Preventing resource guarding in dogs

Advice on how to prevent resource guarding in your pet dog By Laure-Anne Visele, May 2012.

Resource guarding = defending prized objects

Resource guarding is the technical word for the dog defending prized objects or places. It can be a chew toy, a rag, a sleeping place, whatever.

©FiveRings on WikiCC BY 3.0

©FiveRings on WikiCC BY 3.0

Signs of (budding) resource guarding can range from the dog stopping with eating when you approach, to staring at you, or even growling/biting. Essentially, the dog looking vigilant when you approach one of his prized possessions.

Why is resource guarding a big deal?

Three reasons you need to do something about this pronto:

  1. The dog could bite a kids ‘out of the blue’, as it is really tricky to teach kids not to mess with the dog’s toys.
  2. It is really unsettling to have your own dog growl at you, and it’ll damage your relationship, with all sorts of unwanted consequences
  3. It can spread to more objects/locations if left unchecked. So before you know it, you are walking on egg shells all the time.

So definitely something to nip it in the bud, or even better, to prevent altogether.

What NOT to do about resource guarding

This one is a popular, but dangerous myth from the days of dominance-style training. You would have to snatch away the dog’s food or bone regularly, to teach him to tolerate it.

In extremely laid back dogs, it doesn’t do any harm (nor any good). But for 99% of dogs, this teaches them that: “Human = thieving monkeys, best make sure they keep away when am eating”. Talk about it counter-productive…

The same goes for chasing a dog who has stolen an ‘illegal’ object (technically, this is object hoarding,  not resource guarding, but whatever). What this achieves is:

  1. The dog sees it as a game of tag, and  learn to do it again and again.
  2. The dog could start to swallow the object to prevent you from getting to it. You’re now down the road of hefty vet bills and constant worry.
  3. If the dog feels cornered during the chase, it could escalate into (threatened or real) violence

What to do

But enough about what not to do. Here’s some advice to get the dog to actually WANT us near his ‘precioussss’

Caution: If your dog has already started showing signs of resource guarding, please contact a professional and do not attempt the below.

Caution: Do not punish the dog for growling. Granted, it’s not acceptable, but what’s even less acceptable, is a dog who bites without warning. If your dog growls at you in any other situation than in a game of tug-of-war, please contact a professional.

The swap game

Teaches the dog to let go of something reliably on command.

Material you need:

  • The precious: A chew (e.g. Nylabone or other object that is safe to chew but cannot be swallowed).
  • The swap: A moist piece of food (taking account of your dog’s special dietary requirements, of course) like cheese or chopped sausage

Timescale: It’s impossible to say, but if you repeat about 5x short sessions a day, you should be able to get to Stage 3 in a couple of weeks. Do not be tempted to cut corners, though, and only move up a stage when the dog reliably responds. Letting him get it wrong is just confusing for him, it blurs the lines.

 

Stage 0 – Luring the dog into the right behaviour

  • Offer ‘the precious’ to the dog and wait until he starts chewing it.
  • Get on with your business until the dog pays no more attention to you. Then casually approach him again.
  • Present the moist food in front of his nose and … as soon as he opens his mouth (and so drops the chew), tell him he’s a ‘Good boy’ and at the same time give him the moist treat, whilst discretely taking away the chew and bringing it out of sight.
  • Caution: Make sure your dog is not cornered when you approach him for the swap, that he has plenty of escape routes;
  • Caution: Make sure that  you are not towering above/bending over him at any stage in the approach or swap;
  • Detail: Resist the urge to pet him/tap him on the head. Right now, the treat is highest on his motivation list, getting petted is the last thing on his mind and might be mildly irritating, thus taking the edge off the ‘sheer delight’ conditions we’re trying to associate with you approaching.
  • Get on with your business as he eats his reward
  • When the dog has finished his treat, give him his chew back with no fuss. Let him keep it for the first few attempts. Eventually, we’ll graduate to taking it away permanently on most occasions, but not now.

Stage 1 – Adding a command and fading out the lure

When he reliably opens his mouth as you approach with the treat,  repeat as above, now adding a ‘cue’ (i.e. a command):

  • Offer the dog a chew, wait until he tucks in.
  • Get on with your business until he pays no attention to you. Then casually approach him again.
  • Say the word ‘Let go‘ and as soon as his jaw opens, say ‘Good boy’, and present the reward. Discretely take away the chew.  
  • Important detail: Timing and sequence are of the essence here. Say ‘Let go’ BEFORE you present the treat. Say ‘Good boy’ AFTER he opened his mouth. Give the treat AFTER you said ‘Good boy’
  • Important detail: Do not ‘bark the order’, make your tone of voice is enticing. You are not ordering him to give up a toy, you are promising him a piece of cheese.
  • Remember: No petting, no towering above, no cornering.
  • Get on with your business until he’s finished his treat.
  • When he is finished, give him his chew back.

