Dog to Dog Resource Guarding
Write it Out: Sit down, think long and hard about it and write out exactly what’s going on; i.e., circumstances and item of every instance when Resource Guarding (RG) occurs and where the dogs are. State exactly what the guarder does, being as detailed as you can. Does your dog go stiff and close their mouth before beginning to growl? Or bark and lunge with little warning? What does the other dog do? What do YOU do? This process can be tedious, but I can’t emphasize enough the importance of writing out as many details as you can. I have done this with my own dogs. Doing it can also be extremely helpful to me, or whomever you bring in for help.
Manage, manage, and manage some more: Each time a dog growls or lunges at another dog it learns something, largely dependent on our reaction. Our reaction to any behavior can have an extremely significant impact on what our dogs learn, i.e., they can learn to be more nervous, anxious, stressed, fearful of losing a valued resource, etc. They can also learn that the behavior worked. (Much like learning that barking at the window until a car, motorcycle, jogger, biker or even the mailman goes away if they bark incessantly at them. Of course, we know that isn’t true, but that is covered in another blog and is changed with positive redirectors and alternative behavior options. Learning them, causes them to repeat the behavior because it is effective! If they learn, from our reaction, that it elicits a very negative (angry face and tone) from their owner which, to the dog, means that their owner is going to be really, really mad every time another dog walks into the room when they have their chew toy or bone (valuable resource) they are even more upset/anxious/nervous than before. This is one of the reasons you really need to manage the situation while working to change the CER and prevent as many incidents as you can. (Another reason why writing it out is so important.) It difficult to prevent something if you don’t know that it is going to happen, or recognizing the “trigger.” If a dog growls over the dinner bowl, feed the dogs in separate rooms and hide the chew toys. Never, ever leave “valuable resources/items” lying around in a multi-dog household! This is a perfect way to set them up to possibly have an altercation.
It may sound difficult, but really it is just a matter of giving much thought to ways that you can prevent the reactions you are trying to change while you work on changing the reactive dogs emotional response. (More detail below.)
TEACH IMPULSE CONTROL: Teaching a dog impulse control is another indirect way of alleviating this issue and handling the problem, but it’s important. Resource guarding in dogs is often exacerbated by dogs who simply are unable to handle not getting what they want when they want it. Humans must learn this skill as well. I mean, if we didn’t, how many of us would actually ram that car that has cut us off or swerved into our lane while texting and caused us to be extremely irritated (or is it just me who has that split second thought “man if I had a Hummer or tank I’d just ram that rude person!”? It is imperative to help dogs learn to self-regulate their own behavior and reactions in many different contexts. I always recommend good, solid basic obedience, including “wait” “stay” (sit and down) and “leave it” as well as waiting at the door for you to go in and out first” (covered in the Rules). Remember, leaders lead, they do not follow and you are the leader!
One of my favorite tools for teaching impulse control is by using a Play and Train pole (often called a flirt pole). I make them and use them for exercise and training that I make. If a dog responds well and loves playing with it, you can completely eliminate treats for training lots for many types of impulse control, as well as “wait” and “stay”. You have nothing to lose and lots to gain by teaching dogs to be patient and polite.
COUNTER CONDITIONING: This method focuses on exercises that help to change a dog’s emotional response to another dog approaching their very valuable resource (“treasure.”) I am using the example of food, here but it really pertains to any item (or person) that a dog guard guards from another dog. It is a very simple concept, actually. You simply teach the resource guarding dog to have a positive emotional response and hopefully, eventually actually love it when another dog gets food or food treats, rather than feeling stressed and protective. When practicing this exercises the dogs should be on leash and at least 10-15 feet apart. You want the stay outside the “reaction threshold,” as well as keep everyone safe. Staying outside that threshold simply means keeping the dogs far enough apart that you prevent the RG dog from stiffening or growling when another dog is in the vicinity of his bone or dinner bowl. First you give the non RG dog a treat and then give the RG dog one IMMEDIATELY after. Repeat this several times until you notice the RG dog start to anticipate getting a treat when the other dog gets one. This starts to make a positive association for the RG dog and thus begins the process of rewiring the RG’s brain to have a positive CER to treats/food while in the presence of another dog and that is the response you want. 🙂 You may not see this in the first session but don’t worry. Just keep it up. 3-5 times a day is always my recommendation. Please be sure to keep the dogs a safe distance from each other each time to prevent the RG dog from showing any signs of stress or potential negative reactivity toward the other dog.
