Friday, October 12, 2012

Resource Aggression

As part of his Canada Tour, the famous TV dog trainer Cesar Millan is coming to our province in December. In my next few posts, as a welcoming gesture, I will give you my take on key premises he is basing his methods on.
Planned are: The Migration Myth and how much exercise a dog really needs; Whether or not Dogs Are Pack Animals, and if I have enough time Mother Nature’s Rules and the twisted thinking that because a tree hurts us when we hit it means that we must inflict pain when our pooch does something we disagree with.
I’ll begin with Resource Aggression. A behavioral issue more than a premise, it is today’s topic nevertheless because of a couple of video clips that made the social media rounds a few weeks ago, because it is a common problem, and because many people, including some trainers and rescue folks, still address it confrontationally.

Dogs, as a species, are deferent to humans. I said that before, and am not the only one saying it. We have the big brains to decide dogs’ fate, the bank accounts to provide what they need and want, and the dexterity to impose our will onto them with the help of collars and leashes. For some 14.000 years dogs experienced us as direct or indirect food suppliers, and owned dogs are entirely at our mercy, depend on us for everything: food, water, safety, shelter, mental and physical stimulation. How much more dominant do you need to be?
If dogs are so deferent, you might argue, then why do some fiercely aggress against the very people who provide resources? Isn’t that dominance? Isn’t that proof that the dog feels in charge and needs to be demoted a few notches? No, not necessarily.
Resource aggression, in fact, is always rooted in fear – the fear of losing something. Although partly hardwired: resource possessiveness is nature’s survival and normal for all species, a dog who defensively guards food, stuff, space or himself often either experienced loss at the hands of humans (or dogs), or resource deprivation, or both.

If a dog is given access to something he considers valuable, or that is an existential necessity like food, and moments later challenged for the very same thing, he becomes distressed and defensive. The tension, the growling and snapping, are the expressions of it. Rather than a dominant disposition, intragroup aggression is human-induced.
The foundation can be laid by the breeder, so before the owners have access to their pup. Such was the case with one of my recent clients, new owners of a giant breed puppy they acquired from someone who removed, as a rule, the litters’ food after 5 minutes without concern if each pup was satiated. Circumstances warranted that my clients’ pup stayed with that breeder until she was 16 weeks old, which means that during her entire critical developmental period she experienced food scarcity. It beats me what the breeder aimed to accomplish. Teach the puppies to eat speedily? Like gorging is a good thing, especially for a deep-chested giant dog. Did he want to get the pups used to people taking food away? Acclimate them when they’re young so it wouldn’t be a problem later on? That is my hunch, but what a misguided idea.
True, repeated exposure and experiences can habituate a dog to stimuli or events, but regarding resources it doesn’t work that way. Think about it: Would you get used to someone stealing the tomatoes from your garden just because it happens every day? And realistically, tomatoes aren’t that important. Food, to a dog, is. Food is what money is to you: Survival. If someone would repeatedly pilfer your cash, you’d be more than a little annoyed. You’d be distressed, suspicious and defensive, and likely go to great lengths to stop it.
How do you think my clients’ now 24-week-old pup feels when people approach her food dish? Yeah! She is suspicious and defensive, but because she is in a new environment, young and not that confident yet, her signals are still subtle and mild. Considering though that she could reach an adult weight of 150 pounds, and that there are young children in the family, future and overt aggression over resources are a real risk. Luckily my clients recognized that and hired not one, but two positive experts to help them with all aspects of ownership, and I am confident they’ll be fine.

Food floats animals’ boat, and a dog can be protective not just over his meal, but also accidently dropped people food, garbage, the dish even when it’s empty, and the area where feeding takes place.
In addition, pretty much anything can be perceived as defend-worthy: a bone, toy or stick, a person, and space: the dog’s bed or yours, his crate, the couch, the car, the property and the home’s entrance points.
A dog who guards his food rarely only guards food, and conversely: just because a dog doesn’t guard food doesn’t automatically mean he won’t defend other things.
There is one important facet of aggression in association with resources that is often overlooked: The dog feeling unsafe. In other words, it might not be just the loss of a resource the dog is worried about, but his own hide.
My guess is that’s what happened between the dog Holly and Cesar Millan. Watch this video clip, brilliantly captioned by dog trainer Carol Byrnes and you can see what I mean. Perhaps the initial issue was food related, but the first attack happened when Millan “tssted” and reached for her, and the second, the bite, when the pressure continued despite her appeasement signals. When Holly had no option to flee, she fought. Notice that the whole time she neither oriented to where the food was, nor did she try to dodge for it. The food wasn’t the issue any more; the man and his hand were.

