Friday, 12 June 2015

Resource Guarding in Dogs

Does the above scene look a little too familiar? Is your dog reluctant to give up toys? Or maybe they turn into a jealous green monster when you go to pet other dogs? Or maybe they get a little defensive around meal time. Resource guarding can show up in many different ways and it is important that you recognize the signs early, before it progresses into a real problem. Before we get to the "info" part of this post, I'd like to tell you a little story, which unfortunately does not have a very happy ending.

One of my extended family members had a Springer Spaniel bitch who, sad to say, did not have a very nice personality. She was a great dog is some ways and fit really well into their active lifestyle. Unfortunately, she had some severe resource guarding issues. I remember, as a small child, being told "Don't pet the dog. Don't touch the dog" over and over again. We were absolutely not left in the room with the dog. The dog was also very protective of "her" resources, and would often not allow the husband into the bedroom or onto the bed.

Eventually, the dog's owners decided to start a family and the dog was sent to live on the farm. In this case, it was an actually my grandparent's farm and not the figurative "the dog has been put down" farm. My grandparents were very experienced dog people and were able to manage her nasty tendencies fairly well, but as the dog got older she got worse and worse. The dog was muzzled at family gatherings. She was protective of the bedroom. She was overly attached to my grandfather. She became more and more dangerous. Eventually, when she went after my grandmother for trying to get into "her" truck, she was put down.

Springer Spaniels are prone to resource guarding and this is something I am hyper aware of with Maizy. In fact, many cases of so called "Springer Rage" were likely instances of resource guarding. However, this problem is not limited to Springers - not by a long shot.

What is Resource Guarding?

Resource guarding can present itself in many ways. It can be mild or severe. With severe cases, it can often not be "fixed" but with training and management, it can improve greatly. It can be shown by a stiffening of posturing, turning away, growling, biting and other distress signs. Here are some examples:

  • Your dog growls when you approach him when he is eating.
  • Your dog turns his head away when you reach for his bone, and if you persist he moves away.
  • Your dog is protective of the couch
  • Your dog doesn't like it when you pet other dogs - he may lunge, growl, snap or bark at other dogs. Maizy does this, and it is something we are working on.
  • Your dog doesn't like it when other humans approach you.
It is normal for dogs to warn other dogs away with stiffened posture, a stare, a lip curl or even a small growl. This tells the other dog, "Hey, this is my bone, don't try and take it". This, in itself, is not a bad thing.

It becomes a problem when the behaviour is centered around humans, either keeping humans away from "their stuff" or viewing the human as "theirs", or if the behaviour becomes too aggressive towards other dogs. 

How to Handle Resource Guarding

If you believe your dog has a problem, the first step is to contact a dog trainer or animal behaviourist. Blog posts such as this one or even an article written by Caesar Milan (who, for what it's worth, is not very well regarded in most dog training circles) are not ever a substitute for a dog trainer. You may also want to contact your veterinarian for advice.

I also recommend you purchase the book "Mine! A practical guide to resource guarding" by Jean Donaldson. I love this book so much I have multiple copies - one for me and one for others to borrow. Donaldson does a bang up job of explaining resource guarding and outlines the training steps you will need to implement.

An excellent resource for all dog owners.

How I Handle Resource Guarding

I am not a professional dog trainer, but I will share with you what I do with Maizy and you can do what you will with that information.

  • You know the old adage, "Don't touch the dog while it's eating"? I absolutely, 100% do not follow this rule. However, I implemented this since Maizy was 8 week old. When Maizy is eating I reach into her food bowl and take some of her kibble. I then return the kibble and also give her a tasty treat in her bowl. This teaches her that "good things happen when people touch your food". I have lots of people do this with her. As a result, you could play bongos on Maizy's bum while she ate and she wouldn't even bat an eye. Even though Maizy is a year old now, I still do this food exchange a few times a week.
  • The Trading Game. This is a fun activity to do with your dog and Maizy will now try to trade me for high value items - "I brought you my favourite bone, now you give me that bag of chips." Basically you give the dog an item, such as a toy, and then "trade" the dog for yummy snacks like cheese or liver. You can even link a word to the action (such as "trade!" or "swap!"). This teaches the dog that giving you things means they get better things in return. When you start this game, give the dog a very low value item (something your dog likes, but doesn't care too much about) and trade for a very high value item (yummy food!). Slowly work your way up to trading for more high value items, like bones or favourite toys. This article from Whole Dog Journal explains the process in step-by-step detail.
  • Fetch! This is a great way to get your dog giving you items and allows you to work that "Drop it!" command. When we started training this - and for most dogs, you will have to actually train the behaviour - Maizy would give back low value items for me to throw again. Now that she is more solid with this behaviour, she will gladly give up the coveted squeaky Kong ball. This is very similar to the trading game, but the reward here is you throwing the ball after the dog gives you the toy.
As I noted above, Maizy can become a bit - okay, a lot - jealous when other dogs approach my boyfriend, and to some extent when other dogs approach me. While her behaviour doesn't cause any problems at this point, we are working to nip it in the bud before it escalates. For this, we are using positive reinforcement. Maizy sits quietly while another dog approaches? She gets a treat. We are going back to dog school for a refresher, and this is one of the things I will be asking our trainer about.

I'll keep you updated on our progress!

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