Resource Guarding

We’re all resource guarders, aren’t we?  If somebody tries to take your stuff, or you just think they might, don’t you get a bit uptight? shout, scream, or hold on tight to your belongings? Why should the dog be any different? they don’t even have a bank card or insurance to replace lost items!

Pepper showing some whale eye. Photo, courtesy of John Visconti

There’s a very common belief that the dog should not growl at humans.  Owners can get upset (or sometimes angry) that the dog they love acts aggressively toward them, perhaps growling, snarling or snapping when they have something they desperately want to keep.  We shouldn’t be upset, the dog’s doing us a huge favour, he’s informing us of his emotional state.  It isn’t personal, it’s just information.

This isn’t to say it shouldn’t be taken seriously, it should be taken extremely seriously, especially so if there are vulnerable people around and depending on the individual dog and circumstance, any of us could be that vulnerable person.

The mistake people often make is challenging the dog, shouting, hitting, or otherwise forcing him to give up the goods.  This is probably the worst thing we could do.  Challenging the dog is not going to improve his emotional behaviour. It’s just going to teach him that people take his stuff and although in some circumstances he may uncomfortably tolerate things being taken away, in other circumstances (perhaps a child getting too close), things could get extremely dangerous.

So what can we do?

Consider management and safety: Some items may be of higher guarding value than others so consider what access the dog has to these things.  If he’s guarding food items it would be prudent to ensure he’s given a safe area to eat his food.  This keeps him out of his emotional turmoil and keeps humans safe.

For some people and dogs, management may solve the problem, in that he isn’t getting the opportunity to resource guard. However, if we are to change his emotional response to the fear of humans taking his stuff, there is more we can do.

Changing the emotional response

Imagine there’s a stress zone around your dog when he has items to guard.  When you step into the zone, the dog becomes stressed, possibly eating faster, freezing (or going very still), growling, showing the whites of his eyes (whale eye) or snapping.  The zone might be 30 cm or it might be 10 metres and it might change depending on who steps into the zone and what is being guarded.

Now, every time you go near the zone (but not into it), reward the dog with a fantastic treat (maybe a cheese cube or slice of hotdog).  The idea is that the dog begins to associate you approaching as the best thing in the world because he gets the cheese (or whatever) and keeps the item which was being guarded, and you never enter the stress zone.  Over time, and I’m talking months, NOT A FEW DAYS, the stress zone may reduce (allowing for you to move closer inch by inch) because the dog’s stress of you approaching is reducing (if he’s reacting you have gone too far/fast, take a step back).  It’s best to begin the process when the dog has lower value items and then repeat from the beginning with higher value items.  It should also be done with each household member from the beginning. Don’t assume that because the dog is happy for you to approach that he is happy for everyone else to approach, he might not be.

It’s not magic, all dogs, humans, relationships, environments, situations are different.  Some dogs will always retain a strong instinct to protect anything in his possession, especially if the behaviour has been ongoing for a long period of time.

Why don’t we just punish the dog?

Hitting, shouting, intimidating or being agonistic toward the dog in any way isn’t likely to improve his anxiety of people getting too close.  I think it’s fair to say that it could make him more anxious.  Additionally, punishing him for growling my teach him not to growl, the anxiety is still there but it’s not so easily recognised, making it easier for people to get too close without realising the dog’s stressful state. That may well result in a bite.

Getting the dog to leave dangerous items

Teach the dog to ‘leave’ whatever he has.  The idea of ‘Leave it’  isn’t so we can take his stuff, it’s so that we have a tool to use in cases where he has something which may pose a risk.

  1. With the dog in a relaxed state, not guarding anything or playing with anything, say ‘Leave it’ and drop a handful of treats onto the floor.  Do this 5 times per day for 1 week and he will love you saying ‘Leave it’.  To the dog, ‘Leave it’ means there are lots of treats all over the floor.  Note: the ‘Leave it’ cue should come as a surprise; if he first sees you getting the treats ready the ‘Leave it’ will be less effective because he may have learned that you going to the cupboard indicates treats are coming rather than you saying ‘Leave it’.
  2. Now move onto giving the ‘Leave it’ cue when the dog is showing interest in other things or maybe chewing on a toy.  Don’t take the toy away or even go near it.  The dog gets the treats and he gets to keep the toy.
  3. You can build on this exercise by maybe moving further and further away or trying it when he has food (without entering any stress zone).  Over time it can build into a handy tool for moving the dog away from things he shouldn’t have.  Don’t be in a rush to go and grab the item which the dog has left, maybe as he finishes the treats, do another ‘Leave it’  teaching him not to charge back to the left item every time, because more treats might be coming.  When he knows the ‘Leave it’ cue well, you can hold out for a few seconds before chucking the treats down. This teaches him to focus on you. Later on (don’t rush things) this could turn into having the lead attached and then getting the treats. There are lots of options, it depends what is suitable and useful to you.

Every dog and human are different.  This is a brief overview of my approach to resource guarding. It is NOT a set of instructions for curing every dog’s guarding issues, I don’t know your dog or your situation. If in doubt, seek professional help.

Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read

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