Now keep practising the above, but increase the length of time between ‘Good boy’ and giving him the treat. So, the sequence is still:

  1. ‘Let go';
  2. Dog lets go;
  3. (immediately) ‘Good boy'; and
  4. (now after a few secs) Give the treat.

You’ll have to be very discrete about the fact that you are even carrying treats at this stage, so nothing like the beginning, when you were practically putting the treat in his mouth to get him to let go. We’re teaching him to open his mouth to the sound ‘Let go’ rather than at the sight/smell of treats.

Stage 2 – Rewarding only intermittently, not each time

Pre-conditions before you go on:

  • The dog consistently opens his mouth after you say ‘let go’, and BEFORE he sees the reward, and
  • A few seconds can pass between you saying ‘Let go’ and showing him you have treats/giving him the treat.

Now, we’re going to start rewarding the behaviour intermittently (as opposed to each time). This is what to do:

  • Offer the dog a chew, wait till he tucks in.
  • Get on with your business until the dog pays no more attention to you. Casually approach him again.
  • Say ‘Let go’
  • (Dog drops chew)
  • Say ‘Good boy’, discretely take away the chew and bring it out of sight (behind your back, whatever).
  • Wait a few seconds, then, alternate between times when you give him a treat and walk away, and times when you don’t and just walk away.

If he is still performing well once you’ve reached your target ratio (i.e. rewarding him as often as you’d like to in real life), start going intermittent on whether or not we come back and give him his ‘precious’ back.

Going intermittent is where things go wrong, very often, so I give you some additional tips below.

Some tips on ‘going intermittent’

‘Going intermittent’ is a fine line to tread and it can get hairy. You have to play it by ear between two extremes and towards a ratio that will be acceptable to you in real life (e.g. reward him 1:10 or so, roughly). The two extremes are:

  1. Going ‘cold turkey’, going immediately from giving a treat each time to never. Chance is he’ll conclude that this trick has stopped paying off and stop complying.
  2. Conversely, resist the urge to continue to give a treat each time forever, as he’ll then not comply after only a couple of instances of not getting a treat afterwards.

A good analogy for this state of mind is a car not starting. If your car is old and you are used to it not starting each time, you’ll keep trying a few times before you give up, so let’s get your dog to think that the car starts 1 time out of 10, and he’ll keep trying really keenly. If your car has never ever ever had a problem starting, chance is you’ll try turning the key in the ignition a couple of times, then call the garage.

Another thing to bear in mind when ‘going intermittent’ is not to make your ratios predictable, too regular. e.g. systematically one time out of two. He’ll quickly learn a fixed ratio, and he’ll only perform when he knows he’ll get a reward. They’re clever like that…

Stage 3 – Proofing the response

Once you are happy with your reward ratio, you can expand the game to: different persons and different object/locations.

  • The sequence of people: start with people he is least likely to guard from first, and always have children go last (so that you’ve had many many many trials with no sign of guarding before they’re involved). You’ll also have to tell the kids NEVER to do this without you around.
  • The sequence of objects: Start with a low-value item that the dog doesn’t care about that much, and work your way up the value scale to his favourite things.

For each new person/object, you’ll have to start from Stage 0 again with each new person and each new object, but you’ll be whizzing through the stages, and it’ll take nowhere near as long as the first time.

When can we ‘go live’?

You are ‘live’ when you can use the command (i.e. “Let go”) to let him drop an object that you really want him to let go off. e.g. Something dangerous or expensive. Think of it as when you are no longer using the command just in practise mode, in training mode, but in real life.

Resist the temptation to ‘go live’ if there is a chance it will fail – i.e. before the dog has gone through all the stages successfully. The more botched attempts you go through, the more negative associations with it, and the more chance that the dog’ll view ‘Let go’ as irrelevant input.

If you’ve gone through all the stages successfully yet the dog falls apart in a real-life situation, break the situation down so that you identify the factors that are different now than in a training context, and then gradually add these factors to your proofing stage.

