I am often contacted by dismayed parents saying their dog has suddenly become aggressive. It doesn’t take long to uncover that the incident occurred when the dog had a prized object or just picked something up that was unsafe and needed taking away. The people have not seen any resource guarding behaviour previously, even around the food bowl. So the incident is not only surprising but also very upsetting. “How could he growl/snap at me? He loves me!”
It’s A Cultural Thing
Dogs and humans have shared their lives for thousands of years. And yet, many things are still misunderstood about the species and our relationships. Dogs are opportunistic scavengers. In their culture, if stuff is lying around, it’s up for grabs. And once they have it, it’s finders – keepers.
Until the dog has gotten hold of something and you want it back, most parents aren’t aware of this rule. At these times, the differences between our two cultures become all too clear. And because the behaviour and the motivation are often misunderstood, incorrect labels and explanations are used. Some common ones are:
“The dog is trying to take over.”
“He’s being dominant.”
“My puppy is testing me.”
Labels are not helpful when explaining our dogs or changing behaviour. And they usually lead to advice that’s just as inappropriate:
“You need to show him who’s boss.”
“You can’t let him get away with that.”
“Just put your hands in her dish when she’s eating.”
“Take stuff away, so he gets used to it.”
When our dogs refuse to relinquish an item or warn us to back off, they are playing by their rules. We have a responsibility to teach them our code of conduct and how to be successful in the human domain.
Confrontation isn’t the answer
We don’t want our dogs resorting to snapping or biting, right? Well, we need to take that out of the equation on our end too. Yelling, scolding, or worse won’t do any good, even if it looks like it is working in the moment. Instead, it teaches dogs that when they have things they value, they need to up their game for it to work or that people are scary.
A Better Choice
Show your dog that there is no need for confrontation. While they are still learning this, it is imperative to stay calm and neutral. You can diffuse the situation by redirecting their attention with ‘What’s This?’ or ‘911 Drop’ or by providing another equally valuable item in exchange.
Do not chase your dog. Do not try to remove the item from their mouth manually. If you have done this previously, then your dog will most likely try to gulp the item down before you get to them. In that case, safety may be an issue. Ideally, this situation will not be created if you follow the above advice from the start.
It’s Not a Competition
I imagine some people may feel that the dog shouldn’t be able to ‘get away with’ protecting items. Remember that your dog is not trying to take over. They are behaving within their own code of ethics. We need to teach them how to operate within ours. So it’s not about showing them that they shouldn’t guard. We need to teach them there is no need to defend items around us.
Build Cooperation & Predictability
To override our dog’s instincts, we need to convince them that we are fair and consistent and will always provide something as good or better in exchange for what they have. Build positive associations so they can learn to happily relinquish items. Teach skills such as ‘Trade’ or ‘Drop’ using positive reinforcement. This will create relaxed and willing behaviour around prized items.
You may say this doesn’t apply to your dog because they have never acted this way. However, every dog will have a guarding episode given the right set of conditions. Sure, you may not have experienced it. They may not have come across something they find worthy of guarding – yet. Rather than waiting for it to happen, prepare your dog, so they don’t experience the conflict and feel the need.
Helping our dogs live in harmony with us by minimizing conflict and stress requires us to teach them the skills and habits they need to succeed. It is a commitment worth making.
Do you have a dog that is resource guarding? Do you have a new pup and want to get them set up for success? I can help you with this issue or any others you have. Contact me at email@example.com to get started today!