Cool Off Resource-Guarding Fever
Learn how to lower the emotional temperature around dogs' food guarding, toy guarding, and space guarding.
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Tip #1: Give Your Dog a Cooling-Off Period
Hand feeding, done in a casual, relaxed way, can help a puppy feel comfortable with you around food. But for dogs and pups who already guard, many trainers now advise a cooling-off period of at least two weeks. During that time, nothing happens around food except that the dog gets to eat it in peace. No one approaches her “just to see how she’s doing,” she isn’t asked to sit and wait for her bowl to be put on the floor, people don’t even throw treats into her bowl from a distance. What goes on around food is absolutely nothing.
The idea is to give the dog enough time with no provocation to guard so that she begins to relax. Only then does formal behavior modification begin.
The usual way of improving the emotional climate around food and other resources is a program of counterconditioning and desensitization. I described the process in some detail in an earlier episode called Counterconditioning; the main point is that you start with a super-vanilla version of the problem situation – for instance, you might sit or stand 20 feet away from a dog who gets visibly tense when someone’s 15 feet away from his food.
You pair that super-vanilla condition with a fantastic deluxe treat until the dog is thrilled to see you, and then you gradually work your way closer and closer, always using that fantastic treat, until the dog is happy to see you right up close and personal. But start by giving him a couple of weeks’ break from any intervention at all. It probably won’t do you any harm to take a vacation from dealing with his issues, either.
Tip #2: Use Targeting to Defuse Guarding
In an earlier episode, I explained how to teach your dog targeting: bumping her nose or paw against your hand or an object. The object can be anything that you can move from place to place – a stick that you hold, or a toy traffic cone, or bowling pin. Use a Rubik’s Cube, I don’t care.
Targeting has lots of practical applications for tricks and manners. What all the applications have in common is that your dog learns that she can earn a reward by moving to a particular spot, wherever the target is. Or, to look at it the other way around, your dog is moving away from some other location. Such as, for example, the bed or toy she might otherwise guard.
If you give targeting a go, remember that it’s not a cure for resource guarding – it’s more a way to manage problem situations safely. Also bear in mind my point about how a resource-guarding dog is tense. Teach targeting as a fun game, don’t go all Imperial Commander on your dog. Reward extra generously and do a lot of practice in low-stakes situations before deploying this trick when your dog is actually guarding.
Also, don’t rely on it just as a means to take stuff away from your dog. Use it as a game in other contexts. And, when possible, offer your dog a satisfying substitute for whatever she was guarding.
Tip #3: Turn Guarding into a Game by Rewarding It
I know, this is heresy. Hear me out, though.
A few years ago, a colleague called me in for a second opinion; the dog she was working with guarded toys ferociously, had bitten hard many times, and responded to my colleague’s excellent counterconditioning protocol by acting even more vigilant and suspicious. Yes, this was a very weird dog.
With nothing to lose, I suggested a click and treat every time the dog growled – and, to all our amazement, his resource guarding got less severe. We hadn’t fixed the problem, but rewarding the growls apparently took the edge off the dog’s stress and hypervigilance. I’ve used similar tactics in a number of cases since. They work because the emotions of play and fun can’t coexist with the emotions around guarding.
Recently, I met with a couple whose dog Cody would nab shoes and socks, take them to his bed, and guard them there. Although they’d tried trading for treats, there was also a history of shouting and attempts to force Cody to give up his find. So, a lot of built-up tensions. Of course I advised keeping steal-worthy items put away, but nobody’s perfect.
So when Cody did get a hold of something, I asked my clients to throw him a huge party – to praise him in a happy voice, admire his find, and shower him with treats. Within a couple of days, Cody stopped taking stolen items to his bed and guarding them. Instead, he playfully brought them to whoever was present and dropped them, hoping for a treat. Sure, in an ideal world he wouldn’t have been shoe-nabbing to begin with. But which would you rather see -- playful trading for a treat, or hunching on his bed snarling and growling? Plus, the change came fast, it came easily, and it hugely improved the relationship between people and dog.
You’re usually best off getting qualified professional help to deal with resource guarding, but the main lesson here is one you can apply in many situations. Anxiety and stress feed into all kinds of problem behavior, not just resource guarding. In figuring out how to respond, look for tactics that don’t add tension but instead help your dog (and maybe you, too!) lighten up.
You can learn many more tips and tricks to raise a healthy, well-mannered, playful dog in my book, The Dog Trainer's Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet.
Stop by and see me, or at least my avatar, on Facebook, and you can also write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future episodes. Thanks for reading!