The last two months I published a couple of posts that addressed resources. One is called “The Hedonic Canine”, and the other “A Lesson in Resource Control”, and you can find them in the archive under August 2010 and September 2010. I talked about our pooches being pleasure-seeking animals that understand the value of possessions. Clever the owner who teaches the new furry family member that resources never run out, but that they are also under the control of people and that one must ask nicely to gain access. Starting puppies on the right paw is the easiest way to an adult dog who’s relaxed around stuff that matters to him. But what if a second chance rescue comes with deep-seated resource insecurity? What does one do with a dog who is convinced that a human near his valuables is bad news? What does one do with a dog who says: Back Off!
Resource guarding is a major reason why humane societies won’t adopt a dog out, even if he is great in every other way. Their unwillingness is understandable, because a possession-aggressive dog can inflict nasty injuries. There is the liability issue, but also a moral obligation to keep people safe, and for that reason most shelters’ temperament evaluation includes a food test. The dog is leashed and released to a dish with highly desirable canned food. As he gobbles it up, a person sticks a rubber hand, called an Assess-A-Hand, into the food, pets the dog, or moves the food bowl. A second person observes and evaluates the dog’s reaction on a scale from best – he’s surrendering the food, to worst – he’s attacking the person who operates the Assess-A-Hand, with a wide variety of behaviors in between: noticing the hand but not being bothered, eating faster, blocking the bowl, tension, growl but no bite, air snap, biting the hand, one bite and release, and repetitive bites.
Some shelters have zero tolerance for any level of resource guarding and proceed with euthanasia when the dog is tense, or blocks. More progressive ones, and our Metro SPCA belongs to them, recognize the problem but, depending on dog and intensity, are willing to work with him.
I am happy about that cause even though resource aggression is one of the more serious behavioral problems, it is also one that in most cases, if done right, can be permanently solved in a considerably short time.
A inherently flighty, commonly called submissive dog, surrenders a contested item or space. A confident one confronts anyone he perceives as a threat, real or imagined doesn’t matter. But just because a dog is determined to defend what he thinks is his doesn’t mean that the behavior isn’t rooted in fear. Both cautious and confident animals can have fears - the difference is how it is expressed. With resource guarding the fear is losing something important, and that is almost always based on experience. Food is a basic need every animal instinctively knows he needs for survival, and when it is taken away in the name of dominance, resource insecurity is instilled. The same happens if a dog has to compete for a limited supply of resources, which is not only food but anything he finds pleasurable and valuable. If he succeeds periodically, even just once, in keeping a rival at bay with aggressive displays, the behavior is powerfully reinforced. Aggression when in possession of a resource worked for the dog and he will do it again; aggression becomes his first line of action when someone approaches.
Whatever is considered valuable enough to defend depends on the dog. Often it is food, but it also could be a toy, bone, stick or garbage, a certain space like a crate or bed, the area where he is fed, or a sniffing spot at the dog park. You, the owner, could be regarded as possession, or any other family member, two- and four-legged ones. In fact, a dog who guards food during the Assess-A-Hand evaluation typically also defends other things, and just because one passes the test doesn’t mean that he won’t aggress when he has something that might be more important to him. That is why eliminating whatever a dog guards is not a practical solution, because he can always find something else, and you never know what it is. Unless the root of the problem is addressed, the dog remains unpredictable and potentially dangerous.
When I work with dogs, or write about them, I never add a disclaimer. Me thinks that demonstrating or advising something the lay owner can’t safely apply is a waste of time. It’d be like a Martha Stewart recipe that is too dangerous to be whipped up in your own kitchen. But never always has an exception, and mine is resource guarding, because it can lead to nasty bites when people misjudge the situation. For that reason, anyone who owns a possession aggressive dog should always, always consult with an experienced, but positive professional. Thus, the purpose for this post is not self-help advice, but hopefully prevent that things get messed up even more in the interim.
The popular response to a guarding, snarling dog is pinning and punishing him, removing the loot, or forcing him away from it. Although intuitive, all of the above is counterproductive because it confirms what the dog already feels: that he better be suspicious and worried about people around stuff he needs and wants. Even if you are assertive and strong enough to dominate your dog, success is typically temporary. The physically overpowered, but still insecure dog will retaliate sooner or later, against you or a weaker family member, and often with increased intensity.
Counterintuitive, but way more effective is to infuse resource security, because you are addressing the root of the problem. Once the fear is gone, the aggression also is.
Deprivation fosters anxiety and competition for the little that is available, so make sure that your dog lives in the land of plenty. Provide freely and offer many opportunities for him to “earn” stuff.
Once you allowed access to a resource, let him eat, chew and rest in peace. The last thing I want is someone pawing my chocolate cake I was looking forward to the whole day. Your dog feels the same.
Whenever he is unperturbed when you’re in the vicinity, add something extra yummy to what he already has. Yes, it sounds like overkill to toss a piece of cheese to a bone gnawing dog, but if you, the provider, is bringing more goods, your dog begins to anticipate your appearance happily, not suspiciously. He is changing his mind and that is what we’re after.
Another disclaimer here and why expert help is imperative. It is critical that you comprehend subtle signals; know when your dog becomes tense and his mind shifts, because you want to reinforce the desired behavior. In addition, understanding finer body language allows you to gauge distance accurately, and that will keep you safe during the retraining phase.
If you miss the point and your dog snarls or snaps, you’re in a Catch 22. If you back off, you reinforce intimidating aggression. If you encroach closer you take the conflict to the next level and that places you in danger to get bitten – and then, guaranteed, you will back off and thereby reinforce your dog for biting. My recommendation is to stay where you’re at, casually with a fluid body and relaxed breathing, until your pooch loosens up, and then you increase the distance. That way you are reinforcing relaxation with what he wants most: you getting lost. Another disclaimer. Only stay put when it is safe to do so. If your dog turns it up a notch cause you’re not leaving, calmly, while facing him, retreat. Don’t push it, and don’t worry what you are reinforcing at that moment. Your safety is priority.
Human and dog rules state that possession is 90% ownership. Once you have given your dog something, it is his. If you don’t want him to have it, control access with a leash or a well-practiced verbal “leave” command. Every dog should, and can learn to release something on command, or move on request, but that takes trust, training and is force free. Your positive dog expert can help you with that as well, and might have more ideas up his/her sleeve that changes your dog’s mind about people near his loot, and consequently his behavior - reliably and regardless how important something is to him.