I often get calls from people whose dogs guard food, treats, toys and, sometimes, even people. Resource guarding isn’t uncommon, and it’s understandable. If a dog has a bone in his possession and another dog comes along, chances are the first dog will do what he needs to in order to keep it. In the canine world, possession is nine tenths of the law–but in a human household, some dogs must be taught that it’s not okay to play by those rules.
Although reported resource guarding doesn’t faze me, What does surprise me is something I hear all too often. It’s especially popular with puppy owners, and goes something like this: “To teach him that we’re in charge, we’re taking his food away while he’s eating.” Really? Because if you took my pizza away while I was biting into it, it’d teach me a thing or two about you, but that you’re in charge wouldn’t be one of them. Or, there’s the ever-popular, “We take his bone away while he’s chewing it.” The responses of the dogs in these scenarios ranges from not minding, to getting a bit growly or eating more quickly or determinedly, to snapping at or biting the owners. But are the owners really teaching the dog they are in charge? Or are they imparting another lesson: When people come near my stuff, bad things happen. I say it’s the latter. These owners are actually creating a resource guarding issue where one might never have existed.
As some of you know, three of the wolfy canines from the rescue center I worked with came to live with me, and were here for ten years. Sequoia, a low content wolf/Samoyed mix, had a severe resource guarding issue toward people and other animals. The boys, Phantom and Heyoka, learned quickly to give her space when she had something she valued. As the three lived in an outdoor enclosure that no one but my husband and me had access to, there really wasn’t a reason to address the behavior. Still, I didn’t want to be in the pen one day and mistakenly place my foot where she’d buried a marrow bone. Rather than implement a step-by-step behavior protocol, I started hanging out nearby while she had something she valued. I started with things like bully sticks that she felt so-so about, and kept enough of a distance that she felt comfortable. The variables I worked with over time were distance and the value of the item. I never, ever tried to take anything away from her. The end result, which I’ll admit took many months, was that I could sit next to her and even pet her while she chewed a marrow bone—her most prized possession.
Whether the dog in question is an adult or a pup, there are many ways to address a resource guarding issue. It can be as simple as walking past at a safe distance and tossing super-yummy treats into the dog’s bowl, hand-feeding, feeding by dropping food into the dog’s bowl bit by bit as he eats, sitting on the floor with the pup and holding one end of the bully stick while he chews the other…the list goes on. Some protocols are, of course, more complicated and call for progressing in very gradual increments, along with management to keep everyone safe. Not all resource guarding issues can be blamed on the owner’s behavior. But just think about how many fewer cases there would be if we just taught our pups to trust us in the first place, and that coming near them or their stuff always means something good is going to happen. Agree? Now step away from my pizza!