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Real-World Solutions to Dog Training Challenges – Resource Guarding

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Guarding objects is a normal, common, instinctual behavior in all animals, including humans! 

If we don’t take care of our stuff, our valued resources could easily be lost or stolen – which are outcomes each of us tries to avoid. 

So, now let’s consider our dogs. In the wild, when a dog [any animal] is in possession of, and wants to retain possession of, a coveted item, this tends to be a life-or-death situation! For instance, if one animal allows another to take possession of his food, the former would ultimately die of starvation. Naturally, that animal is highly motivatedto retain possession of the resource to survive!  

Yet, while this survival instinct might serve animals well in the wild, it’s not one we appreciate in our pets. That’s why It’s important to lovingly teach our dogs it’s okay – even rewarding — to share resources. Fortunately, using strategic management, positive reinforcement-based training methods and looking at things from your inquisitive canine’s point of view, you can curb guarding challenges – ideally before they even start!

MANAGEMENT – Resource Guarding Prevention 

The humans in the household can learn management strategies aimed at keeping everyone safe and happy. If you’re currently working on modifying the behaviors and emotions associated with resource guarding (see below), try to keep locations free from anything that might set guarding in motion. 

Even if we don’t want that nasty bone or toy, a pet dog might not understand that! From an inquisitive canine point of view, ‘guard-worthy’ items might include: food bowls (empty and full), chew bones of all kinds — especially pig ears and marrow bones, tennis balls, Kong and other food-stuffing toys, squeaky toys, dog beds, crates, and even your dog’s favorite napping spot on the couch, a beloved human, a leaf, or dirty sock! At the same time, keep in mind that each dog is an individual. Pay attention to your pup’s likes and dislikes to help determine what he or she is more likely to guard. (If the guarded ‘item’ is a person or location, awareness is key.)

Confinement training can be helpful too. Once dogs are comfortable with a crate or X-pen, guardians can also utilize these management solutions as appropriate. 

TRAINING – Teaching Your Dog to Share

You can work on changing your dog’s emotional response to people being around his resources, practice some prevention exercises and train behaviors that are incompatible with guarding resources. We’ll take you through each of these skills. 

Counterconditioning and Desensitization (CCDS):

It’s crucial to teach pups that the approach of a person does not mean that an item will be taken away. In resource guarding situations, we aim to change the association of someone approaching from “They are going to take my stuff” to “Every time someone approaches my stuff, good things happen for me!”

To help change your dog’s emotional state from “I’m upset” to “Yippee!” pet parents might employ what trainers call counterconditioning and desensitization (CCDS) exercises. This takes time and patience. Remember, resource guarding is a strong instinct – a necessary survival skill in the wild. So, we need to show our pet dogs that first, we are never a threat and second, it’s good to share or relinquish forbidden items because there’s an even better payoff. 

While this is a prime example of when it’s best to work with a certified professional force-free dog trainer, a summary of an overall CCDS plan is:

  • Start at a level where your dog is comfortable having things taken away or someone approaching (a bed, lap, person etc.) 
  • Then, play the exchange game:
    • Give Fido something better than what he currently has as follows:
      • I take your empty food bowl
      • I put yummy food in your bowl
      • I give you an extra juicy piece of steak
      • I then give you your bowl back
    • Then adjust the distance and angles from where you approach the guarded items, the exchange items, the locations, people involved etc. 
  • Remember you always want to trade up! You’re asking your dog to trust you, so help keep up that bond of trust. 

A Resource Guarding Prevention Training Exercise: 

Since resource guarding is a common, instinctual behavior in all animals, it’s important to teach dogs that it’s beneficial for them to share their stuff. Understanding the benefits of sharing can go a long way in helping dogs want to share and be comfortable when others are near their resources. The following exercise reinforces this concept:

  • Step One: Holding your dog’s food bowl of kibble, ask her to sit.
  • Step Two: Place the bowl on the floor, release your dog to eat and walk away.
  • Step Three: From a distance, occasionally toss an extra-special treat into your dog’s bowl while she eats.
  • Step Four: When she has eaten the entire meal, ask her to sit again. Remove the empty bowl and offer a small, but special treat, such as a piece of chicken, roast beef or cheese.

Teach Your Inquisitive Canine Alternate Behaviors:

If focusing on a specific valued resource, what would you like Fido to do instead?

  • I like to teach something like “Go to your mat” which sends Fido to a specific location, increasing his distance from the coveted item, person, or place. 
  • Sit or Down/Stay and Wait are good skills to help teach impulse control
  • Drop is useful for when your pup has something she shouldn’t have, such as a dirty sock. Fluffy drops the item and comes to you for a reward! 
  • Teaching dogs to fetch and retrieve desirable items is a fun activity to help build trust and keep them active at the same time.

COMPROMISE – Understanding Canine Behavior

If your dog grabs something you don’t want him to have, it’s best NOT to quickly take it away. Instead, ask your dog to “Drop it,” then exchange a better treat for the forbidden item. This will teach him that having things taken away predicts yummy treats! If your dog is not interested in trading, and the forbidden item is not harmful and is a food item, let him have it. It’s better for him to have an occasional extra goodie than to put yourself at risk for getting injured or creating a situation where your dog’s behavior worsens, or even becomes aggressive. 

Understanding canine behavior is important in preventing aggression. This includes a knowledge of what is normal and what we can do to teach dogs to live harmoniously in our human world. Resource-guarding is a normal canine behavior; however, it is often misinterpreted as a dog being “dominant,” and then the dog gets in trouble. Poor pup!  

Punishment, coercive and aversive techniques can inadvertently train aggression into dogs, making matters worse! It breaks my heart to hear about puppies who guard stuff and whose humans, with the best of intentions, punish this behavior, unfortunately making things much more dangerous for all involved. 

Can you tell if your dog is happy about sharing stuff? When you pay close attention to your inquisitive canine’s body language, from the obvious to the more subtle signals, has he or she been showing signs of conflict or stress over ‘sharing’ resources? If you have any concerns, consult a professional, force-free dog trainer or behavior consultant, or animal behaviorist. Together you can work on management, training and an understanding of dog behavior that will help to keep everyone safe and enhance the canine-human bond.

Your time is a valuable resource! Thank you for taking a moment to be inquisitive about resource guarding! 

Now, it’s only fair that we share our Resources:

Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language 

Crate Training Your Dog

Fido’s Homeschooling DIY Training Program – Go to Your Place 

Fido’s Homeschooling DIY Training Program – Sit and Stay 

Real-World Solutions to Dog Training Challenges – Impulse Control (Part One) 

Celebrate Dog Bite Prevention Week with These Safety Tips 

Size Doesn’t Matter in This Multi-Dog Household 

Tips for Prevention and Training of Aggression 

ASPCA – Dog Bite Prevention

The Academy for Dog Trainers – Vet Talk: Resource Guarding in Dogs

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