Tuesday, July 26, 2011

From guarding to sharing

Resource guarding is one of the most common reasons people give up their pets to shelters. 

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! 

Lizzie is available for adoption from www.homewardtrails.org
And lo and behold, the next time the pooch is chewing on something and a person approaches, the pup not only snarls but snaps, because he's been taught that he is not safe to chew on his bone when people are around. 

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.
With Fozzie, it literally took 3 approaches before he was looking up at me with a wag and loose body posture when I approached him and his bonie, allowing me to take the bonie, sniff it, and return. Even though he no longer stiffens when I approach, I still give him good stuff when he already has something good sometimes just so he remembers.

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.


  1. This is awesome, Kirsten. I shared it on our blog's facebook page, and hopefully some folks will read it. I agree that this is an all-too-commonly misunderstood and mistreated problem!

  2. AWESOME. Period. Just awesome. I would never have thought of this. I don't give Morgan meat bones because it elicits this behavior. God. So simple. Thanks!

  3. Great post. I know resource guarding can be scary for a lot of people, but it is something that can be worked on with a dog.

  4. Yay! Thank you everyone. So glad this is helpful. I don't want to make light of it because I know it is a problem and that it really can be scary, but in my opinion resource guarding really is one of the easiest things to work on.

  5. Thanks for this. Our dog Izzy and our Foster Peeps both are a bit of resource guarders around each other, but will let us take bully sticks, treat, whatever out of their mouths without an issue. Peeps is certainly a lesser case but Izzy is completely possessive. We have no toys out, but they have each other so they don't mind. We feed Peeps locked in the crate with Izzy next to him eating. Has not been an issue since day 1 at feeding time!

    Could the same be done for a chew or something more high value? I've also practiced "leave it" with me "owning" a treat and both dogs having to wait to get to their respective treats. Unfortunately Peeps doesn't quite get the exercise and when I say "ok" he just looks at me! I don't expect either dog to lose their possessiveness but would like it to be manageable.

    And love how Fozzie is chewing on a water bottle. One of Izzy's favorite 5 minute toys!

  6. Most trainers will say that the best strategy for dog-to-dog resource guarding is management...that is, keep one in his crate or in another room while either one of them enjoys a high-value chew. The Leave It exercise is also a really good one for building a good relationship where the pups have confidence that they'll get their yummy chew, but only if they look to you for it!

    My dogs are still testy towards each other with their high-value chews, and I just don't give them to each other when they're in danger of coming up against each other's possessiveness!

    The only thing you can try is to have Dog 1 chewing on his chew, and approach Dog 1 with Dog 2 on a leash while tossing treats to Dog 1. That may start to relax the tension and do some counterconditioning, but I think its awesome to have reasonable expectations, as you express :)

    The water bottle thing has made for hours of laughs...they're so great the way they skid and bounce along hard surfaces! Water bottle soccer was one of Fozzie's favorite games on tennis courts in the winter:)

  7. Awesome post! Great information to know.


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