I was with a new client the other day who had recently adopted a puppy. While we were talking, I gave the puppy a bone to chew on. The husband was surprised when he reached his hand down to pet their dog, only to be met with a low growl.
And with that I talked to them about resource guarding, body language, and why adults and kids shouldn’t take things of value from their pets.
Whenever I have taught my kids’ class, this is an important lesson I cover. I typically show a photo of a dog that has a tight grip on his toy with tense body muscles, ears pinned back, a mouth that looks like it may be growling, and eyes showing white half-moons around the perimeter, fixed on the unwanted human body part approaching.
This, I teach kids, is one way a dog communicates that he does not want you coming any closer. That of behaviors is known as resource guarding and a dog should never be punished for exhibiting them.
Without speaking human, those behaviors are a dog’s only way of showing that what you (or another dog or animal) are doing is causing him to be uncomfortable. If you do not allow your dog to be successful with those behaviors—meaning those behaviors do not get you to back off—then you may more than likely see an escalation that could ultimately lead to a bite. And, you will be teaching your dog that only the most serious of behaviors like a bite will work to get his message across.
This is why it is so important to teach children that they should never take things from their dog; however, it is also a lesson for adults. We need to teach our dogs that we are ‘listening’ when they speak in subtle body language telling us when they want distance.
As for resource guarding directed toward humans, punishment will only serve to stop your dog’s behaviors (and may not even do that) but will not change the emotional state of your dog that caused him to exhibit those behaviors to begin with. In fact, it may intensify those emotions as he comes to associate hands with even worse outcomes.
If your dog or puppy is showing resource guarding tendencies, a better approach is to manage the situation by leaving your dog alone while eating, managing access to items that your dog has a tendency to guard, or feeding your dog behind a barrier and seek professional help from a trainer who uses positive reinforcement based strategies. You want to eliminate the antecedents that can be predictors of resource guarding so as to prevent your dog from further practice with reinforcement from the behaviors, while teaching your dog that humans approaching him when he has something of value causes good things to happen.
If your dog or puppy has not shown any resource guarding, now is the time to practice prevention!
There are no guarantees but if you spend some effort teaching your pet a positive association between your presence and valued food or items, you may doing a lot to keep resource guarding at bay.
To teach your dog or puppy that your being near him while eating or with a toy is good, you can give him some food in his bowl (or chew toy), walk by and drop a piece of valuable food (like meat or chicken) next to his bowl (or toy) and keep walking. If your pet stops eating and begins to follow you, ignore him and wait for him to go back to his bowl and try again. You want your pet to have a positive response to your approach.
Practice this with different people.
Teach your children that their hands should not be near their dog when their dog has a valued resource like food or a favorite bone. And especially they should not take anything from your dog. (They should only be the giver of good things to your dog.)
Adults too should never just take away something of value to a dog as that can break down the trust (especially without giving the dog something of even greater value in return). I will call a dog away from its resource and do another activity. Then, after the dog forgets about it, go back and get the valued item.
Remember, if your pet is already showing resource guarding, please seek professional help.
Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, is a certified dog trainer (and certified parrot behavior consultant) with So Much PETential who uses and teaches the most positive strategies for changing pet behaviors. She offers individualized dog and puppy training for manners and problem issues. Learn more about her at www.SoMuchPETential.com.