Does Your Dog Guard Resources?

It occurred to me today while working with a client’s dog that many dog owners really don’t know if their dog guards resources or not. So many people never give their dog anything that is truly considered high value by the dog, that sometimes we find out the hard way that the dog will guard something he or she considers valuable. Many dogs who live in single dog households also have never really had an opportunity to guard something from another animal, so it may not be recognized until later in the dog’s life, when he or she happens to have something valuable in the presence of another animal. I once had a client dog with no history of guarding begin guarding me and my treat pouch from the other household dog, she had never had a high value treat and wanted to keep them all for herself! We worked through it quickly and easily, because I recognized it immediately, she was not given the opportunity to practice it successfully over time, and, because training and behavior is what I do for a living, I already had a plan in mind to change that behavior quickly. But if the dog had been left to continue and become successful in the guarding behavior, it could have escalated quickly into a dog fight, and both the dogs, myself, and the owner could have been injured. Resource guarding is a normal, adaptive behavior in dogs. If a dog in a group of dogs with no human intervention didn’t protect what he had, he is likely to miss a lot of meals! Normal resource guarding looks like a slight hunch over the item, or lying on the item, a low growl in the direction of the other animal, a hard eye toward the other animal, and possibly a lifted lip.  In an appropriate interaction, the other dog will read the signals clearly and move away.  In normal dogs, I expect some low level of intra-species guarding (dogs guarding from other dogs), and some inter-species guarding (from the family cat,possibly), of things the dog considers super-high value. For instance, a raw, meaty marrow bone. The best policy for giving your dog a super high value food/chew object is to manage carefully, keeping the dog either in his or her crate, or in a space where no other animals or people will disturb him/her while chewing, until the dog has finished with it, or you are prepared to take the object away, by trading for a consumable of equally high value (slice of bacon, perhaps?). Resource guarding becomes maladaptive and unacceptable in household dogs when it is directed toward people, or is focused on various, random objects, like tissues, Legos, bits of paper, or specific spaces, like the couch, the landing on the stairs, or the space near a known food source like the pantry. The good news is, with professional help and good management, resource guarding is definitely modifiable, and most dogs who guard objects or space can be worked through the issue to the point of being safe for other people in the home. If you should happen to find out that your dog has started to guard something from you, don’t panic, don’t chase the dog, or threaten, it may cause your dog to swallow the object, or to bite you. Move away to a non-threatening distance, throw a high value consumable item, bacon, braunschweiger, cheese, etc., into an area with a door or barrier you can use to separate the dog from the guarded object, remove the object, then release the dog, and find a professional to work with you on this issue, before it becomes a bigger problem. If your dog begins to guard an object from another animal, move the other animal away, then trade your dog a consumable item for the object, and move it to a place out of reach of both animals. If the object was extremely high value, plan to manage your dog carefully next time he or she is given that sort of object, and don’t allow those items when both animals are present in unconfined space. If you feel that the guarding is escalating, consult a professional for tips on management and training plans to minimize risk for both people and animals. Things to remember about resource guarding:

  1. it is a normal behavior, but can escalate into behavior that can create a dangerous living situation
  2. guarding can crop up unexpectedly, the dog decides what is valuable, so watch carefully when giving new toys/treats/beds/etc.
  3. proactive management to prevent the guarding from happening is the best course of action
  4. If you have issues with resource guarding, working with an experienced professional who understands positive reinforcement and behavior modification, like a CBCC-KA, CAAB, or Veterinary Behaviorist, is going to be the most productive use of your training time and dollars

It Always Works, Except When It Doesn’t

I think that there is a danger in any profession of moving to a point where you know so much, that you have a hard time believing that you may be wrong.  There, I said it, wrong.  It’s a hard thing to be, and a harder thing to admit to being.  We work so hard to stay on the cutting edge, to be “positive” to be “force-free”, to find out all the latest learning theory and have every training tool and trick in the book at our disposal.  But how well do we utilize our knowledge?  Are we continually challenging ourselves, or are we using said knowledge to discount the very real issues and feelings that other people and animals are having?  This is an area, like the edge of the map, “here there be dragons”.  Because we “know” from the research, from the statistics, from the science, that what we are doing and recommending works.  The kind of training we do does work.  It can change lives, when applied well.  It can save lives, when applied well.  It always works, with every type of animal, any species, except when it doesn’t.  Then the inclination is to take the easy route, and say, “Well, the client didn’t follow through” or “the client didn’t do it right”.  We have moved from our force training mantra of “the dog is just bad”, to our positive training mantra of “the client is just bad”.  These are the dragons, and they serve no one.  The dog doesn’t get trained, the client doesn’t enjoy their relationship with their dog, the trainer gets a reputation for being “soft” or a “cookie pusher who can’t work with THESE kinds of dogs”.   No one wants that.

If our clients are failing, our coaching is failing.  Our clients call us because they aren’t professional dog trainers, and they can admit they have a problem and ask for help, let’s not turn on them for being exactly what they have presented themselves to be!    Let’s take a long look at our skill set, and determine where we are failing our clients.

Because we know it works.  Except when it doesn’t.  When is that?  When a dog is so over threshold that he is unable to take treats, whether from fear or arousal, this is an untrainable situation.  When a dog has so much other, more salient,  environmental input that he can’t or won’t focus on the marker, or the reinforcer, or the handler.  When the handler is consistently unable to mark or reinforce in a meaningful window of time, for whatever reason.  When the dog has such a strong reinforcement history for the behavior with specific people (usually the handler!) or at specific times, that there is little to do in that training situation unless you change and control the environmental options significantly before trying to elicit, let alone teach, an alternate behavior.

We are very experienced, we select environments to work in, reinforcers to use, and set ourselves and our dogs up for success.  Yes, it ALWAYS works, in the right situation, with the right reinforcers, and the right environment.  It typically works with client dogs for us, because we are novel, skilled, and have no previous reinforcement history with the animal, givnig us the opportunity to be very selective about what we reinforce from the very beginning.  We as trainers take this for granted, because much of our observational process and planning is spent on adjusting the environment, stimuli, reinforcers, limiting access to those things, or using them to our advantage. We know how to find the foundation skill, and fix it first, before layering new things on top of it.  We can see what the animals are finding reinforcing, and how they are choosing to get to the reinforcers.

Our clients are inexperienced, they don’t see body language, they don’t have the environmental observation ninja skills of trainers who do this every day!  Their timing isn’t always great, their dogs know they get attention for jumping, mouthing, whatever we’re trying to help them “fix”.  They don’t understand that really excellent training is proactive, and it’s too late to explain, in many cases!

My vow is to honor and respect my clients, as much as I do their animal friends.  To respond with empathy and active listening when they tell me “it doesn’t work” and to try to discern what’s happening and WHY it doesn’t work, not blame them for not working hard enough, or not knowing enough.  It’s not my place to judge, I am here to observe, assist, teach, coach, and set both the dog and the handler up for success.  If it isn’t working, I’m not teaching it well.  I choose to admit when I’m wrong, take responsibility for that, and work to make it right, for the good of the human animal bond, and the quality of life of all my clients and students. Let’s work to slay the dragons.