Does force and confrontation work sometimes? Yes, it does. Every method works with some dogs, but with many it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, a nasty bite like the one we see on the clip is a possible result. Bites like that in an average home typically means a one-way ticket to the veterinarian.
Holly, though, didn’t get euthanized, at least not yet. You can see in this clip what happened next.
Holly doesn’t attack, and that is success, right? Not so fast. Notice that the context changed; Millan, this time, doesn’t rely on his calm-assertive energy that provoked the bite, but on his ever-ready rope he placed right behind Holly’s ears to give him absolute physical control. He corrected her a few times, and had she acted out, in his words he would have pulled her up. How far up I leave to your imagination, but my guess is front paws off the ground, which of course asphyxiates the dog.
We also don’t know what happened between the bite and rehab clips. Was she shocked, or muzzled and pinned, until she capitulated?
Plus, the Dog Whisperer used step-up stairs. He claims to bring the dog in a less dominant position while she eats, but methinks that it coincidentally, but conveniently, also provided a barrier between him and Holly at one point.
On a side note, watch Millan’s own dog, the pit bull Junior. At the beginning of the clip he does something wrong. What eludes me – all I can see is a dog who excitedly greets his human, but Millan disapproved and Junior responded with exaggerated submission. What does the world’s best dog trainer do? He says “No” and walks away. No what? No submit?
Natural deference and fear are two different things; a deferent dog still seeks social affiliation, a fearful one avoids it. Lets see what Junior does next: He picks up a ball. When my dogs find a ball, they bring it to me and solicit play. Millan’s dog lies a distance away and first gums it a bit, and then moves even farther away. He avoided his pack leader; wished no social interaction; is, in my opinion, fearful.
Back to Holly! Based on the second clip, would you say that she is cured of resource aggression? Well, she might behave with someone she has learned can overpower her, but my educated guess is that she might not be equally non-aggressive with every person, for example a child. A dog “cured” by force doesn’t trust, and a dog who doesn’t trust isn’t trustworthy. It is as simple as that.

Dogs are safe in every context only when they authentically feel resource security: have learned that people aren’t competitors and confronters, but resource providers, protectors and cooperators. Once a dog is convinced that his stuff is safe, and that he is safe, he won’t feel defensive any longer and the aggressive expressions disappear.
Here are some tips how to achieve that:
~ If food is the issue, vary the places where you feed, so that your dog doesn’t become possessive of a certain space.
~ Remove the empty food dish and food. If your dog is teased by its presence all day long, food, when it finally manifests in the dish, is a big deal. It is like having the world’s best chocolate cake in a locked class container in front of you. When you find the key, you are all psyched out and would snarl at anyone who comes near it, especially if there is not enough to share.
~ On that note, share your food. Good people food is better than most kibble, and food sharing is bonding. Don’t worry about your dog thinking he’s alpha. The giver has the power, not the receiver, so you actually score leadership points when your dog realizes what wonderful assets are under your control.
~ Although free feeding is not a viable option for everyone, a dog who experiences surplus is less likely to guard. One of my friends has food everywhere all day long, and never had a resource issue with her own dogs or her fosters, even the ones that came to her with food aggression issues.
~ Have several identical food bowls. Offer a lower value food and walk away with the higher value food, call the dog and hand it over. Repeat. You can have several bowls with different food, or you can increase the amount of the same food, so that each time your dog leaves his dish voluntarily to follow you, he gets tastier, or more, food.
~ Put most of your dog’s ration in the dish, release him to it, and walk away. While he eats, approach, toss a high value treat, and retreat. Gauge the distance carefully, because ideally you want to toss before the dog becomes defensive, but what you do is not contingent on his behavior. In other words, even if you misjudge and your dog growls, still toss and walk away. Don’t punish tension or a growl by removing the food. Even if you are temporarily successful, there is real danger that you create a time bomb without the tick: a dog who still feels defensive and might explode, but won’t signal it any longer. Think away from reinforcing the growl with this toss and retreat exercise, because what you are after is to change your dog’s emotional response. His mind. What a person near his bounty means: From it potentially disappearing to more materializing.
In a considerable short period of time your dog will anticipate your coming closer with excitement, not suspicion, and then you can get closer and closer, and eventually add the extra loot by putting your hand in his bowl, and then take some out and put it back in, and so on.
Although you want to practice this, also let your dog eat in peace. Being bothered while consuming food, even when bothered with a cookie, is irritating. Try it. Give your partner and kids permission to nicely interrupt each meal you enjoy. I mean, my morning coffee is sacred. I don’t speak English before I haven’t had my coffee, and the last thing I want is someone solicitously offering me candy.

