Problem Behaviours: Resource Guarding

Problem Behaviours: Resource Guarding

Griffon and Spaniel* in Resource Guarding Shock!

*Insert breed or cross-breed of choice here.

For all the problem behaviours that I hear most about, this is one of the thorny ones. If you are in any doubt whatsoever about how you can manage this challenging behaviour, it’s well worth getting in touch with a behaviourist. At the very least, Jean Donaldson’s most excellent book Mine! is easily the best tenner you’ll ever spend. This is often not a behaviour you can deal with without a bit of help. That said, I think resource guarding is like any behaviour: it has extremes. I might see Amigo my griffon x collie guarding once or twice a year (usually when he’s nicked somebody else’s Kong) and Tilly has low-level guarding virtually every day, but it’s something we can manage. If your dog is guarding things from you or from a child, if the guarding escalates into contact aggression, it is worth paying for help. Like poor socialisation, it’s not a problem for the faint of heart or those who are not invested in the dog’s long-term wellbeing.

Unlike many other behaviours which can be pain-related, hormone-related or age-related, this has fewer biological explanations, but a vet visit is worthwhile anyway just to rule out any biological or hormonal reasons. This is especially true if nothing in your home life has changed but your dog has suddenly begun to show these behaviours. It’s worth ruling out that your dog is not in pain before settling on the fact that they are guarding a bed spot. It’s not uncommon for older dogs to have some kind of ‘night-time’ episodes, and although the last three owners of elderly dogs who’ve exhibited guarding behaviours have wanted to go with canine cognitive dysfunction (Doggie Dementia), often there are cataracts and low-light, hearing problems and just general fatigue on old bones. Dawn and twilight are busy times for dogs who are crepuscular by nature, so if they’re old and they’ve had a long day, it’s worth ruling out pain issues if your dog ‘suddenly’ seems like a King Grump with you or your dogs in the evening. If you’ve got a mixed age or mixed size dog family, you might not have to go far to explain why your ancient old spaniel is having issues with your bouncy young retriever at bedtime. If you’re tired and grumpy and you feel like your bed is under threat from a younger, more energetic hoodlum, then you might well show them your teeth to keep them at bay. In these cases, vet visits can help. Pain medication, glaucoma treatment or other medicines can help your dog feel less like a misery when it’s been a long day. Medication can also be the cause of behaviour change, especially if corticosteroids are involved. As with everything, vet first, behaviourist second.

So why do dogs guard and what do they guard?

First, you can’t pick what your dog guards. Your dog might guard a resource they value – and you can’t choose or understand why they might be guarding it, I’m afraid. They might be guarding an object, a bed place, an entry, an exit or even another human being. They can guard other dogs and they can guard other animals. From stolen underwear to shoes, moldy bread to bones, back yards to beds, if there’s an object, there might be a dog who’s spontaneously decided to guard it. A dog can even guard someone who is petting them or giving them attention. You become a resource if your dog has something you want.

As to why dogs guard, it’s not always sensible to even ask what purpose the behaviour has. They’re dogs. They guard things. A dog guarding stuff is as natural as a dog barking at stuff. Often, we’ve encoded that behaviour in the dog’s very DNA. It can’t come as any surprise that a Maremma might guard a property as well as it would guard sheep, or a naturally suspicious German Shepherd, what Brenda Aloff calls a ‘living fence’ would guard things either. But hunt dogs and gundogs can guard as well, so don’t be surprised that a labrador has got the find/pick-up/retrieve bit down pat but then ‘forgets’ that it’s supposed to hand over the duck at the end of it. To a dog, guarding is NOT a problem behaviour!

Even recognising guarding behaviour can be difficult. So many times, I hear people say that the behaviour ‘came out of nowhere’ or ‘came out of the blue’. This can be especially true if your dog isn’t guarding an object. Dogs’ body language is much more subtle than ours, and the way they communicate with subtle movements can often be missed by owners. Sometimes, we even see those behaviours in play – I’m sure many of us have played tug with our dogs, where growling is just part of the game, or our dogs play with each other and may frequently show signs of what you might think to be pretty shouty behaviour which is just play.

So what can cause guarding behaviour?

