Monday, December 31, 2012


As I noted in the Secret Santy Claws blog post earlier, Vito is a resource guarder. He's done this from a very, very young age - I saw it when I adopted him at 12 weeks old. So it's something I've dealt with as an ongoing project, which sucks sometimes because in all seriousness, it's something that will never go completely away. I can 'manage' it and I can 'condition' him for certain responses, but it's an ingrained behavior that we will always have to stay on top of.

What most people don't realize is that resource guarding is a natural, normal behavior for dogs. Hey even we Humans are resource guarders when you think about it. We tend to not share well with everyone :). If dogs (or Humans) didn't guard their resources from others they'd be in danger of starving or not surviving. It's this survival instinct that triggers the guarding behaviors we see in our dogs and some of those behaviors are appropriate and acceptable. The trick is learning which behaviors are appropriate or not! :)

A really great resource for dealing with resource guarding is Jean Donaldson's book Mine! A Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs. A few of the very common misperceptions/myths she debunks:

  • Resource guarding is abnormal behavior
  • Because resource guarding is driven largely by genetics, it can't be changed
  • Resource guarding can be cured by making a dog realize that resources are abundant
  • Resource guarding is a symptom of 'dominance' or 'pushiness'
  • Resource guarding is the result of 'spoiling' a dog
So really, what's the answer for dealing with resource guarding? Every dog displays the behaviors differently and with different intensity, so talking to a professional is recommended. When I started dealing with this, I didn't know of any professional so I dug in and did the research and learned about behavior modification techniques and learning theories. Sometimes having 'difficult' or 'different' dogs makes you learn so much more, LOL!! But seriously, if anyone does come across this and wants some help feel free to ask me any questions :).

Chance Takers are Accident Makers

Vito resource guards with other dogs pretty ferociously, but we have employed a management technique for that. Luckily, for Vito his list of guardable items (things HE deems important) is relatively short and his guarding interactions are reasonably predictable. So the dogs get certain high-value food/treat items in their crates only - bones, stuffed kongs, etc. He also guards toys, so we arrange time to play with him when the other dogs are put away. And when all the dogs are out together those high-value toy items are put away.

But remember Humans are in charge of the management so at some point in time, you are going to forget or mess up or whatever. It happens, we aren't perfect either!

Protect Only the Fingers You WANT to Keep!

Vito also resource guards with us, the Humans :). So we've done some classical conditioning with him to basically protect our fingers! Our basic premise was that we wanted Vito to know that the approach of a human to his 'resource' was a GOOD thing. Just like the clicker is associated with treats in your dog's mind, the approach of a human to his resource should mean a better 'resource' is on it's way. So it breaks down to a basic trade strategy. And in reality, this should be done with all dogs, not just the resource guarders.

We started with the GIVE cue. When first teaching this start with objects that your dog does not value as much and with treats that are highly valued. That way they are giving something that isn't that important but getting something they deem as amazing in return. They are more apt to trade up, aren't we all? :) Then gradually work your way up to objects that are the important ones. Ask for the object, then either wait for him to do so (if he knows the cue) or present the treats near his nose/mouth which will cause him to drop it when going for the treats. Reward and praise for dropping the object, then give it back to him as soon as he's done eating the treats. That's the important point folks, you give it back :). It helps the dog understand that giving away his resources is a good thing, so there's no reason to guard them.

With Vito, we did this most often with tennis balls. He gives us a tennis ball, we give him one back and also initiate the fetch game, which was a very high reward for him. Here's a short video of Nicholas playing with Vito that shows our trade system.

You'll notice at first Vito readily gives the ball to Nicholas without a cue. He knows the game :). But then at about 30 seconds in he misses a ball and it goes directly back to Nicholas, this throws him off and when he goes to bring back the next ball he doesn't want to give it up. Yes, something that small (the one missed reward) threw him off and kept him slightly off. You'll notice after that he is much stiffer giving the ball back to Nicholas and when he brings it back he tends to drop it and stand over it.

The other thing we also did with Vito was condition him that just the approach of us to him while he had something he valued was a good thing. As with the GIVE cue, start with something that is considerably less valuable to him. Then you just walk over to him while he has his resource and give him treats - without taking the object or even touching it. Repeat this until he begins to look up at you with the expectation of goodies. Once they start expecting goodies, then you can start touching the dog and the object. Don't take it away though, they should always end up with what they started with :). So they basically learn that the approach of humans doesn't mean bad things, alternatively it means good things - I keep my object AND I get treats.

Did it, Done it, Doing it Tomorrow

When this kind of groundwork had been laid, you can start replacing the surrendered object with something else if you have to take it away. Just always replace it with something the dog considers of equal or greater value! This is how you can easily get that pair of underwear or shoe or whatever else inappropriate the dog has decided they need :). This is an exercise you should practice sporadically with your dog for their whole life.

Another great article I've found on resource guarding appears in the Whole Dog Journal. It goes into much more detail with different scenarios :).

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