finds completely boring and work up to, say, toys. At some point, you could try using a see-through plastic drinks bottle. When he will reliably bring it to you, put a piece of kibble inside and ask him to retrieve it. When he does, take the lid off and give him the kibble. You can then build up to more kibble, or higher-value food, maybe putting a few small holes in the bottle so he can smell the food. He will gradually get the message that bringing something ‘sort of’ edible to you results in him getting the food himself. The day Jasper brought a Kong to me because he wanted me to scrape out the last bits for him, I could have cried with happiness!

Reward your dog for giving you anything. At one time, Jasper would attack me if I just looked at him while he was chewing a sock. After a lot of work, he would steal socks from around the house and present them to me. If I was sorting laundry, he would even snatch a sock out of my hand so he could give it back to me again! I thanked him and rewarded him every time, and still do.
Part 3

Bear in mind that if resource guarding shows in a dog just a few months old, it may intensify when he hits adolescence, but will almost certainly tail off as the dog matures and mellows, and is less inclined to want to eat everything, so hang on in there. Early neutering is very unlikely to stop guarding behaviour, and may well increase it as those hormones are needed to help the maturing process.

An excellent reference for anyone with a resource-guarding dog is Mine! by Jean Donaldson. I found the object guarding sample hierarchy difficult to apply in practice, as Jasper could easily spot the difference between a ‘training situation’ and ‘real world scenario’. As always, be prepared to read any suggestions with your dog in mind. If you are uncomfortable about following any of the guidelines, there is probably a good reason for it!

NB: I refer to treats throughout this article as my dog is extremely food motivated. Some dogs find play, maybe with a special squeaky toy, more rewarding. It is important to be very aware of your own dog’s personality and adjust any training plan to suit him. I have also referred to the dog as 'he' throughout. This is purely to avoid the cumbersome use of 'he/she' - as far as I know, female and male dogs are equally likely to show guarding behaviour.

A FINAL WORD: Obviously, dog aggression can be dangerous, and while you are working on the behaviour, you need to be very aware of the risk to yourself, to other members of your household, particuarly children, and to the general public (what if your dog should raid a picnic and the victims try to get their sandwiches back?). If you don't feel confident dealing with it, consider consulting a behaviourist who can actually observe your dog in your household. Don't choose a behaviourist who talks about dominance or who insists on removing food from your dog! There is some good advice on choosing a behaviourist here: When is dog-friendly not dog-friendly?

You may decide that it is not possible for you to keep the dog because of his aggression. That is a perfectly valid decision and not one you should be criticised for. Bear in mind, though, that rehoming a dog who can be aggressive is very, very difficult. Be aware that there are also people out there who will tell you they are looking for a family pet but in fact want 'bait dogs' to train fighting dogs. The only alternative to keeping the dog may be euthanasia. That may still be the only realistic, and the most humane, option. But you need to be aware of this and not imagine that your dog will find that perfect home in the country. it doesn't exist.

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