Most dogs fall into a “mid-range” for their normal breed tendencies. But there are some who’ll present with more natural and more heightened tendencies than others. Sometimes, it’s a cause of excessive breed tendencies in a dog. Tilly, believe it or not, is a gundog (sorry, to all those people at Crufts who were outraged by an American cocker spaniel winning best in class and best in show in 2017) and she is supposed to be able to carry birds in her mouth. Giving them up… not always as reliable for a gundog as you’d expect. I don’t think she has more heightened guardiness than any other gundog though. Poor breeding for looks rather than personality have caused a lot of damage.

Other times, it can be improper socialisation. If you have a dog who is bred to guard or is known for territorial behaviour, if you don’t get appropriate socialisation in early, you can end up with a monster on your hands. There are also those irresponsible individuals who’ve also increased a dog’s guarding tendencies through early experiences, either deliberately or accidentally. I am sure this is what happened with Tilly. A one-off experience aged 5 months of a child trying to take a toy resulted in her being whipped off to a behavioural vet in the US, according to her notes. If you have a gundog, it’s your responsibility to teach it a safe “give” or “leave”. And if you have a shepherd, it is your duty to teach it safely that strangers are not a mortal danger, and that people can come onto your property without causing offence. Breed is not an excuse for poor behaviour, and socialisation is vital to overcome natural guardy instincts.

Sometimes it can be a pack structure kind of thing, which I hesitate to say, but dogs who feel less secure within the group can also exhibit guarding simply as a defence mechanism. Changes in the household often precipitate or exacerbate this kind of guarding.

Other dogs have low tolerance for frustration and have poor manners. Heston always gives, because he always gets back. From a young age, he learned that I take things off him and I give him things. Having been taught patience, tolerance and how to handle frustration means that he never, ever runs away when he has something, and he’ll always trust me for a game. Having been taught specific behaviours as a young dog ruled out a lot of issues as an older dog, to the point where no toy is worth fighting over because there’s always more toys, dude. And if it’s one you prefer, there’s plenty of them. That is not to say that having a surplus of a specific toy stops a guarder. It doesn’t. Tobby, my champion Mali toy guarder, rounded up those toys like lambs, moving them about to secure them from others. Though he would never challenge another dog who had a toy, he wasn’t ever easy without the toys under his supervision.

By the way, for some dogs, I’ve noticed a high correlation between touch sensitivity and guarding behaviour. For me, I think this is often a learned response, particularly with little dogs. We so often grab a collar to retrieve something safely that they’re guarding, or we manipulate them physically, that it becomes a learned response. It’s always the little dogs who’ve guarded and been moved physically – and I always tell people to imagine the dog is 50kg. If you imagine your dachshund is a doberman, you’ll be less likely to try and physically restrain it to get it to quit guarding something. That’s not to say I feel you shouldn’t be able to manipulate and restrain big dogs – I really feel it’s even more essential to be able to safely lift and carry a 50kg rottie without them batting an eyelid than it is to be able to pick up a 5kg minpin – but I feel often people risk a bite simply because they decide to physically restrain or lift a little dog. My first nip was a terrier who didn’t want to be picked up. I’d never, ever have attempted to pick up a Great Dane. Collar grabs are the same. For a mouthy dog, collar grabs and hands approaching is one of the first things I would teach.

Still, it’s worth saying.

If you physically restrain or constrain a dog to remove an object or remove it from a spot it’s guarding, then you’d do yourself a massive favour in doing collar grab practice. And you’d do yourself a massive favour to imagine it as a big, scary, slobbery, growly, grumbly 50kg dog too.

Fear can be another reason a dog might guard something: it feels that the item or person is of value and you (or whoever the threat is) will take it away. There’s no justifying this anxiety. One of my friend’s dogs gets upset when the cat comes around. He is convinced her geriatric cat is going to steal his bone, even though he has lived with the cat for a good couple of years without the cat ever having shown the slighest interest in that bone. You can’t reason or rationalise with a dog.

The best way to deal with resource guarding is to stop it in its tracks and stop it escalating. When you realise what the signs are of low-level threat detection in a dog, you can work below that threshold to keep them from feeling threatened. Conditioning them to accept others around them is the next step, and there are many protocols to help with that.

