Written by Naomi White
We tend to assume that we have some sort of right to just take things away from our dogs without any issue. That bone you gave him 10minutes ago? Now you want it back, and since you gave it to him, why shouldn’t you take it back? When the dog is lying on your spot on the sofa, you think to yourself ‘It’s my home too, he can move’, and surely you should be able to move him off the sofa without an issue?
We wouldn’t expect to take away someone’s dinner without any reaction. Nor would we expect to tell someone to get off the sofa without an explanation. So why do we think it’s acceptable to do these things to our dogs without even a thought for giving anything in return?
Guarding is a very normal, natural behaviour for dogs, yet when they display it towards us, it can cause huge problems and put us in potentially dangerous situations. Respecting your dog’s space and belongings goes a long way to aiding peaceful co-existence. But conflict isn’t always avoidable in daily life. Perhaps when the dog has picked up something he shouldn’t have or he won’t get off the furniture, or perhaps he has a chew and you can’t even walk in the room without fearing a bite.
And then when your dog does react, what do you do? Perhaps you shout ‘NO!’ at him? Grab his collar and move him away? Point your finger at him and tell him how BAD he is?
We tend to get confrontational when our dogs react in a way we don’t like. We think that he will understand our angry NO or that warning finger point. Unfortunately, dogs don’t think like we do. Rather than understanding what you mean, he’s more likely to feel threatened, anxious and fearful of you in these situations. He will start thinking that when he has a bone and you come near him, you try to take it away and get angry. It’s stressful for him; you’re not understanding his communication and he needs to give you even clearer signals to BACK OFF!
That momentary freeze he used to do as a puppy, or that paw he used to place over his bone, has now become a growl, a snap, a bite… Resource guarding can escalate and it can escalate quickly if you ignore the signs and continue to push your dogs buttons.
What should we be doing?
I always keep in mind that resource guarding primarily comes from FEAR. Fear that you will take away a valuable item. Fear that when you approach that item, bad things happen. This is why it’s so important not to get angry or aggressive with your dog in these situations. Remember that your dog is not trying to be ‘dominant’ or ‘pack leader’ or ‘deliberately naughty’, he is simply displaying a behaviour he feels is appropriate in that situation, and most likely he is also feeling scared. By getting upset with him, you are further confirming his fears that bad things happen when you come near his treasured item!
With FEAR in mind, you need to change how your dog feels when you approach him when he has a valuable item. If he guards spaces, such as a bed or sofa, then you need to work on how he feels when you approach these. You can do this regardless of whether your dog displays any resource guarding behaviours because it’s beneficial for all dogs to feel good about humans approaching their food, toys or space.
It can be easy to miss the subtle signals a dog may use when guarding something, especially in the early stages. We can all see when a dog growls, bares his teeth or bites when we approach his space, but we don’t always see what happens before that. Too often we have totally missed the previous warning signs and now the dog seems to react out of nowhere. That’s probably because he has spent months or years trying to tell you back off, and well, you ignored him so now he goes straight for the bite because, guess what? IT WORKS!
The subtle signs to look for will depend on each individual but observe your dog when you approach his food or a toy … he may turn his head away, show the whites of his eyes, hold onto the item or use his teeth/paws to move it away from you, he may eat faster or try to swallow the item. He may FREEZE (especially easy to miss if the freeze is brief but such a key signal), does he stop eating when you approach? Does he stand rigidly over his toy? Does he stop what he was doing and stare (with a fixed gaze away from you)?
We can misinterpret these signals or miss them completely. But chances are, if your dog now growls, snarls, snaps or bites, he was displaying the above signals for some time before he felt the need to be even clearer about his feelings.
Prevention is better than cure
With dogs who don’t display resource guarding behaviours, and particularly all young puppies, you should regularly practice exercises which help prevent guarding behaviours developing. You should always begin these exercises with low value items, before progressing to high value items which your dog is more likely to feel protective over. Value of items will vary between individuals but typically you could predict that, for example, a dog will find a raw bone higher value than a stagbar, or a Kong stuffed with kibble lower value than a calves hoof filled with peanut butter!
