Your puppy is a delightful charmer most of the time, but when he has a favorite treat, a stolen sock, or gets near the food bowl or refrigerator, he turns into an evil beast … What to do?
I write about this issue with some trepidation because in many cases it is not something that should be tackled without experienced assistance. This is not because it is particularly difficult to resolve—in most cases it can be completely eliminated in a few weeks of relatively simple work. Rather, it is because there is something of an art involved in determining when to implement which techniques, and applying the wrong technique in a particular case can easily exacerbate the problem or create new problems. There are moments when confrontation will be effective, and moments when it will completely backfire, and unless you have been through it a few times they are very hard to tell apart… Additionally, resource guarding is not something to ignore or address ineffectively for very long—it is a behavior that tends to become ingrained with rehearsal and can be very challenging to eliminate once it is habitual. So, I am going to enumerate a few techniques that are useful, but if you do not see immediate improvement, I would strongly encourage you to find an authentic expert to help…
The first thing you need to genuinely understand is that resource guarding does not mean you have a bad dog. It is not a bad behavior, nor a sign that your dog does not love you. This is simply an animal behaving in one of the most natural ways possible. Virtually every animal has evolved to guard valuable resources. Particularly wolves, who live in packs, have for millennia needed to protect what is theirs. Those that did not do this died millions of years ago, so growling, snarling, snapping and otherwise telling your packmates that you are not going to share is very much hardwired into every canid. You also need to remember that after a snarl comes a bite, so be careful–your dog is behaving in a reasonable way, but you certainly can be injured, so do not push beyond where you feel comfortable.
Here are things to work on to resolve general resource guarding (note: if the resource your puppy guards is you or your lap, that is somewhat different, this list applies to dogs that are guarding food or toys):
- Give: you need to teach your dog to drop what is in his mouth. This is not a negative—just another behavior. He gives, you reward him with a treat. Then you can have him get the object again, and then give. He is learning to give on command and also that giving does not equate to loss. Start doing this with low-value items and work up until he can give just about anything on command and get a treat…
- Leave it / Take it: you must be able to sit on the floor with your dog and toss treats, sometimes saying take it other times saying leave it, and having him absolutely listen. If he cannot do this with low value treats in a controlled situation, you have little chance of success when he has something valuable and is 20 feet away…
- Stay and wait for treat: work on having your dog sit before you give him dinner. Sit before you hand him a yummy treat, and hold the sit until you release him. He needs to learn patience and delayed gratification, and that you control the resources.
- General deference: as a rule, dogs that are guarding resources tend to have an inflated sense of their standing in the pack. They need to learn in other contexts that YOU are the one making the decisions. A basic obedience class can go a long way to establishing the right relationship, as can a few training sessions per day on anything. In particular, they need to learn to hold a stay with distractions, to wait at the door, to get out of your way when you are walking, to accept restraint, to relax in the face of stimulus, and other subtle lessons that reinforce that they are not the decision-maker in this pack.
- There is no shortage of resources: I like to work on resource issues (at first) when my dog is not particularly hungry, and I like to give LOTS of treats and food and rewards during the training. I want him to “feel” like his world is full of bounty and he does not really need to fight for resources because resources are virtually infinite.
- I will trade you something better: I often call my dogs to me when they have a toy or something they like, and I give something awesome in exchange. A piece of steak or something. I do this all the time with things they have that are NOT critical, so they just become habituated to my calling them, taking what they have, and giving them something better.
- Management: while you are working on fixing this issue you need to make sure that your dog is not rehearsing the undesired behavior, this means whatever he is tending to guard you need to make sure he is NOT getting it and guarding it at random times. Pick up socks, move the cat food, and in general make sure there are no opportunities for your dog to gain possession of high value items that are disallowed.
- Feeding by hand: lots of hand-feeding, entire meals. You want him to associate that the resources come from you. That you are the key to his getting more.
- At dinner time, put his bowl on the ground, and reach down and drop a handful of food into the bowl. Repeat until he has eaten his entire dinner, one handful at a time.
- Have him do a few behaviors while you are holding his dinner bowl, before you set it down. End with him in a sit, and do not let him get up until you release him.
- Feeding from fork: feed really yummy treats from a fork. This helps him learn to be less grabby and more thoughtful and restrained about taking treats.
- Hands in food bowl: spend lots of time with your hands around his food bowl. Moving it, adding food, adding higher value treats, holding it, having it in your lap, etc.
- Feed him in different places. Sometimes in privacy, other times in the middle of life. Do not avoid him when he is eating, go about your business so he learns that people walking around are not a threat to him.
- Pet him when he is eating. Start gradually, you may be some distance away, but hang out at the distance where he starts to get tense, and gradually decrease this distance, never getting so close that he is uncomfortable, until you can sit next to him and pet him while he stays relaxed and eats.
- Incompatible fun behavior: practice doing something he loves that is also exciting and endorphin inducing as an alternative. Call him away from a bone to come play tug or fetch. In essence you are instilling the sense that the resource is less valuable than coming to play with you.
- Incompatible static deferential behavior: sometimes call him away from an exciting resource and put him into a down for five minutes and then let him return. You are conditioning him to stop, listen, restrain himself, and relax in the middle of a rewarding resource experience.
- Growling at me does not work: in general if a dog growls at me, I make sure that the growl does not get him what he wanted. If he wanted to push me away, I step forward, if he wanted to tell me not to take something, I take it… However, you need to be very careful with this, because if the dog is growling from insecurity, you do not want to reinforce that insecurity by advancing, adding pressure, or taking something away. You also need to be safe, so if the dog is going to bite, do not push the issue. And, you need to be careful not to take away a dog’s best tool for warning you—there may be times in life when your dog needs to legitimately warn you or someone else, and you want him to know that growling is better than silent biting and that he will not simply be ignored if the issue is real and legitimate.
- Growling at me has negative consequences: with all the same cautions as above, there may come a moment when a particular dog growls and the right response is to correct him. To tell him, “No, that crap will not be tolerated…” If you think you are in this position, enlist the aid of an experienced and objective trainer who can confirm that your dog is being a jerk and needs to be corrected. However, while I am a very positive trainer, I also want to make clear my view that this behavior cannot be tolerated, and there absolutely is a point at which I will not be nice. Just as I understand that my dog is behaving reasonably according to pack mentality, he needs to understand that, according to the same rules, I am not a member of the pack to whom he gets to be nasty, no matter how much he wants something. A dog that will growl or bite to protect “his” resources is likely to end up homeless, and will then likely fail most shelters’ evaluations and will be killed, so not fixing this behavior is not an option.
There are many additional techniques, but if you consistently and effectively work on these, all but the most dire resource guarders are likely to be fixed. However, let me reiterate: resource guarding can almost always be fixed, and doing so is generally fairly simple, but you really need to be able to read your dog’s underlying emotional state and respond appropriately, so if you are not confident that you can do that, seek skilled help soon!