Some say, “I don’t care WHY the dog does this, I just want him to stop!” And if you don’t care why dogs resource guard, read something else. But I find helpful to wonder why. When I think about it, “resource guarding” might be a somewhat “normal,” or understandable, defensive response.
Picture your reaction if someone tried to steal a bite off your plate . That happened to me once, and I almost snapped! Imagine if someone borrowed your bed, car, boyfriend or job without getting your permission first! It may be somewhat “instinctual” for us to guard, hide and protect our stuff, but aggressive behavior around resources is expressed where resources feel threatened, or where there’s a sense of competition over a limited resource. Imagine if you felt there was only so much water to go around. Maybe you’d fight for your share?
Some dogs learn that dramatic noises or behaviors chase away “threats.” And oh, the feeling of power when another dog runs away squealing! Apparently it’s a bit intoxicating, and unfortunately, that powerful feeling can become a form of entertainment for many a bored dog.
As always, first, rule out any physical issues with your veterinarian. Tick-born diseases, thyroid disease, pain, dementia, seizures, rabies, toothache etc can all contribute to aggression arising in dogs. Veterinarians can also prescribe anti-anxiety medications which can make conditioning more relaxed behaviors easier.
Next, make an inventory of everything that seems like a problem. Write in a journal all the details that surround everything that goes wrong in your relationship with your dog. Where do problem behaviors take place? What time of day? What’s the weather or other circumstances? Is someone cooking or cleaning or visiting? Is it noisy or quiet, hot or cold, bright lights or dark? Is the dog tired? Hungry? Are YOU tired hungry? Recently immunized? What is going on? Is the dog frightened? Excited? Bored? Is the dog hunting? Is the dog frustrated? What is the dog frustrated about or stimulated by?
Some dogs have been previously punished for growling, so they don’t warn you about their feelings. Instead of growling when they feel pressured, they go straight to a bite. So…don’t punish growling, and don’t punish dogs who take stuff. Say “thank you for letting me know!” to a dog that growls, and deliver yummy food rewards to dogs when you need to take something away from them.
A client dog, Barney, loved to aggressively guard almost anything. If a dog regurgitated on the ground and I cleaned it up, two days later Barney would be laying on the spot of scent, ready to startle any dog who dared approach. For Barney, resource guarding was pure entertainment. More addictive than facebook! As soon as you see resource guarding, enlist your entire household to change the game into one that makes everyone, not just the dog, happy.
Some recommend that you pick up and keep all resources away from the dog. That doesn’t work very well, as it is makes each resource even MORE valuable, and you can’t possibly pick up and put away every stinky spot on the rug. And what if the thing they are fighting over is you?
Instead try teaching the “trust me” game. Many trainers call this game “trade ya,” and it should be a regular part of life with any dog. The idea is to show your dog that whenever you (or another dog) takes anything away from your dog, your dog gets “paid” with something even better. Start the game by giving him something low value – maybe a cardboard box to play with, and then trade it with a piece raw beef. After he’s eaten the beef, give him back the cardboard box. That was easy!
You can also do this with dog/dog trades. If you see one dog steal a toy from another dog? Give the dog who lost the toy an even BIGGER prize. Reward your dog when the other dog takes his stuff.
Practice trades dozens of times a week. Practice saying “trust me!” as you take away the popped tennis ball and give him a hunk of chicken. When the chicken is gone, give him back an even better tennis ball! You want the trade to turn out better than the dog expected. Who wouldn’t love that? “Trust me” as you take away your broken eyeglasses (oops, hate it when that happens), and reward him with a piece of flavored rawhide. “Trust me” when the sibling dog takes away his favorite toy, give the sibling dog a milk bone and give the stolen toy back to the dog who loves it. If YOU are protecting your dog’s “special stuff,” your dog doesn’t need to protect it.
We aren’t rewarding the dog for stealing eyeglasses, we’re rewarding him for giving them back. After all, how can s/he know which items are his/hers and which are not? My three year old dog had one toy that he REALLY loved (till it was destroyed) and I gave it back to him every time his sibling dog took it. The next thing I knew, the two dogs were playing with the toy together! His confidence that it was “his” toy, that he didn’t need to guard it (because I kept giving it back to him) had increased to the point that he wanted to share it!
Our goal is to see tails wagging and happy eager ears whenever someone intervenes in whatever the dog is doing. Over time, dogs learn to “trust” that you kicked them off the bed … because you wanted to show them the raw chicken wing you “found” in the crate! They learn to “trust” that if another dog steals their ball, you give them a hotdog or another ball (or their special thing). They “trust” that there is PLENTY of good stuff for all! Over time they learn which items are available for chewing and which are not.
Safety gear — leashes, gates, crate training, muzzle training—are essential, especially if you have kids or other animals, or your dog is displaying dangerous behaviors. But often, the biggest success comes with cultivating your dog’s sense of resource abundance and security.
I cultivate resource security partly by flooding the environment with resources. You want identical resources. If I have six dogs, I dump out a bag of 24 brand new tennis balls. If one dog gets a dog bone, they ALL get dog bones and there are lots of extra bones too.
When dogs behave aggressively around food treats, if you can, practice with the dogs on opposite sides of a safe fence or gate. If this is too much, you could hang a piece of fabric over the fence to reduce the visual stimulation. Throwing handfuls of identical low value food (many tiny pieces, such as Cheerios, or pieces of bread, or “Charlie Bears.” ). You’ll have the dogs grazing on both sides of the fence. Throw the food far, abundantly, by the handfuls so dogs and treats are spread out, and the dogs sniffing around at a comfortable distance from each other. You can also try giving each dog long lasting chews on both sides of the fence, to help dogs habituate to seeing/smelling/hearing each other dogs eating, while safely separated, without experiencing any threat. Allow dogs to have the space and privacy they need.
Skills to learn:
Playing jump up and off is fun. Ask the dog to jump up, and then get off the bed, because you found some chicken over here! Practice jump up and get off for a treat.
If you need/want to practice taking an item away from a dog, first play with a tug toy. Drop the toy and with one hand gently take the dog’s collar. Don’t touch the item in your dog’s mouth. Have an excellent food treat in your hand other hand. As soon as the dog drops the toy, yay, praise and give him the treat as you release the collar. Then, give him back the toy again, playing a little game of tug. Take the dog’s collar as before, while dropping, not touching, the toy. Wait and when the dog drops the toy, say “drop it!” This time give the dog a raw beef bone or something chewy and long lasting as you deliver praise. Pick up the toy and put it away. My goal is to teach dogs to “trust me” when I ask them to get off the bed or take the toy (or bone or dead mouse), and reward them highly!
Evaluate: Are you reinforcing your dog(s) enough for sharing? Is there plenty of “good stuff” to go around, or is your dog being asked to share too much? Do you reward him EVERY time you take a toy or other item from your dog? Go over your inventory. What the dog is experiencing? When? Where? How can you make the learning process more fun for you and your dog? If s/he “trusts” you, she will want you to be in charge of guarding the resources!