By Pia Silvani, CPDT-KA, CCBC
You give your dog the best of food, toys, affection; he sleeps in your bed, and loves to snuggle with you on the sofa to watch a good movie. Then why would he suddenly turn and bite when you take a bone or object from his mouth, pet him when he is eating or resting, snap at family members when they attempt to interact with you? “Why would he do this to us when we have done nothing but give him love?” is the common question asked.
The behavior your dog is exhibiting is known as ‘resource guarding.’ This means the dog is behaving in an aggressive manner when he is in possession of or relaxing on what “he” perceives to be “his.”
Early warning signs and red flag behaviors:
Your dog freezes up when he feels threatened. He may stop chewing, give you a ‘hard eye,’ stare “into space.”
The dog changes his eating or chewing pattern. Some dogs might stop while others begin to gulp or chew at a very brisk, intense pace.
The dog gives a low guttural growl without moving his body.
The dog becomes still and exposes his teeth by raising his lip on one side while others will retract both lips back.
The dog snaps into the air. This is sometimes called an “air bite.” The dog’s goal is not to do harm and he deliberately misses. Many people feel they were able to get away quick enough. Your dog’s reflexes are much quicker than yours. You cannot avoid a bite if the dog means to bite you.
The dog makes contact with your skin but the bite is inhibited and does not break skin.
The dog takes items to a hiding spot (i.e. under furniture). When you approach, the dog moves. If he has no means of escaping, you get a threatening behavior.
Types of Resource Guarding:
Food. Food guarders will threaten and even bite the hand that attempts to remove food items from the dog’s possession. This includes his meals, bones, stolen food items from the garbage or a yummy tidbit found in the gutter. The old saying “don’t bother the dog when he is eating” should only be adhered to if the dog has a problem!
Objects. Objects can be toys, stolen tissues, shoes or other items, a dog bed, the crate, a stick found outdoors and more. Some will only guard certain items, such as rawhides, but nothing else. This usually starts off from puppyhood when the pup investigates and picks things up. The owners typically overreact, eliciting a chase game – puppy in front and 4 family members running and screaming behind. What may have started out as a game can turn into a major problem later in life.
Location. Location guarding deals with an area where the dog is relaxing or has no means of escape. A person approaches the dog and the dog exhibits the threats listed above. Typically they occur when the dog is resting on a bed, sofa, crate, mat or in the car. Sometimes the dog may be fine with some people, but not others. For example, the adults can approach the dog, but children cannot.
The following tips can serve to help you better understand your canine’s improper “guarding” behaviors.
There is no “quick fix” – The goal is to keep everyone safe. Many people reprimand the dog for giving a warning sign – such as growling. The problem with this action is that the dog may cease growling (appearing to be a “fix”), but his emotional state will not change. If he cannot warn, then he may feel the need to escalate the warning to a bite. The dog may become fearful of the husband, for example, but this does not mean that it will generalize to the entire family. Children should NEVER, under any circumstance, reprimand the dog!
Understand What Triggers Your Dog’s Actions – There may be one target or many targets that stimulate the dog to react inappropriately. For example, the dog might only guard ‘human’ food and not dry kibble; the dog might only guard rawhide bones, but not a pig’s ear; the dog might guard one member of the family and no one else; the dog might guard the sofa area, but is fine when resting on his own dog bed. Once you pinpoint his trigger(s), manage your dog so he no longer has access to these items or areas or, do not permit people, especially children, to go near the dog in those situations until you can seek the help of a professional in the field. For example, if your dog growls when someone approaches him when he is eating his meals, the dog should be fed in an area where no one can come in contact with him.
Management – This means that exposure to the triggers are eliminated. In some situations, you can manage the dog’s behavior without working on a behavior modification program, while other times it may require both. For example, if your dog only guards rawhide bones, then simply eliminate giving him these bones, even if he ‘loves’ them; if the dog only growls when on your bed, then the dog must learn to sleep on the floor in his own bed. The bed is yours, NOT his!
You Are Not The Dog’s Possession - Write down all of the triggers that cause your dog to react. Is it only when you are sitting with him on the sofa, or when your child approaches to give you a kiss good night? Management is critical. If your dog cannot tolerate someone coming near you, then he should be put away for safety reasons or walk away from him so “his” resource has left - - there is nothing to guard!
Involving Children – Never! Children have a difficult time complying with management rules and will not understand why they cannot interact with the dog. Most children interact with the dog when the dog is calm and still (eating, chewing on a bone, resting) - - because they can! You are taking a much greater risk when children are involved. Aggression problems are extremely complex and risky to you, your family, other dogs and the public at large. Seek the advice of a veterinary behaviorist, an applied animal behaviorist or a skilled certified trainer who avoids the use of abusive procedures in their treatment programs. Not only should you be concerned with protecting the general public but also how your dog is handled during treatment.