Adding instead of removing is the core concept regarding other resources as well, including when dogs aggress against other dogs. If you have three dogs have three toy boxes and ten balls in the yard.
When a new dog moves in, life has to become better for the other ones, meaning more resources, including attention and interaction with their humans.
Food is a dog’s right, and they shouldn’t have to jump through figurative hoops to receive it. Regarding other resources: toys, space, your food, teach your dog to “leave” and “give”. There is a lot wrong with forcing a dog, but nothing wrong with controlling access to what’s important to him. I wrote about “leave” before, and give can be a fun game when you trade in and up. Check out Chiraq Patel’s fabulous Drop-It clip 

One last thing: Once a dog trusts, you can count on it that he is safe, but keep in mind that life is never static. What an animal deems important enough to defend is dynamic and can change with age, health or situation.
Take for instance the dog who never guarded food, but is on medication and always hungry. You might suddenly see aggression against other dogs pop up, rarely against his humans.
Think of a dog who is sore and more defensive being touched because it hurts.
My friend’s dog never guards food or water because he lives in a land of plenty, yet once snarled a dog away from a water dish because he was particularly thirsty after having played Frisbee on a warm sunny afternoon.
Smart owners know that dogs are living organisms and not programmable robots, and they proactively take measures to decrease the chance of conflict when life becomes more difficult. I always err on the side of caution, and so did my clients who segregated their two male littermate brothers while their biological mother was in heat. The boys are castrated, so an unplanned mating wasn’t the issue, but they had an injury inflicting fight history with each other, and made progress to a degree that surprised me. To prevent any regression, the owners temporarily backtracked when the situation in the home changed.

We saw in the first Holly/Millan clip what can happen when a dog is under pressure. It beats me why anyone would choose a method that puts him, and his loved ones, at risk. In all fairness, it is not just Millan who applies these methods, but he happens to be the one who influences laypeople the most these days; people who do what they see on TV even though there is a disclaimer that tells them not to.
When you choose a non-confrontational way to deal with a dog’s defensive behaviors, you CAN do it at home. That said, whenever aggression is involved, hiring professional help expedites progress. Some dogs have such a deep-seated fear of loss, based on ongoing deprivation, that they can be quite dangerous and harder to convince that their needs will be predictably fulfilled from here on in. The problem is compounded when the dog is also defensive of himself; feels unsafe in the vicinity of humans, when touched, and reacts to hands that reach for him. With such dogs, one can’t work beyond their comfort level. Neither reason nor compulsion can make one feel safe; it has to be experienced, and even gently caressing hands initially can be too much for a dog who is that jaded. An experienced and positive dog expert will be able to accurately determine where to begin and how to proceed, so that trust can be established again, and the dog eventually becomes trustworthy.


  1. WE know who the best dog trainer is and it is not home.;-) Thanks for getting people to see the real light and please Keep up the great work. You are the best thatt's who.

  2. Fantastic post! Not to mention timely in my case as I just adopted a 4-5 month old shepherd pup who basically spent the first part of his life in an outdoor kennel having to scrap with other dogs just to get enough food to survive. He's made amazing progress in the two weeks I've had him, mostly due to a) his wicked intelligence, b) my first dog who is fantastic at reading other dogs' body language and thankfully rarely aggresses back (if the puppy snarls at him, my first dog tends to just lick his face quietly until the puppy realizes he's not going to steal his toys, then the puppy often leaves the toy voluntarily. There was a heck of a lot of cheering when I saw that for the first time, let me tell you), and c) just living in the land of plenty. The first two days he was at home were pretty rough, but his progress has been truly gratifying (there are now toys all over the floor and even some old, previously chewed marrow bones and he learned to leave them around without having to guard them), and I know it all comes back to him living in a place where he is reassured, and never has to worry about defending himself.
    Also, thank you for posting that "drop" video, that's the one thing we need to work on, especially since we live in the city and there's all sorts of garbage people leave on the sidewalk that I don't always see in time (like the half a piece of pizza he gobbled up the other day). I've always just used the trade up game, but that video looked like a great way to teach it as well. I'm going to start training that method right away, and I might even do a refresher with my older guy, too.

  3. Thank you for your feedback and congrats to the new pooch. What an awesome helper Mufaasa is.
    I like pretty much everything Domesticated Manners does - the drop it video clip. Chiraq Patel also has a great muzzle desensitizing one I often refer to.