Dogs go through a series of behaviours when guarding. Sometimes that series is fast and sometimes it’s fairly slow and easy to identify. Often how quickly they escalate through those behaviours depends on how quickly the perceived threat is advancing. Like all other behaviours on the fight-or-flight adrenaline pathway, you’ll notice physiological changes. It depends too on what the dog is guarding to some extent, although the behaviours have a lot in common. Many people think that guarding happens out of the blue, but often it has predictable patterns that we can see way before dogs get to the shouting stage.

Here I’m going to first identify what food guarding looks like in Tilly.

Tilly eats in the kitchen with the other dogs. She gets her food first. There’s a reason behind this, as she likes to stick her snout in other dogs’ bowls. It almost brings to mind that kind of human transference we do, where we accuse others of doing what we do ourselves – who knows if Tilly thinks other dogs might do as she does? Either way, she has poor eating habits which may have been caused by being forced to eat within 5cm of an older, more confident female for five years. With me, she has her own eating space. Tilly is fine until the other dogs have finished and she has not. She will start to eat more quickly which is something you will often notice in food guarders. The food is safest when you’ve swallowed it, and where better to stash it than in your own stomach? If another dog approaches, she will stop eating. If it keeps approaching, she freezes completely, her head low over her food, her body leaning over her bowl. That head down or over/eyes up rigid posture is such a key thing to watch for. You can see her body weight shift to protect the food. At this point, she is not looking at the threat and will often stare straight ahead. This is not direct confrontation, yet. Her whisker bed starts twitching, and it looks like she’s caught a whiff of a bad smell as she is in pre-growl/teeth display mode. Then she will make her feelings more clear if a dog should approach further. She will stare at the oncoming threat, growl and show her teeth. From here, if a dog does not heed her warning, she will lunge and snap. That behavioural pathway rarely changes. 

Tilly also is protective of her space and does not like to tolerate the approach of other animals when she is relaxing. First, she notices the other dog’s approach. She freezes and stares at them. Her whisker bed gets all lumpy as she prepares to growl, and you can hear some low, quiet grumbling. The growling and staring intensifies and will finish in a full-on attack. Big or small, old or young, Tilly doesn’t care. You can be a 5kg MinPin, a 50kg beaceron, a 3-month old pup or a 12-year-old muttley. This is her space.

Amigo is a toy guarder, particularly if the toy has had food in it, but even a low-value tennis ball can be something he would guard. First, he lies with the object between his paws, almost under his body. You see this quite often, this use of the body to block access to a resource. Heston also did it with his girlfriend Galaxy in case anyone wanted to steal her from him. A dog who is standing over a resource or blocking another creature from it is ‘claiming it’. They aren’t ‘dominating’ it as Cesar Millan would have you believe, but they are laying claim.

This may look kind of innocuous, like he’s just put that old chewed up ball on the floor. And maybe it is. But a dog standing over something or putting themselves between the threat (you, dog, cat, stranger, child…. you get the picture) and their ‘precious’ is on the first step to guarding. Tobby’s body language is otherwise okay – he is open mouthed, lolling tongue, soft eyes.

If I approached and his head went down as if to pick it up, or he repositioned himself, then that is one of the early warning signs that this is his, and he is letting me know. A dog with a low head, eyes looking up but head over the object and ears splayed is giving signals that they’re preparing to guard.

You can see this in this video very clearly as the first dog’s Kong bounces near to the brown dog who’s lying down. At 0.44, the Kong bounces onto her cushion and you can see her, head down, ears splayed, eyes up, noticing the “intruder” (who just wants his own Kong back!) At 0.46, you see a really good example of whisker bed movement, the low head, the eyes up (interesting to note the other dog’s body language as well – he also has his head down and eyes up, but his nose is not pulled back and he’s fearful or nervous, not guarding). He just wants his Kong back, but the brown dog is saying “Try it!” I’m interested to know, without a soundtrack, whether the brown dog growled or not. The hound looks away, licks his lips and the brown girl has intents on the hound’s Kong at 0.49. Even though the brown dog goes back to playing with her own Kong, the hound has clearly got the message that she is not a dog to be messed with, and when he tries again, she moves closer to the lost Kong and the poor hound has lost out.

All those early warning signs are well understood by dogs, and often we don’t even see them. We assume the ‘attack’ came out of nowhere, especially where there are not stuffed Kongs involved and we can’t tell what the dog is guarding.

