Understanding Dog Resource Guarding: A Guide to Possessiveness Over Food, Bones, Beds and Toys
What Is a Resource Guarder?
A resource guarding dog is basically a dog who claims and perceives an item as his and feels threatened by any person on animal that comes too close. Resource guarding is quite a popular tendency in the world of animals because this is often linked to survival. The behavior of resource guarding can be the result of nature or nurture or a combination of both. Some dogs may be genetically predisposed to resource guard, but often the environment may be a big contributor. Examples?
Resource guarding may start as early as in the litter. If there are many pups in the litter, at times, the pups may start fighting over nipples. For some reason, some pups prefer certain nipples more than others and fights over them may erupt. However, it may take a certain aptitude for this in the pup's genes which may explain why some pups tend to resource guard more than others; this opens quite an interesting nature versus nurture debate.
In another example, a breeder who feeds 10 puppies using only one feeding bowl may further exacerbate resource guarding, simply due to over crowding problems. A reputable breeder will be careful enough to provide sufficient food bowls to prevent over crowding and episodes of resource guarding. Resource guarding is a learned behavior that tends to repeat over time; if the dog growled to protect a valuable in the past and it successfully worked to keep others away, a behavior pattern may establish because the behavior is ultimately reinforced.
Interestingly, animals are not the only resource guarders. Humans, are indeed resource guarders as well. Just imagine if you were at a train station and somebody suspicious would come near you and attempt to steal your wallet. How would you react? You would very likely scream, try to threaten the person away or even attack the person to stop him from getting your hard-earned money. As humans, we are big resource guarders! Indeed, we fiercely protect our valuables by keeping them in our pockets, purses, wallets, safes, vaults or banks, and when threatened to lose them, we often feel compelled to attack the intruder attempting to deprive us from such valuables! And sometimes our behaviors are far from being ethical compared to animals; just think of those fights erupting over items at Black Friday events when there are limited supplies!
What do resource guarders guard? Dogs care less about money, jewelry, collectibles and checks. Most likely they will guard the following:
- Food and treats
- Trash cans/bags of food
- Anything perceived as valuable, even something as small as a candy wrapper!
Resource guarding is subjective; while most dogs resource guard food, some will resource guard items such as beds and favorite sleeping spots. There are no black and white rules on what items a dog may perceive as valuable. To each its own!
Signs of Dog Possessiveness Over Items
While the most distinctive signs of a resource guarder is growling/showing teeth/biting there are also more subtle signs such as tensing up, freezing, staring, keeping the head low over the item, or simply running towards an item the moment you are walking by it to simply claim it.
Typically, the more you get close to the dog with the item, the more intense the dog's reaction. Therefore, your dog could care less if you are across the room but may react the moment you get closer.
How to Deal with a Resource Guarder
A Great Read for Owners of Resource Guarders
In order to learn how to deal with a resource guarder, it is helpful to tackle into some behavioral science. Three definitions come hand in this case: threshold, desensitization and counter conditioning. Lets take a look at each of them:
Definition of Threshold
We all have threshold levels. If you are dealing with a child that is nagging you to buy something and you don't want to give in, you may have a breaking point at which you will say "that's enough!" and even take the child out of the store. If you are scared of snakes and happen to walk through a jungle where there are snakes in bushes, you may have a breaking point at which you will start screaming and lose control. In the same way, dogs have breaking points when they are fearful, aggressive or excited.
When you are able to tolerate your child nagging for you to buy a toy, you are under the threshold or "sub-threshold". The word sub simply means "under". When you are no longer able to tolerate the situation and lose your temper, then you are "over the threshold".
In a similar way, when you are far away from your dog's bone, he may likely care less because he does not feel threatened. If you get closer you may be greeted by a growl. When you are far he is therefore "subthreshold", whereas, when you are near he is "over the threshold". To learn more about this read: Understanding Dog Threshold
Definition of Desensitization
Systematic desensitization is a behavior modification method used to work with dogs. This is mainly done under the threshold. The purpose of this is to decrease the emotional response to a negative stimulus after repeated exposure to it. With time and with gradual exposure animals and people tend to relax when they no longer perceive the stimulus as threat. So if for instance, you were taken to the jungle and saw snakes crawling at a distance every day, after some time, you may be able to relax because you may have learned that the snakes while slimy, are ultimately no threat to you.