When you notice that the RG dog displays a happy anticipatory response while doing this exercise, you can begin to move the dogs closer together. If you do not have a helper for this exercise, you can certainly still do it if the dogs have a good sit-stay or you can keep gates between them, or even tether the RG dog.
HOW YOU HANDLE OR REACT IS VERY IMPORTANT: Of course your reaction will largely depend on the seriousness of the RG dog’s level of RG and how many different types of things the dog guards, the personalities of the dogs, etc. Your job is to create situations in which the RG dog learns that the appearance or approach of the other dog always leads to something wonderful for him. Rather than stress and anxiety caused from believing that it might lose it’s bone or other treasure. It usually transitions from ambivalence to the presence of another dog or actual happy anticipation because they know that if the other dog gets something, they will also get something! “Hey, you other dog, come on over here a little closer. I love it when you do because I will get CHICKEN!”
RESPONDING TO RG: I want to be clear here that sometimes, no matter how hard you try it is often impossible to eliminate all instances of RG in a dog while you are working on modifying the behavior. Whether or not the behavior is inappropriate is a complicated issue because dogs do not think in terms of “good” and “bad” and they behave and respond based on instinct that runs deep and is hard wired purely by DNA. It is explicitly related to feeling “safe” or “threatened” and by the desire to survive and ensure the survival of their pack. However, it is not an acceptable behavior in our human world, you know the one we are expect them to follow our humans rules ha).
Always avoid raising your voice when your dog exhibits this behavior but be serious and confident. I like to call it the “teacher voice.” Stay focused! Say something like “Hey Fido, what was that!” Then, move forward toward the dog and back him or her up, using your body and walking toward or “into” them just a step or two. I am going to repeat this because it is important, try to stay calm and quiet yourself but make it clear that you are directing your attention toward the dog who is guarding a resource. Tell the dog to sit and stay in a low, flat, but authoritative voice and say something like “that is not allowed in this house and I’m the CEO so I make the rules.” (Okay, I’m indulging myself by using the terms I use in my own house.) While the dog will not understand all of those words, and it actually may have little or no effect on the dog, it’s quite satisfying and makes you feel more confident! Then, go over and pet or treat the other dog for a moment. If the RG dog stays in place and is polite, praise and reward him or her with a treat. Again, this aids in teaching the RG dog that good things happen to them if the other dog gets food/attention/toys etc. Exactly how this is done depends very much on you, the dog and exactly what the dog did.
CALL IN HELP: It is often a good idea to have assistance from another person who acts as a coach or simply provide moral support (or call in the village and get a group if you need to so you can be confident) but make sure that the person or people are able to a) read dogs well; and b) understands the importance of and how to properly use positive reinforcement and classical conditioning to influence canine behavior. Typically, that’s not going to be just any person you may know. That would be like getting medical advice from the person selling perfume in a kiosk at the mall, right?
I cannot tell you how many times I have made the statement that positive reinforcement and counter and classical conditioning are absolutely the most important tools in your “tool box” to aid you in modifying, rehabilitating, or as I like to call it “reshaping” a dog’s behavior. The word “rehab” always makes me think of dogs in a rehab center having group therapy, and it conjures a comical mental image.
Also, I will say this for what is probably the millionth time and I even said it in a recent television interview. Remember THEY ARE DOGS! They do not think in “good” and “bad.” Those are human perceptions that we force upon our dogs. I am not saying that teaching dogs to follow the basic rules of human society is not necessary, I am just saying that we must remember that they are not born knowing those rules and it is our responsibility to help them learn what those rules are and how to follow them, WITHOUT causing them undue confusion, stress or anxiety.
“We are forever responsible for what we have tamed.”
If you have read this all the way through, thank you for letting me take up some of your valuable time and please do not hesitate to contact me if you need help with this or other issues you may have.
Charlotte (Mallion) Watkins
See Spot Sit Training and Behavior Modification of Central Arkansas