After these moments, if a threat continues to move in, a dog will then escalate to growls, snaps, bites or even frenzied attacks. The trouble for us is that dogs often realise these clues and we don’t. For instance, with three guardy dogs, each with their own peccadillo, you’d have expected more fights than there were. In reality, there has been one scuffle over resources in three years. Once, Amigo got too close to Tilly’s food bowl and she had enough. That’s it. There have been many moments where a dog has let another dog know that it is cruising for a bruising if it continues to move in, but they usually end before growls.

But… and here’s the but… we’re often really bad at reading those signs ourselves. We are the ones who ignore the dogs’ warning signs, as are our children. It’s really important to be able to recognise those early warning signs and pay attention to them before a dog needs to shout.

Once you recognise them, you can decide what you want to do. You have choices here.

All this behaviour from a dog is distance-increasing behaviour. It wants to put space between the threat and the object it is guarding. So you can choose if you like to give the dog some distance. I did this the other week with Amigo, who was guarding a chew he’d stolen from another dog. We gave him distance so he could finish it or leave it. In actual fact, he left it after two minutes. What we were doing up in the house was more interesting than guarding a chew. If you feel like it’s okay to leave the dog with the object, that is a line you can take. Personally, I don’t like a dog to think that this behaviour is acceptable, so I don’t do it very often, because it could risk the dog thinking that guarding is a successful behavioural mechanism to keep hold of stuff. This strategy is not about ‘winning’ against the dog but about avoiding inadvertently teaching a dog to guard. It goes like this:

I have this thing I like – uh-oh, under threat – guard – threat goes away – that worked!

I don’t want a dog to learn that.

What I do want is a dog who will relinquish things when asked, as Heston does. One of the best ways we can teach this is how we teach puppies not to be guarders. Heston always – always – received a reward for “leave it” – and then he got the item back again. Reward AND item returned. Why wouldn’t you give it up?! It’s important to have times where you don’t return the object, where you switch it and change, so that the dog doesn’t always get the item back, otherwise you run the risk of a snatch-and-grab. I’m working with a toy-obsessed dog at the shelter at the moment, and we’re using a rope toy with him to stop lead biting. But the last thing I want when I walk out with the toy and the lead is that the dog thinks I am leaving with stuff he wants so he better snatch it from me. Teaching a dog to leave it and to trade is so important when they are young.

You can see Emily from Kikopup doing this here:

When she talks about severe resource guarding in adult dogs or younger dogs, she is absolutely right. For that you need a resource-guarding protocol. There are a couple of really good ones available from Jean Donaldson and from Brenda Aloff, but they do not beat working with a professional. I’ll explore these protocols in more detail in another post.

You can see why there are often (mean) critics of toy and food rewards and their use in dogs. One woman I know accused Kong of creating ADHD dogs or obsessive dogs and creating guarding, and said that she thinks dog attacks on humans are more frequent because we mess with their food instead of giving them two bowls a day in peace. I disagree, but she has a point about not letting dogs become obsessed by food or toys (or space!)

Until you have successfully taught your dogs not to guard, management is vital. Practise house hygiene with toys, treats and beds. By that, I mean if you have a moderate to severe guarder, keep food treats to hand-mouth-swallow and keep toys restricted. A surplus of items doesn’t stop guarding. Indeed, with Tobby, it made him less secure because there was more to protect. If your dogs guard bed space, make sure they do not feel threatened by other dogs and do not leave dogs unsupervised to fend for themselves if they guard, especially if there are size differences involved. A small dog constantly aggressing towards a larger dog may come a cropper one day, and the last thing you want is a dog whose patience gives when you are not there. Harsh as it is, a fairly sterile environment can make things a lot easier. It can be hard to see resource guarding at the refuge, for instance, because there are beds and that is it. Food is fed separately to dogs in shared enclosures. Toys are only there for dogs in shared enclosures who have no guarding habits. But the person who flung a handful of treats into an enclosure and left two new dogs unsupervised needs a lesson in sense. One of the dogs could easily have been killed. There are reasons that a sterile environment works for us, and the main one is safety. It would be lovely to have a shelter full of pairs of dogs (so they don’t feel isolation distress – hard for social animals) who can also have toys, food and bed space, but it’s unsafe.