Much caution must be used in using desensitization. If the exposure is too intense and over the threshold, you may obtain sensitization instead which means you get more afraid than before. So if you are say afraid of snakes and the day after being exposed to them gradually, one slivers on you sandals, your fear may increase (you become sensitized instead of de-sensitized).
In the case of resource guarding you would therefore work on the problem from a distance so your dog is under the threshold and you do not pose a big threat to him.
Definition of Counter Conditioning
When counter conditioning is added to a desensitization program, the power doubles, it's like adding a cherry on top of a sundae. In counterconditioning, you are basically changing the dog's emotional response by shifting it upside down. So let's say you were scared of snakes, if every time you saw a snake you were given a $100 dollar bill, with time your emotional response towards snakes would likely change from fearing them to actually looking forward to them!
In the case of resource guarding you would therefore change your dog's emotional response from "oh, no! better guard the bone before they take it away from me!" to "yes, owner come near me, you are soooo welcome!" Tail wag included~!
So let's see how to apply this in the case of a dog guarding let's say a bone.
How to Reduce Resource Guarding in Dogs
For this exercise you will need high-value treats, not the average dog kibble or so-so dog treats. In order to work, the treats must be of higher value than the item guarded. You need treats your dog drools for and that are very enticing. Freeze dried liver, slivers of hot dog, chunks of roasted chicken or steak, whatever your dog loves.
- Find your dog's threshold level.When your dog is having the item he guards walk towards him from a safe distance (tether your dog for safety) and mark on the floor the distance at which he starts freezing or tensing up. You do not want to get to the point of where is growling. Place yourself several inches BEFORE this marked zone from which he should feel relaxed. Remember we are working under the threshold and getting him systemically desensitized to our presence.
- Walk back and forth a couple of times before this mark not towards him but parallel to him so to ensure you got this distance right. He should appear to be OK with this distance. If at any time he seems to be stiffening, err on the side of caution and make the distance greater.
- From this distance, walk parallel and start tossing treats his way every time you pass by him. If the dog resource guards a bone, find something of higher value to toss. Do this four or five times repeatedly during the day.
- The next day, work again from this distance again, if he seems OK with it,then mark a closer distance just a few inches closer. Do the same exercise, walk parallel (dogs see us less intimidating when we walk parallel than towards them) and toss the treats as you pass by him. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
- Continue with the exercise, and decrease the distance gradually day after the day. If he growls at any time, freeze. Don't leave; if you do leave, you will reinforce the growl (remember the growling is a learned behavior and leaving reinforces the growl, in the dog's mind "I sent him away!") The moment he stops growling toss the treat.
- At some point you may be getting near the dog. At this point, try to give a big reward for this. A jackpot of treats (a handful of tasty treats all at once)will make his day. Repeat, repeat, repeat. You should start seeing results at this time: perhaps a little hint of a tail wag as you get close or anticipation (drooling, looking for the treat). This is good news and means the training is working! This is the power of counter-conditioning, the dog is saying "I no longer fear you are taking my resource away, I actually am starting to look forward to you coming near me!"
- If you are satisfied with the results you can keep up the training by doing refresher sessions every now and then, where you casually walk by and toss a tasty treat by the food bowl.
A good exercise for resource guarders is teaching the drop it command. This exercise teaches dogs that when they give up their resource they get something even better! This is also a life saving command for many different scenarios!
Remember to not reinforce guarding behavior by taking the resource away.
* Caution: The above behavior modification programs should be done with extreme caution only under the guidance of a dog behavior specialist.
Disclaimer: Please consult with a dog behaviorist if your dog is displaying aggressive behaviors. Only a dog behaviorist may see and assess behaviors and offer the most appropriate behavior modification program tailored for your dog. Use extreme caution and make safety your top priority. By reading this article along with tips and advice, you accept this disclaimer and assume full responsibility for any of your actions.
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© 2012 Adrienne Janet Farricelli