Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Why Do Dogs Guard Their Bones?
Bones are high-value items for many dogs, which means that from a dog's perspective, bones are extremely prized and precious. Unlike kibble that can be gulped down in a handful of minutes, bones are long-lasting for the most part, and dogs want to chomp on them undisturbed. This may create some conflicts when defensive mechanisms kick in.
It may be shocking for a dog owner to hear their dog growl upon walking past him when chewing on a bone. At times, such dogs are erroneously labeled as "dominant' and owners feel compelled to remove the bone just to show them who is "boss". Unfortunately, this only exacerbates the behavior and puts the owner at risk of being bitten. The reason for this is that dogs who guard possessions are not really "dominant"; rather, they are most likely simply afraid of losing their prized possession. Fortunately, there is a way to try to change a dog's emotional state when it comes to bone-guarding.
What Are the Signs of Resource Guarding?
Resource guarding does not only include bones; indeed, many dogs are also possessive of toys, food, and even little treasured items such as a candy wrapper or a dead animal. While most dogs manifest possession quite obviously, some give much more subtle signs that may not be detected right away by an inexperienced observer. Many times, the subtle warning signs escalate as the person gets closer.
Signs of Resource Guarding in Dogs
- Tense body
- Hard staring
- Whale eyes
How Serious Is Bone-Guarding Behavior?
The issues can be very serious especially in families with children. A possessive dog with a bone may have no problem at all in biting a child should the child get too close or touch the dog. For this reason, resource guarding is taken very seriously. Shelters carefully assess dogs for resource guarding issues before placing them in a home. Dog trainer Sue Sternberg, is the inventor of the "Assess a hand" tool that mimics a hand and is used to assess dogs by placing it inside dog food bowls.
So is all lost if you own a dog that is a resource guarder? Not necessarily. In some cases, you can work on the issue by using counter-conditioning and desensitization. However, this behavior modification program needs to be done along with a reputable dog behaviorist, and there are no guarantees it will work and make your dog safe again.
If you have a family with children, take action now to have your dog evaluated by a dog behavior specialist. And remember: It is unethical for a dog trainer or behavior specialist to make guarantees, as outlined in my article: "Can Dog Behaviors be Changed Once and For All?"
How to Reduce Resource Guarding in Dogs
As mentioned previously, the behavior can be reduced by utilizing an appropriate behavior modification program. Desensitization which is the process of gradually exposing the dog to something perceived threatening sub-threshold and counter-conditioning which is the process of changing the dog's emotional state are two effective strategies.
Because a resource guarder's biggest fear is to ultimately lose its possession, it helps to show the dog that not only is it not your intent to remove the bone, but actually you are adding in to it. Here is a step-by-step guide for various behavior modification programs. These are samples ONLY and may not work for all dogs. Medium- and high-value treats and other low-, medium-, and high-value items are needed. Follow these steps only under the supervision of a dog trainer/dog behavior expert and understand that it may take weeks for progress to be made.
Exercise 1: Great things happen when my owner walks by!
- Give your dog an item that he does not guard fiercely.
- Casually pass by a distance your dog does not appear to mind you.
- Toss pieces of medium-value treats as you walk by in your dog's direction.
- Repeat several times until your dog looks at you passing by in hope for the treats.
- In the next days, give a medium-value item and gradually get closer and continue tossing the treats increasing the value of the treats as you get closer. Finally, give your dog a bone and give high-value treats (i.e. shift from hot-dog slivers to freeze-dried liver).
- Continue by giving treats as you walk by until your dog looks up at you for treats. Progress is made when the dog no longer freeze and tenses up but rather licks its lips and wags its tail in anticipation of you coming closer to deliver treats.
Exercise 2: Great things happen when I give up something!
- Give your dog an item your dog does not value much.
- Ask him to "drop it" or "trade".
- Lure him with a medium-value item and as he gets it, remove the other item.
- Ask again to "Drop it" or "trade".
- Lure him with a high-value item (i.e. a stuffed Kong, which is both a toy and a treat) and as he gets it, remove the other item.
Exercise 3: Great things happen when hands are in the food bowl!
- Have your dog sit in front of the empty food bowl.
- Reach the food bowl and place a bit of food in it with your hand.
- Once done have your dog sit again.
- Reach the food bowl again and place a bit more food in it with your hand.
- Continue until you feed your dog's daily ration.
Exercise 4: Great things happen when my owner takes my bone!
- Give your dog a hollow bone.
- Ask "drop it" or "trade".
- Fill the hollow bone with some peanut butter or a Kong stuffer.
- Have dog empty the bone.
- Ask "drop it" or "trade".
- Fill again with more peanut butter or a Kong stuffer.
A Note About Safety
- If your dog growls, you may be getting too close too fast. You must work under the threshold.
- The above behavior modification programs should be done with extreme caution only under the guidance of a dog behavior specialist.
- If your dog is affected by resource guarding, please consult with a dog behavior specialist and follow the guidelines. The above behavior modification programs should be done in mild cases only and with extreme caution. Reader assumes full responsibility.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli