It’s Mine! a.k.a Resource Guarding

Broadly defined resource guarding is displayed by a dog who becomes aggressive when you try to take something away from them or even approach them when they are in possession of a resource. A resource can be a toy, a chew toy, a food bowl, a favourite resting area or even the dog’s owner. Resource guarding signals can be subtle or very overt. It can vary from a hard stare, stiffening of the body, lowering of the head over the toy (to prevent you from taking it), placing a paw over the toy, using his body to block off your access, to lifting his lips, growling, air snapping and biting.

For example, when a dog guards his food bowl he can start to eat at a faster pace as you approach, he can freeze and stop eating but still keeping his muzzle in the bowl, he can turn his hind quarters towards you while eating, as if to block your access to his bowl, if you approach him from the left, he can move his muzzle to left side of the bowl, also to block your access. Some dogs will even guard an empty food bowl!

MANAGEMENT

The first step in the treatment of resource guarding is to manage the situation. This means preventing the behaviour from happening. If the dog guards his chewy, then no chewies for now, if the dog guards a couch, make access to the couch inaccessible. If the dog guards the bed, close the bedroom door. These objects or locations will only be made available after extensive training has been done and once it used during the modification process.

WHEN ACCIDENTS HAPPEN

Access to guarded items should be prevented at all costs, but accidents do happen. Someone leaves the bedroom door open or Fido digs up a rawhide that he has buried some time ago. If that happens i.e. the dog gets on the bed, ignore him and do not get confrontational! Let him get down on his own or call him from the kitchen, shake the ‘dog-cookie-tin’, but do not push or pull him of the bed! If he is in possession of a the guarded ‘dug-up’ rawhide, let him finish it or if the situation is an emergency i.e. the dog has a dangerous object in his possession then you need to do an object-exchange. During the modification process it is a good idea to always have a ‘high-value-emergency item/treat’ handy for emergency exchanges. Even though this is bribery and totally ineffective for fostering behaviour change it is better than getting into a struggle with the dog.

KIDS

When children are in the household extra care should be taken to prevent situations from happening. Young children have difficulty complying with management rules; they will quite innocently walk up to the dog. Because they are small, they are more likely to be bitten in the face. When working with kids, it is best to get the dog desensitized to wearing a muzzle during actual training sessions with children. Only after the dog has been trained reliably with the adults in the house, only then can children take part in the actual training while being coached by a competent adult.

It is very important that the dog be gradually introduced to the muzzle before starting the actual training. The dog must happily allow you to put the muzzle on and be comfortable with it; otherwise it will cause the dog frustration, which will inhibit learning. You should use a basket muzzle, which will allow the dog to take treats from you during training. If the dog’s bite inhibition is poor, meaning he has already inflicted punctured bites then it is also advisable to let the dog wear a muzzle during the training sessions with adults.

A muzzle is not a cure for resource guarding; it is a training tool to keep you safe. A dog should not be left unsupervised with a muzzle on.

PREVENTION

At a young age the puppy must be made use to people taking things away, people approaching him and touching him while eating, he must be taught a ‘get-off’ command if he were to be allowed on couches and beds. This way you can prevent resource guarding from happening. If the puppy has a ‘forbidden’ object in his mouth, do not chase him and take it away, rather call him and exchange if for a tasty treat or another high valued toy.

We often feed the puppy and then walk away. Start off by making the puppy ‘earn’ his food from you by asking him for a behaviour e.g. sit, lie down or give paw. Then linger a bit while he eats, add in some tasty bits, stroke the puppy while he is eating. You can also hold onto the food bowl for a while as he eats. Take it away and ask for a behaviour and then put the bowl down again. This way he learns at an early age the when humans are around his bowl it means good stuff are going to fall into the bowl; this way he would want you near his bowl. If the bowl is taken away it does not mean all is lost, he will learn that he will get it back again.

Hold onto chewy toys while they chew it, most puppies will like this added comfort instead of struggling to keep the chewy still. Take it away, ask for a behavior and then give it back. You can also do exchanges with other chew toys. This way he will learn not to feel the need to use aggression to hold onto the toy, but that pleasant things happen when you take stuff away from him.

If there are children in the house then they also need to do these exercises with the puppy under the strict supervision of an adult and also only after the adults have done these exercises with the puppy and know that there are no guarding issues.