If you really must get something out of the dog’s mouth urgently before the dog has gone through all the stages, just swap it for a juicy piece of cheese/meat, but do not use the command.

If the dog stalls at any stage when you’re working up the stages, go back a stage or two, to make it less challenging. Dog training is all about laying solid foundations: you put in the hard work at the beginning, then you whizz through the end stages.

The food drop game

This one is designed to desensitise your dog to you approaching his food dish.

What you do is, once in a while, whenever the dog is eating from his dish, casually drop a surprise in his bowl when you approach it. Make it more palatable than what he’s currently eating e.g. piece of cheese, bread, whatever (obviously taking special dietary requirements into account).

The frequency at which you do this should be often enough and unpredictable enough, that he associates your approach with the potential to get an extra treat (not guarantee).

When you are satisfied that he is either indifferent, or looking forward to your approach, repeat this with other members of the household, working your way through all people, starting with adults the dog is least likely to guard from, and finishing with kids. Do not involve the kids if there is ANY sign of vigilance as you approach. Also, tell the kid to, under no circumstances, do this unsupervised.

Caution: Be sure that you do not make abrupt gestures, that you do not approach the dog from above (throw the tid-bit sideways), and that he is not cornered by your approach.

Caution: Do not do this if your dog has showed any sign of resource guarding in the past. This is a preventative protocol, not a therapeutic one. If you see any sign of resource guarding (see first paragraph), please contact a professional.

Important detail: Remember, do not pet your dog during the drop. Just casually ‘drop and go’.

Getting the dog on and off furniture

It may seem unrelated, but a dog who growls when you try to get him off your bed/couch is actually resource guarding. He is not guarding his ‘territory’ (a territory is a much broader, vaguer, concept), but a specific resource for which he sees you as a competitor.

Caution: As with everything training-related, prevention is better than cure. So if your dog is already growling to defend his sleeping place, please contact a professional.

This is what we want to teach the dog: getting off the couch/bed on command is good for me.

Material:

  • Make sure that the dog has an equally comfortable, alternative place for him to sleep.
  • A couch or bed, obviously
  • Some treats

Caution: As this exercise involves a lot of hopping on and off furniture, please make sure your pet has a clean bill of health (in particular, that he is free from joint, or other orthopaedic problems).

Exercise:

  • Get your dog to sit in front of the couch,
  • Say ‘Hop’! or whatever, so that he jumps on the couch. If he doesn’t understand that, tap on the couch encouragingly.
  • Note: Do now crowd him or tower above him during this exercise. Make sure he feels he has the space to work.
  • As soon as he’s on the couch, say (calmly, no fuss) that he’s a ‘Good boy’, but no petting/no treats
  • Have him stay on the couch for a couple of seconds
  • Then say ‘Off’, and immediately after, throw treats on the floor. As soon as he’s on the floor, say ‘Good boy’ (#2).

Repeat several times in a row (say, 5x), and have several sessions a day (say, 5x) for a few days, trying to expand the time between ‘Off’ and throwing the treats.

Once he reliably comes off the couch under the above conditions, start only rewarding him once every other times, then even less often. Read the notes above about “Going intermittent“. It will give you advice on how to lead him to an acceptable ratio of reward (e.g. 1:10) without going cold turkey and without spoiling dog.

Once his performance is stellar under the above conditions, get him to get on the couch, then to stay on it, and give the order ‘off’ from increasing distances and positions (you sitting, you on the other side of the room, etc.). Ideally, you want to be able to tell him on the telephone even!

Once he handles this reliably, as above, go through the whole hierarchy again with more people, starting with the most likely to succeed to the least likely (pets have favourite members of the household).

Detail: Remember, you are not barking an order, you are promising something good (tone of voice).

Caution: Please do not ‘go live’ with it (i.e. use the word ‘off’ and expect him to get off the couch immediately and get frustrated when he doesn’t) before you’re completed the  protocol above. For emergencies, just lure him away with a treat then prevent re-access. Do not use the word ‘off’.

Conclusion

Resource guarding  is extremely common, and very upsetting for all involved. In severe cases, the dog is even put down. So, a little effort at the beginning, will go a long way towards you feeling 150% safe around your dog.

Comments

I love to read your comments, so leave me your thoughts any time. I’d particularly like to hear from you if you:

  • Have had resource guarding problems with your dog;
  • Have been advised to approach this ‘the dominance way';
  • Have a success story to share on this topic

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