Simple exercises include:
- Place an empty bowl down, walk over and drop some food in it, when your dog finishes, approach and drop more in, repeat this so he starts to look to you in expectation for more food
- Progress to approaching while he’s eating and adding more food
- While your dog is eating a chew/stuffed Kong, approach and toss a few treats to him and then move away (start a metre or two away). Repeat several times, now he should be looking at you in expectation when you approach, so you can keep decreasing the distance from which you toss the treats
- Progress this to approaching him and placing treats right next to him
- If he’s relaxed about this, you can gradually work on touching his chew and picking it up, reward him and then give the chew back
- Hold the chew while your dog chews it. A long chew, such as a pizzle stick or veggie chew will work well because you can easily hold one end and allow your dog to chew from the other. He will learn to share his chew with you, and you act as a useful chew holder!
- Use the same methods with toys … when he has a toy, approach, reward him and move away. Progress to approaching, reward, pick up the toy, reward and give the toy back
- You can also work with toys by practicing toy exchanges – get him playing with one toy, then pick up another and play with this one, swap back to the first toy and so on!
- With spaces, follow the same idea as above … starting at a distance, approach your dog while he’s on his bed (or sofa etc.), toss a treat and then move away. Work towards approaching him, touching him and then rewarding and moving away.
- You can also teach an ‘Off’ cue so you can ask your dog to move off the sofa rather than having to physically intervene. Get him up on the sofa and then say ‘Off!’ and toss the treat onto the floor, repeat this lots until you’re able to say ‘off’ and he gets off himself, then reward him.
With a dog who displays resource guarding behaviours, you can use the same methods as above but all training should start from a safe distance at which your dog doesn’t show any signs of guarding. When working with a dog who displays these behaviours it’s vital that the training is set-up in a way that does not elicit any guarding behaviours. You should use distance and lower value items to begin the training and gradually work up towards higher value items at closer distance. If at any point guarding behaviours are displayed then you MUST take the training back a step and either increase the distance or use a lower value item. I would strongly recommend seeking help from an experienced trainer due to the complexity of resource guarding behaviours. Set-backs are common during this process and it can be beneficial to have help at hand and a good plan of action to work through with your dog.
Alongside training, management is key. Don’t underestimate the importance of managing your dog’s environment so he doesn’t have any opportunity or need to display guarding behaviours, especially while you’re in the training process. Management doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be simple things like only feeding the dog in his crate (including any chews or valuable food items). Not leaving toys or other items around if he has a tendency to guard them. Preventing access from spaces he guards and setting up a ‘safe space’ for him where he can go and not be disturbed (e.g. crate). If he knows he has a space of his own, he will be able to go there without fear of disruption – make sure there is a ‘no disturb’ rule when your dog is here i.e. no one touches the dog, goes near the dog or pesters the dog.
If, despite managing the environment carefully, your dog still finds items to guard, then it’s advisable to have a houseline on your dog. If your dog finds an item to guard, you can use the houseline to move him away with minimal conflict. The line enables you to move him without chasing or grabbing him, this reduces the likelihood of you needing to get close enough to trigger a reaction and gives you more control from a safe distance. This is of course a management strategy that requires training alongside because simply pulling your dog away from an item he’s guarding is not an ideal solution and should only be used when necessary for safety.
Resource guarding is complex. It can be challenging to live with. It takes time to change. It requires strict management.
Always seek help with resource guarding, especially if your dog has bitten. It’s a challenging behaviour and one which is typical for set-backs and regression, making it frustrating to deal with alone. At Adolescent Dogs we’re experienced with working with guarding behaviours and we have the skills to put solid foundations in place to get the training started and enable you to continue the process at home. We can support you through the training process and work through any set-backs to ensure your dog continues to make progress. Get in touch for some advice or sign up to our online course where you will find more resource guarding help.