Let's say the family dog is chewing on a bone, and the family's young child approaches to give the dog a hug at that moment. The dog is really into his bone and doesn't want to be bothered, so he gives the child a warning stare and the lip goes up in a snarl. The adult in the family wants to let the dog know that this behavior won't be tolerated at all, so she takes the bone away and delivers a stern NO!
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Next stop, the shelter--where he will likely be killed right away since owner surrenders, especially with behavioral "issues," generally aren't given any time at all.
This scenario, so tragic, could so easily be prevented. What makes it such a common trajectory is that the way to train a dog not to resource guard is the exact opposite from what seems intuitively obvious. We have to counter our own instincts to react to guarding behavior by angrily taking the resource away, by instead giving the dog more good stuff, and with a smile on our faces.
Though Fozzie overall has incredibly good bite inhibition--despite his wildness at first, we've always been able to trust that his mouth will be soft with people--he did, at one time, visibly stiffen and sometimes growl when he was chewing on something and a human approached. Though his tension made me, in turn, feel tense, and if I was already feeling testy it was tempting to growl back, I made an effort to stop, take a deep breath, and use the reasoning skills my prefrontal cortex developed over 10 million years of evolution rather than myself descending into limbic system reactivity.
Following a loose adaptation of Jean Donaldson's protocol in "Mine!," here is what I did.
- Fozzie had a delicious chew and was enjoying it on the couch.
- I approached Fozzie for some lovin', and saw his body stiffen, the whites of his eyes show, and that nose wrinkle up just a bit more.
- I didn't say a word, but instead went into the kitchen to get some cheesy treats, hot dogs, or something else even better than what he was working on.
- I approached Fozzie again, sprinkled the yummy hot dog bits all around his nose and the chew he was working on, and walked away, the whole time with a relaxed, happy posture, saying something like "here's your yummy snack!" If I had been really worried that he'd lunge and bite as I approached, I would have tossed the treats from a distance.
- I repeated, each time coming a bit closer when I delivered the snacks
- When he was starting to relax, I placed my hand on the bone and then gave more treats.
- Then I took the bone away, put some peanut butter on it, and returned it.
5 minutes of work to implement training that could save a dog's life.
Note that if your dog guards his stuff from other dogs--not from humans--this is a different situation best handled through management. Feed your pups in separate rooms and give them chews separately. You can try some counterconditioning to make them associate each other with pleasant things, but don't worry too much that this is a personality flaw that needs to be trained and modified.
Even if you have a dog who doesn't resource guard, please don't take the bone away without giving something else good in return. These very effective methods are how our dogs learn that sharing is fun, and they don't need to worry when humans come near their precious possessions.