THE PROCESS

Systematic desensitization (SD) is a process where the dog is exposed to the trigger at a level that does not trigger a negative response. The trigger is then gradually increased if the dog shows signs of being comfortable at that level. SD is most often performed in conjunction with counter conditioning.
Counter conditioning (CC) is about changing associations. Classical conditioning is forming an association of one stimuli with another – think of Pavlov’s dogs; the bell started to predict food. CC is an application of classical (Pavlovian) conditioning. With CC we want to change the dog’s negative association/response to you taking an object away. Instead of eliciting a defensive/aggressive response we want to teach him it is a good thing if you take something away from him or when you approach him while he is eating or if he is on a favourite resting place. By using CC you change a negative emotional response to a pleasant Conditioned Emotional Response (CER)

To achieve a positive CER you will combine SD and CC. In short the process will look like this. You will present a trigger/object/action at a low-enough intensity (as not elicit a negative response) followed by a pleasant stimulus (e.g. treat). This process is repeated until the dog shows (by means of body language) that he is eagerly anticipating the pleasant stimulus. Then the trigger is slightly increased followed by the pleasant stimulus. And so the process is repeated until your have reached the ‘desired’ response in a certain context, be it him wagging his tail in a relaxed manner at you when you approach his food bowl, or willingly relinquishing a toy or object when asked for it.

The dog’s body language will tell you what emotions are going on inside the dog. If he still stiffens up or holds onto the toy and then relinquishes half heartedly you have either gone too fast too quickly with your training and you would need to go back a few steps and start again. It is very important the dog happily relinquishes an item or location. The absence of aggression is not sign that the behaviour as been modified. It is only modified once the dog is showing friendly body language and behaviour in the specific context.

When you have reached success it is important to do spot checks the rest of the dogs life, start off with a few spot checks a week and then taper off to at least once a week to maintain the CER you have worked so hard at obtaining.

SOME PRACTICAL EXAMPLES

Here are two broadly outlined exercises. Please take note that they are not comprehensive exercises as each dog’s responses and thresholds are different. They are merrily to give you a broad outline of how to go about if you have a dog with low-level-guarding issues. If your dog has ever bitten when guarding an item or location and if there are children in the household, then it is best to get in a trainer/behaviourist who can work out a step by step desensitization and counter conditioning program specifically suited for your dog.

The Food Bowl

* First determine at what point your dog starts to guard his food bowl. If he already start to show signs of stiffening when you approach then this will be your starting point.

* Let’s say he starts stiffening and giving low growls when you are 2 meters away, you will then start your training at 3m!

* Do this exercise in a different location to where he normally eats.

* Use another bowl, other than the ‘guarded’ bowl.

* Approach the dog and his empty bowl at 3m and toss treats in the bowl, walk away. Repeat as much as is necessary to elicit a happy response from the dog.

* Approach from different angles at 3m, toss treats, repeat as much as needed.

* Approach the dog and empty bowl and at 2 m toss treats and walk away. Repeat AMAN (As Much As Needed to elicit a happy response)

* Approach from different angles and toss treats. Repeat AMAN.

* Approach, at 1m toss treat in bowl, walk away, Repeat AMAN.

* Approach, lean over as to touch bowl, with other hand drop treat and walk away. Repeat AMAN

* Approach, touch bowl, drop treats, walk away. Repeat AMAN

* Approach, touch bowl for longer period, with other hand drop treats, walk away. Repeat AMAN

* Approach, pick up bowl, add treats, put bowl down, walk away. Repeat AMAN

* Approach, pick up bowl for 5 sec, add treats, put bowl down. Repeat AMAN

* Approach, touch the dogandrsquo;s shoulder, add in lots of treats, walk away. Repeat AMAN

* Approach, touch dog for longer, add in treats, walk away. Repeat AMAN

* Now start to add dry kibble into the bowl

* Approach again at 3 meters and start from the top again. Repeat AMAN.

* Then start to add some canned food to his kibble and start from 3m again!

* When adding canned food, your value of your treats must also increase!

* Have different adults in the house do this with the dog.

* Only once the dog has been proofed by a few adults then children can be introduced. They too will start at 3 meters and work through the whole program, under the supervision of an adult.

* If the dog’s body language at any stage becomes stiff, gives a growl or shows any other signs of not being comfortable with the step you are doing, back away, give the dog a rest and start again, but this time start a few steps back again. If any threatening behaviour is displayed by the dog, it means you have gone too fast too quickly. Taking short cuts now will end in someone getting bitten later on!