Other than managing your environment, there are other things you can do around a resource guarding dog. Teaching a bomb-proof ‘Come!’ is one of them (especially if you have a dog who likes to nick your stuff and run off for a game of chase before getting guardy over something you need) and a Sit/Down are fundamental as well. Object exchanges, leave it and drop it are also useful for an object. Move away, back up and go to bed/mat can also be helpful with territory guarders. Down and Off are vital for dogs who guard couches or beds. There are whole rafts of useful commands that can help dogs learn in positive ways that if they relinquish what they’re guarding, it works out well for them.

You don’t need to resort to shock collars (which WILL make the dog feel less secure and more under threat) or other punishments. Look at it this way…. if you were afraid of being mugged, and someone mugged you and then punched you in the face or tasered you, would it make you feel better or worse about being mugged? But if someone mugged you then returned your stuff immediately and gave you a slap-up meal, you might feel better about handing over their stuff. Be mindful though that just because a dog learns that YOU can mug them and it’ll end well, they most likely won’t generalise. Whilst I might be happy to hand over my car keys to a person who had a track history of returning them immediately with a bunch of flowers, I wouldn’t feel comfortable about a stranger coming up and doing it, even if they do it in the exact same way. Just because I’m telling you about how humans would feel doesn’t mean it’s different for dogs. They generalise less well than we do.

All protocols should be done with all people who might need to stop a dog guarding, not just one family member. Dogs who guard, even a little, should always be under supervision around children and children should be taught actively to look for signs of the dog guarding. Children should never, ever attempt to engage with or interact with a guarding dog, not even in play. If a dog is a food guarder, if crumbs go on the floor, no matter what they are, better to let the dog ‘win’ it than face a bloody incident with a child who has been bitten and a dog who needs to be rehomed or put to sleep.

However, since guarding is so personal to the dog, it’s better a programme or protocol designed specifically for that dog. A professional will be able to help you work out if the behaviour is compulsive or if it is related to you or another animal in your family. Is it generalised or specific? When does it happen? Where does it happen? What preceded it? There are lots of variables that affect guarding that a professional will be able to help you identify. This behaviour is quick to escalate and can end very badly indeed. Given the shelter protocols in some places to test dogs for guarding and put them to sleep if they ‘fail’, you might feel angry about this or you might feel that it is justified. Personally, I think even dogs with poor bite histories, resource issues and a hard mouth can successfully be rehomed in the right place, but those ‘right places’ can be few and far between.

Guarding is part and parcel of owning a dog. It’s our duty as owners to help them understand that humans (and even other dogs) may take things from them. This happens with good puppy socialisation and careful teaching in the early months. However, with an adult rescue dog, you get what you get and it is your job to work safely within that. I’ve not come across a guarder yet who I didn’t think could be helped, but at the same time, not all family situations make this behaviour an easy one to deal with. Along with poor socialisation, it’s a hard one to remedy, which is why it’s important to get help from a professional.

Finally, there aren’t many times when I would actively and adamantly insist that you find a trainer who uses force-free methods, but resource guarding and/or aggression are those times. When a dog is in a set of complex, negative, hard-wired emotions, adding pain, submission and punishment to the equation is never, ever going to change that. You can’t cancel out a feeling of threat by threatening, shocking or punishing a dog, only make it worse. Backed into a corner, a dog is never, ever going to learn good manners. At best, you might get a dog who shuts down completely. Your best result would be a psychologically damaged dog. Rolling dogs, pinning dogs, spraying dogs in the face with water, vibration collars or having a ‘shake can’ to startle them can end very, very badly indeed if you thought these alternatives were more kind or ethical. It’s why also I would never, ever recommend electric fencing with a territorial dog. Like you need to make what’s outside of the fence or over the perimeter more of a threat?! Restraint, leash pulls or physically handling a resource guarder can also end really, really badly.

Resource guarding is a manageable issue, even in a multi-dog home, but it is one that this post, no matter how many words I stick in it, will not rectify. There are plenty of DVD resources and paid programmes out there if you are committed and have time to deal with it by yourself, but a behaviourist will be invaluable.

Next week: fearful dogs and how to work with them to reduce their fear as best as possible.