Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dealing with Possession Aggression (Resource Guarding)

Dogs are predators. Even though pet dogs don't have to hunt to survive like their ancestors did, it's quite natural for them to guard resources, such as food, that are difficult to acquire or might be scarce at certain times of the year.  Humans guard resources too, as so commonly seen in little kids who fight over toys.  While resource guarding is perfectly normal, it becomes unsafe and problematic when a dog (or human for that matter) resorts to more serious aggression.

While you might think that your dog is being "dominant" and that the best solution is to punish your dog for growling or biting over a resource, it's not a good idea to punish.  Punishment, whether it's verbal or physical, can exacerbate the problem and make your dog even more aggressive.  (See video at the bottom of the page for an example.)

Change Your Dog's Emotional Response
What I recommend instead is to change your dog's reaction towards the "threat" (a person or another dog approaching him while he's in possession of a resource).  In trainer-ese, that reaction is called a CER, or conditioned emotional response.  For instance, your dog's current CER might be to get agitated or "angry" when you approach him while he's eating his meal.  You can gradually change that to a positive reaction by associating your approach with something good, while simultaneously making sure you don't push your dog over the edge at any point.  

Below is an example of how to to begin modifying food bowl aggression:

1) Let's say your dog starts to growl when you get within 4 feet of him and his meal.  Day 1-3, each meal - Approach your dog and his meal but stop at 5 feet away and then throw him a super-yummy treat like steak or liver that is better than the kibble he's eating.  Then simply walk away.  Repeat this several times during each meal.

2) If you find that your dog starts to eagerly look up at you in anticipation of a yummy treat when you approach, then continue to the next step.

3) Day 4-6, each meal -  Approach your dog and his meal and stop at 4 feet away.   Throw him the super-yummy treat, then walk away.  Repeat several times per meal. 

...and so on.  If your dog tends to eat his food so fast that you don't have a chance to practice these steps, you can use an "obstacle" food bowl such as Brake-Fast.

Professional Help
It's important not to rush this process.  The steps above are just an example.  It could take weeks for your dog to show significant change.  I recommend that you work with a dog trainer or behaviorist who has experience dealing with resource guarding.  He or she will teach you about canine body language (such as recognizing your dog's stress signals), help you pinpoint your dog's triggers and come up with a customized behavior modification plan, including eventually working with variations of the trigger.  For example, if your dog's trigger is a person approaching his food bowl, then the protocol will be practiced with many people, from many angles, with different speeds of approach, with hands reaching for the bowl, etc. 

Pinpointing Triggers
Some of the questions you might ask yourself, or a trainer might ask you, include:

* What type or types of resources does your dog guard?  Is it only food, or come to think of it, does she also get growly over her toys?  Or perhaps she also doesn't like it when you approach her bed.  Some dogs will guard their human owners from other household dogs.

* Does your dog display guarding behaviors towards humans only?  Towards dogs only?  Just because a dog guards against dogs doesn't necessarily mean she'll guard against humans.

* Does the value of the resource make a difference in whether your dog guards it?  Perhaps he doesn't mind if you take away a rawhide bone, but he flips out if you try to confiscate his greasy, stinky pig ear. 

Management vs Behavior Modification
In addition to training, you will also want to manage your environment in order to set your dog up for success and prevent guarding incidents.  We've all heard the saying "Practice makes perfect" - that applies to undesirable behaviors as well.  If you dog guards toys against your other dog, then do not leave any toys lying around.  Allow the dogs to play with their toys separately under supervision until you have worked with the guarder dog to a point where it is safe to leave toys lying around.

There is nothing wrong with temporary management.  It doesn't mean that your dog is a lost cause.  It just means that you are working on the issue while keeping things safe meanwhile.

Jean Donaldson’s book “Mine! A Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs” outlines the behavior modification protocol in great detail.  The book also busts some common myths about resource guarding.  If you have a dog that guards resources, this book is worth checking out.

You can also check out Dr. Sophia Yin's video on how she treated a Golden Retriever that guarded his food:  http://drsophiayin.com/resources/video_full/ben_guards_the_food_bowl 

Grisha Stewart CPDT-KA of Ahimsa Dog Training also has a good article on her blog about resource guarding:  http://ahimsadogtraining.com/blog/resource-guarding/

Below is a short but very disturbing video clip from National Geographic's Dog Whisperer show.  This is an example of what not to do under any circumstance.  The dog gives many warning signals that he is going to bite, but the trainer pushed the dog over her limit.


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