Understanding Resource Guarding
Many dogs struggle with resource guarding in some form or another. This is a common struggle that often begins during adolescence when your dog is trying to figure out the world around them and their role in interacting in that world. Some breeds were also bred for guarding livestock and/or other possessions. So it's important that we look at the whole picture of each individual when we look at resource guarding as a problem behavior. This is one area where you will want help from a skilled Trainer or Behavior Consultant that can help you take a look at the bigger picture.
In the picture to the left, Azul is sniffing the ground and while you may not think that sniffing a certain spot could have anything to do with resource guarding, I can assure it you it can! Some of my worst longline accidents happened as Azul raced Cam to get to a smell first! This particular day, I had to cover up the smell with my feet to prevent Azul from trying to keep Cam away from whatever awesome thing was located under this dirt.
Before you can undertake training you need to figure out the reason behind the resource guarding. Work through this list to prepare for your meeting with a Behavior Consultant or qualified trainer.
What types of things is the dog seeming to guard? Often it’s food, toys, their person/people or other resources.
Who or what is the dog seeming to guard the resources from? This is commonly the handler, other dogs in the area, or anything moving past them.
What action or behavior is the dog doing when they are seeming to guard an object.
Determining these before your session can help you to better describe your situation to your trainer. If your trainer asks you to set up a possible scenario of when your dog is most likely to do this so that they can see it in action before your first session, find another trainer! Force free trainers do not believe in setting up a dog to fail or presenting opportunities that the dog is not prepared for unless it is a last resort. A trainer may ask you to be prepared to capture an incident on video if you can set something up to record and capture it naturally occurring. In today’s age of web/security cameras, it’s pretty easy to have something set up in an environment where you’ve seen repeated behaviors that concern you.
Bad Advice to Avoid
There is some old school thinking in the control based dog training world that can make resource guarding worse. You may have friends and family telling you to do these things, but I urge you not to try them. Possibly you have tried them in the past and if so, forgive yourself for not knowing any better with a mission to learn better ways to help your dog in a more positive way. Typical BAD advice includes:
Interrupting your dog’s meal by playing with their food or taking it away from them when they are young so that they are used to or won’t react when someone does this accidently.
Punish your dog for barking, growling, or lunging toward the intruder (person or animal moving toward their resource). When you punish this behavior, it’s easy for the dog to learn to bypass this behavior and jump straight to an even worse behavior such as biting.
Teaching the dog that all possessions belong to YOU, the owner, and that you give permission to access certain resources at certain times. This basically takes away any self control a dog may have over items in the environment. It’s much better to teach them self control than to take it away.
Good Advice for Resource Guarding
Manage the environment! I can’t stress this enough! If your dog is resource guarding their food, set up a feeding area in a room that other dogs or people can’t go near your dog while they eat and put food up between meals. If your dog is resource guarding toys/chewing objects from other dogs, keep them picked up unless dogs are in separate rooms while working on mat training so that eventually dogs can be in the same room staying on their mat while they enjoy their treat. If your dog is guarding things from you or other people check out the Trading Games below.
Work on your dog’s ability to self regulate or use some impulse control. Resource guarding as an issue often starts in adolescence when the dog’s brain is developing from puppyhood to adulthood when self regulation is at its lowest ability. Working on training games such as It’s Yer Choice, Zen, or Leave It can help a dog learn to better manage their behaviors. Check out this blog for more info: http://www.yooperpaws.com/2022/03/understanding-impulse-control-or-self.html
If you live in a multi dog household it can be really helpful to teach your dogs to take turns with training sessions, toys, and even petting from their people in low key ways. Taking turns teaches the dogs that each will get a chance to enjoy what they want if they wait calmly. Check out the info below about taking turns.
Often dogs that struggle with resource guarding have other issues that are making them lash out. For example if a dog is experiencing pain or anxiety that can make them a bit more testy and they will often lash out due to unrelated stress. If your dog shares just fine sometimes, but has certain days where they are more likely to guard their resources you need to look at other things that are happening on that day. If they have had multiple stressful incidents of high stress, the dog becomes trigger stacked and is less able to control their impulses. Check out this blog about feeling overwhelmed: http://www.yooperpaws.com/2021/10/are-you-overwhelmed.html
You never want to take something away from your dog without giving them back something of equal or greater value. Especially when a dog may be struggling with resource guarding tendencies. Before you play this game you will need to create a list of things that your dog finds reinforcing. Add different types of food, toys, and attention or games to your list.
Teaching your dog that there is value in a good trade is a great bond building exercise. I never take items away from my dogs! But I do trade them for items I don't want them to have. As young puppies that mouth everything, we often deal with trying to teach them which items are theirs to play with and which items belong to people so they should not be chewed. At that point in a puppy's life it's easy to trade. They grab your slipper and run away to enjoy it, some people may run after the dog and force the puppy to surrender the item while an experienced trainer often suggests trading the puppy for an appropriate dog toy. Think back to your early puppy days, what did you do?
Fast forward to adolescence, now your teen puppy has a much bigger world to explore. New smells, new sights, new sounds, treasures found out on your walks, distractions that bring your training sessions to a screeching halt...how we handle these things during the crazy teen phase form habits that can last a lifetime. I don't know about you, but I don't want to spend my time chasing my dogs when they stumble across something wonderful.
Is your dog already an adult dog with some bad behaviors such as counter surfing, raiding the trash or picking up tasty morsels on your walks? Teaching the value of a good trade may be harder with adult dogs but still very possible.
Here's a couple of guidelines to teach the value of trading.
- Always trade up! What you have to offer must be more valuable to your dog than what they have. This is easy with puppies when they steal the slipper you grab a soft tug toy and run the opposite direction calling their name. After a game of tug, you reclaim the slipper and put it where the puppy can't get it again. Adolescents find more valuable items so your trading up becomes more difficult. They've moved on to whatever is in your trash can or on your counter, so what can you offer? I keep high value treats in my fridge for this! It's an easy trade for kitchen manners, but instead of waiting for my dog to raid the trash, I cue them to leave it anytime my dog walks near the trash can and reward handsomely. I do the same for nose touching kitchen counters or other surfaces that frequently hold food. This typically prevents the bad habits from ever starting.
- If you can't trade up, don't trade at all! For example, my dogs are lucky to spend a great deal of time off leash or dragging longlines since we live in the country. Azul often finds the remains of wild animals that have been left behind by predators. How can I compete with that? Nothing I can carry with me can compete with that. So I work towards having my dog show me their prize so I can determine if safety is a risk factor. If it's safe I always give them permission to enjoy it, even if it means I sit down and wait for them to finish. If it's unsafe, which is rare but it happens they get a jackpot of treats for leaving it & letting me dispose of it, then we always play a really fun game. This takes time and building up a reinforcement history but is totally achievable with any dog!
- Start out with easy trades you can control. If your dog is food motivated, let them play with a toy for a few minutes then let them sniff a food treat. If they drop the toy, mark and reward. Repeat this throughout the day. When they do it every time, start adding your cue. I like to wait till I see my dog chewing on a toy naturally, then offer a trade. Before long, your dog will be bringing you all their toys in hopes of a trade. I trade each and every time my dog offers a trade. If my dog wants to play with me they bring me a toy, but continue to hold it. If they want to trade, they drop it on my lap or at my feet. If they happen to catch me with empty pockets I play with them. My pockets are rarely empty!