by Denise Mazzola, CPDT – KA
Resource guarding is the ultimate culture clash between dogs and humans.
In the world of survival of the fittest, she who gets the best bed and the most food wins by living, by surviving to pass on her genes. After all, reproducing and passing on genetics is the purpose of life.
However, living with a dog that’s defensive and aggressive around their sleeping space, food bowl, treats, bones, sticks, etc. is very challenging. This is what’s known as resource guarding – when a dog becomes aggressive because she doesn’t want to share whatever she perceives as a resource.
When you think about it most of us will resource guard something. If you are watching the Super Bowl will you give up the remote control so someone else can watch Oprah? Will you let your kids drive your car? Will you let someone else ride your prized mountain bike, borrow your boat or eat off your plate? There are of course some people who are very generous and will share anything and don’t guard their resources. There are dogs like this as well. I hope everyone is lucky enough to find one.
Resource guarding is about the dog having a negative emotional response to a perceived threat, someone approaching, reaching, attempting to pet her or another movement that the dog deems threatening. This is the science of classical conditioning – when one event or thing predicts another. You’ll often see a dog get excited when the leash comes out, that is because the leash predicts the walk. This is a positive association. There are negative associations as well, which is what resource guarding is about. Your approaching predicts the item being taken away so the dog defends the item.
The dog may growl, lip curl, become still or frozen and bite. From the dog’s perspective it’s about protecting her resource, the bone, food bowl, etc, it’s not about how much the dog loves you. So many times people meet this aggression with more aggression. They think to themselves, I can take that away and they force the dog to give it up, which may work on a young dog, but as the dog matures, she is learning a valuable lesson, if she wants to keep her possessions, she better defend it better, i.e. become more aggressive.
In my experience men have a more difficult time with dogs that resource guard. I don’t have scientific proof, just my 25+ years of working with people and their dogs. Men are more inclined to force the dog to give them the item and they get bit more often.
People also seem to forget that the dog doesn’t know if you are approaching to take the item away or to straighten out their bed, all they know is you are coming closer and they need to protect their possession. I recently had a client who got bit because she was approaching her dog who was laying on the dog bed, which the dog was possessive about, because she was going to add another blanket. She was shocked the dog bit her when all she wanted to do was make her more comfortable.
Treatment of resource guarding isn’t complicated, but we need to understand what is happening. It is a negative emotional response to someone approaching or reaching toward the dog while the dog has an item of value. You must treat the emotion first. You do this through using Classical Conditioning. Your approach must predict greatness for the dog.
For puppies, it’s all about preventing resource guarding from developing.
· First, DO NOT play in the dog’s food bowl when they are puppies. This doesn’t create a positive emotional response. Would you want someone playing in your plate?
· Do not play in their food bowl, do not stick your hand in their dish to show them you can do it, just don’t do it. Have I mentioned not playing in their food bowl?
· Do add generous amounts of delicious treats while they are eating. By delicious I mean, roast beef, turkey, chicken, cheese even toast. You want the dog to anticipate your approach with eager joy that something better is going to be given to them. You are creating a positive emotional response. You are using the science of classical conditioning.
· Anytime, and I do mean anytime, you need or want to take something from the dog, you must go to your refrigerator first and find some delicious food.
· Take that yummy food and trade the dog’s item for your food. Show the dog what you have, then give it to the dog, or toss it away from the dog so the dog has to move away from you and the item.
· Always, always, always trade and trade up in value.
If you have an adult dog that is resource guarding the approach is similar. Ask yourself the question, “Do I have to take that away from the dog?” If the dog is eating some paper towel and you know the dog is a guarder, walk way. It won’t hurt the dog. If the dog is chewing on a shoe, what are you going to do? First, hit your head against the wall for leaving your shoe where the dog had access. Next, walk to your refrigerator, get a generous portion of roast beef, cheese, turkey etc and trade with the dog. She gets the delicious food, you get the shoe. Every time you need to take something away, you’ll trade with her. Make it worth her while to give up the item. It won’t be worth her while for a milk bone, but it will for a generous amount of turkey.
Resource guarding is very modifiable once you understand from-the-dog’s-perspective what is happening, but you have to be willing to let go of your ego and work in some positive classical conditioning. Be generous, make it worth her while to make the trade. Dogs are dogs, they do not have a sense of right or wrong, good or bad, it’s all about what’s in it for them. Make it great and be patient, dogs that have been guarding for months or years will take some time to trust the new system, but their behavior can be successfully modified to live as loving companions.
Certified Professional Dog Trainer Denise Mazzola is the owner of Denise Mazzola’s Everything Dog. She has been training dogs and people for over 25 years. Everything Dog provides services to clients throughout the Monadnock Region of NH by offering private lessons, group classes, board and train, as well as day training services. Denise has been published in the trade journal, Chronicle of the Dog, and writes a monthly column for the Monadnock Ledger Transcript. She also hosts a monthly “Ask the Trainer” radio show on WKBK. Denise lives in Keene with her life and business partner, Amy Willey CPDT-KA, and they share their home with three dogs and three daughters. For more information, visit www.everythingdognh.com.