* Some dogs will progress quite quickly with certain steps and then have difficulty with other steps. This is normal, take it slow and be patient. It might take one dog a few days to overcome his negative emotional response while others might take weeks. Take the exercises at the dog’s pace and you will eventually have success.

* After the dog has proofed reliable then do some spot checks with the dog each week to maintain his now positive conditioned emotional response to you and anybody else approaching his food bowl.

The Couch

For this exercise, let’s assume the dog only guards a specific couch. Some dogs will guard the couch (or a toy/item) if the just got possession of the location (or item) and some dogs will only start to show guarding behaviour after they have been in possession of the location (or item) for a while.

You will start your training with ‘cold’ areas i.e. other chairs, couches, or a blanket or large cushion on the floor.
First get a positive CER BEFORE you start with the couch he guards!!
Your first step will be to get him comfortable with you approaching him while on the couch and the second part of the training will be to get him getting off happily if you say ‘get off’.

Step 1 – Approaching while on the couch

* You would follow the same steps as above with the foodbowl and getting him loving it when you approach him while he is on the blanket/couch (the ‘cold’ couch, the one he does not guard).

* Determine at what distance you are to him when he start showing guarding behaviour, then add on 1 meter and start as laid out in above exercise with the foodbowl. Do as many repetitions as need to elicit a positive CER.

* Ensure that you approach him from different directions and repeat AMAN.

* Once he is happily waiting your approach then you will start to touch the dog and treat as in above exercises. (IF your dog has body-handling issues then that needs to be addressed separately!)

Step 2 – Teaching the ‘off’ cue

* When he is on the couch/blanket/cushion, lure him off by using treats.

* When he gets off say andldquo;offandrdquo; and give him the treats and lots of praise.

* Lure him back on again by tapping on the couch/blanket/cushion and then only verbally praise.

* Lure him off again with the treat and say andlsquo;offandrsquo; as he gets off and treat him. Repeat AMAN.

* Then start to lure him off, without using food and just using the hand gesture, as if you have food. When he gets off, treat and praise him. Repeat AMAN.

* Before proceeding with the next step be SURE that he understands what ‘off’ means!

Introducing the ‘hot’ location

* Invite the dog onto the hot location.

* Go back to step 1 where you would gradually approach him and toss some treats, until you can go right up to him and touch him, WHILE he displays friendly body language.

* Once he is happy to have you approach him, then start asking for the behaviour andlsquo;offandrsquo;. And reward a lot when he does get off happily.

* If at any stage you observe any tenseness in the dog andndash; it means you have gone too fast too quickly. Go back a few steps and start again.

Generalization!!

* All the adults in the house needs to go through all the steps and then the children, if any, should do the steps under adult supervision.

* If you still need to struggle with the dog to get him off the couch or if he still stiffens if you approach, but don’t growl or snap,is not an indication of a positive CER, remember the dog must WANT you near him and display friendly body language, then only do you have a positive CER!

* Spot checks need to be done at least once or twice a week to maintain the positive CER that you have conditioned.

* If you have friends or family that can help you generalize his CER, then ask for their assistance. The more people that can do these exercises with the dog, the better he will generalize his conditioned positive CER.

* During the training, ensure that he does not have access to the couch he guards. Make the couch inaccessible to the dog by placing the sitting cushion at an angle or placing items on the couch!

* If an accident happens and the dog has gain access, do not get into a struggle with the dog, lure him of distract him by calling him from the kitchen with the promise of a ‘cookie’.

* If you at any stage feel uncomfortable doing the exercises with your dog or feel you are not progressing please contact a trainer/behaviourist that can work with you to develop a systematic desensitization and counter conditioning program specially for YOUR dog.

Copyright Claire Grobbelaar

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2 Comments on "It’s Mine! a.k.a Resource Guarding"

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JD Sharp
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Thank you for all your useful advice. I too have a rescue JRT and today we have seen a dramatic change in his behaviour. He has a cushion inside of his cage/bed box which was washed yesterday as a normal routine. Usually this is not a problem but today it is. He has guarded his cushion and will not remove himself from it. As I write he has dragged the cushion into the garden and will not leave it, not even to go for a walk. As i approach him he growls and appears ready to lunge at me. I… Read more »
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