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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As I’ve said in other episodes, it’s normal for animals to protect what they need or value – food, toys, their young, a comfortable resting spot. Unfortunately, this normal behavior gets problematic for dogs who live with people, especially for dogs who do more than just move away, or stiffen up, or growl. Part of raising a behaviorally healthy companion dog is teaching her to see humans as a source of good things for dogs, not a threat to them.
As for dogs who already guard their stuff: they obviously do perceive a threat, so we can be sure they’re under stress. We can think of the emotional temperature as high, and of behavior modification as trying to lower it. This week, a problem with many common behavior programs for resource guarding, and 3 ideas for reducing your dog’s “resource fever.”>
My niece Tara has a little terrier who goes by Bunny Monster. This is for a reason. Bunny guards his toys and food like nobody’s business and has delivered too many bites to count. (Fortunately, though he bites early and often, he has almost never broken skin.) Alas, Tara doesn’t live on the same continent as me, so I can’t work with her myself, and the trainer she most recently consulted to work with her gave her exactly the common advice that I’m about to blow out of the water: She told Tara to feed Bunny M. by hand and to give each handful of food as a reward for responding to a cue such as Sit or Down.
So what’s wrong with that? Doesn’t it help teach Bunny M. self-control around food? Doesn’t it teach him that there’s no need to guard, because food comes from Tara? It doesn’t. We know this because Bunny’s resource guarding hasn’t improved. Though we can’t read his mind to learn why, here’s a reasonable hypothesis. Bunny’s baseline emotions around food are stressy and aroused, or he wouldn’t guard in the first place. When people are near food, his tension rockets upward. When Tara hangs around and doles the food out instead of just giving him custody of it, no way is he going to feel less tense.
Ok, but what's the solution?