Let’s talk about Resource Guarding. (Often misinterpreted by owners as “protecting me” when the resource being guarded is the owner!).
First, it is important to remember that resource guarding is a natural canine behavior. Actually, it’s also a natural human behavior. We guard our valuables in lots of ways, security systems, and locks and yes, even weapons.
Dogs are hard wired, due to their ancestry (wolves) to guard the resources necessary for their survival. That is just a fact. It doesn’t make them mean, or bad or vicious. It also doesn’t make them “dominant.” Sometimes, in my opinion, we are a little too quick to give a dog that label. The truth is that dogs are much more complex than just “dominant” or “submissive.” It is also important to note that growling to warn off a perceived threat to a resource is the most polite way a dog can communicate this message and if you punish them for that, you will teach them that they have no other choice but to step up their game so to speak and go to snapping and even biting.
Resources that dogs will commonly guard are food, toys, a sleeping spot or bed, a spot on the couch or the entire couch and yes, even a human! In the dog’s mind the resource belongs to them and any perceived or real threat to that resource must be dealt with!
Make a list of the items (or people) your dog guards.
“The Motivator.” Figure out what motivates your dog to comply. This can be a ball, a toy or a really yummy treat. (Boiled chicken can get a dog to give up most anything.)
Ask yourself some hard questions. Do I pet my dog every time it comes up to me? Does my dog nudge my hand for petting? Does my dog shove a toy into my hand or against me to tell me “play with me right now!”? Do I feed my dog if he goes and picks up his food bowl and drops it or brings it to me? Do I give my dog a treat if he whines at the treat cabinet? If you answered yes to any of those questions, stop that!
Initiate the Premack Principle or “Grandma’s Rule.” This is commonly referred to as the Nothing in Life is Free “NILIF” protocol. In other words, no petting, no food, no play, no going for a walk, no going outside, unless they have “earned” it. Now, this is simple. They don’t have to jump through burning hoops or take out the trash. A simple, sit-wait or sit-stay, or using whatever “request” you have taught them to go outside will suffice. Working for what they need to survive is natural to a dog and makes sense to them.
Teaching the Cue “Give” or “Drop.” In this section I will be describing a “trade off” method. Start with objects that your dog does not consider “high value.” This sets the dog up for success. You must work your way up to the items that are guarded more intensely. You can entice your dog with a treat or another toy to drop the item. (The Motivator.) The second the dog drops the item, pick it up first, and then deliver the motivator and praise lavishly and calmly. Return to your dog the prized item you have asked him to relinquish immediately after he has given it up happily, or finished chewing his treat if that is what you are using.
Repeat this process until you are certain that the dog knows the cue “give” or “drop” and is doing it reliably every, single time, with no protestation. This teaches the dog that giving you the resource is a good thing and often means something even better is coming their way.
It is important to remove any toys or items (besides furniture) that your dog may guard from the common living area, so that your dog won’t be accidentally triggered.
A great game for this is playing “take it” and “give it” as a game. Teach the cue “take it” so you can teach the opposite, which is obviously “give it.”
*Teaching this when puppies are young is a great way to prevent the problem behavior from developing.
**If your dog picks up a random item outside or even inside that is potentially dangerous or unacceptable for him to chew (a shoe, for instance), very calmly and confidently take hold of the item by wrapping your hand around it as close to the side of your dog’s muzzle as possible and conveying to Spot this message “One of us is letting go and it’s not going to be me.” DO NOT TUG THE ITEM. You must lead by example. If you want the dog to let go but you pull on it, you create an oppositional reflex and will end up in a tug of war for the item, creating a trigger for the dog to instinctively protect the item more ferociously. Hold on to the item until Spot lets go and then praise lavishly and reward. If you believe your dog is likely to bite you, please seek the help of a professional.
Resting Spot Guarding. When your dog has developed or exhibits guarding behavior when you approach his or her resting spot, you must change the Conditioned Emotional Response (“CER”) to positive rather than negative. This means you must remove the element of perceived threat.
A good way to start this is to simply drop treats very close to the dog’s mouth while the dog is in that spot and keep going on your merry way. Don’t announce your approach or even speak to Spot. It’s just manna from heaven at this point. All approaches to the dog’s resting spot must be intentional and must be accompanied by something wonderful falling from your hand to very close to the dog’s mouth. Obviously, do this before the dog is sound asleep. If the dog is awake, make enough noise to wake him – from a distance – and then go and rain down the goodies as you pass by. It is important that you do this from a distance that is outside the dog’s reactivity zone. That is easy to determine with a little testing of the waters. For example, if you get 3 feet from Spot’s bed and there is no growl, lip curl, hard stare, or other distance increasing signal, start there. You get the idea. With time and lots of repetition, your dog will learn to associate your approach and close proximity to his resting place with good things and anticipate it with “oh boy, oh boy, something good is coming,” rather than “here comes that rude, invasive human again”, creating a new CER that is positive.
If the resting spot is a chair, couch, human bed, etc., teaching the “off” cue can be extremely beneficial. If your dog already guards a spot on any furniture, you need to keep a leash on them in the house for teaching that cue. This ensures compliance and is much safer than touching a sleeping dog with your hand and risking a resulting bite.
Guarding a Human. If every time your dog growls when you are holding him or her and someone approaches PUT THE DOG DOWN! Dogs are not meant to be carried all the time. They have legs and they need to stand on those adorable paws! You are not a possession of your dog. Say that over and over in your head or out loud if necessary until you believe it. Now, don’t get growly at me but I am going to tell you that you have created this sort of behavior in your dog. Yes, I said YOU have created it. We don’t do this intentionally but we definitely do it a lot, especially with small dogs.
You set the rules for how your dog behaves with new people and you choose who is allowed to come into your personal space. Your dog should never be allowed to make that choice for you. Now, of course, there is a caveat to this rule. If you are walking along and someone approaches you that makes your hackles go up, trust me, Spot’s were up long before yours. If Spot is very serious about feeling uncomfortable about that person approaching you, and this is not Spot’s normal behavior, be safe and either go the other way or otherwise put distance between you and that person.
You can practice changing Spot’s CER from negative to positive by enlisting the help of friends and family and practicing the following exercise (I like to call it a “speed dating game”.) This exercise must be done on leash for safety. Ask Spot for a sit-stay or down-stay and have the person come into view. Figure out what distance the person needs to be from you and Spot for Spot to be non-reactive. As soon as Spot sees the person but does not react, you need to get Spot’s attention, SMILE, speak happily and pet him or give him a high value treat. Repeat this step until Spot is happily looking up at you every time the person comes into view (instead of going rigid, etc.).
You gradually close the gap until the person can actually come close enough to toss Spot a few nice little treats. You reward and praise Spot for the behavior as well. Have a short conversation with the person from that distance and then the person just walks away. Continue this practice until your enlisted helpers can walk up to you, shake your hand (and even hug you) and Spot remains in the sit-stay or down-stay position until you have given the okay to break position.
It is tantamount that you have already created the dynamic of “I am in charge, not you” with your dog for this to be successful. You need to have also already taught Spot a good, solid sit or down-stay.
Often times people will confuse this behavior with the idea that their dog is protecting them from what the dog thinks might be a potential threat. That is not the case. The dog is protecting its possession … you. Trust me, if you take the time to really get to know your dog and your dog’s communication signals, you will know the difference between your dog protecting you and your dog guarding you as a resource.
I like to use a “say hi” protocol for helping shy or fearful dogs meet new people, but that is another blog.