Behavior problems are always easier to prevent than to fix once they are already occurring. Behaviors which have a long reinforcement history (the dog has been “getting away with it” for a long time) are harder to treat than those which have just appeared. Whenever possible, training should focus on the prevention of behavior problems rather than curing them.
We see a similar situation in human health. It is easier to prevent lung cancer (through not smoking) or skin cancer (through not tanning) than it is to treat these diseases once they are present in the body. It is also easier to treat an early stage cancer than one that has gone unaddressed or undetected for weeks, months, or years.
Much like cancer, behavior problems are largely preventable by making wise lifestyle and training decisions.
WHAT IS RESOURCE GUARDING?
Resource guarding is an aggressive response directed toward a perceived threat to possession of a valuable object. A dog growling when you approach while they chew a favorite toy or when you try to recover the stolen Kleenex is frequently resource guarding. A dog that growls when another dog comes near her crate or prized resources is resource-guarding.
IS RESOURCE GUARDING NORMAL BEHAVIOR?
Yes, in dogs and other creatures. If all humans left the planet tomorrow, the dogs that resource guarded would be those most likely to pass on their genes.
Resource guarding can even happen in people! Give a financially strapped person ten thousand dollars and see how interested they are in “sharing” with strangers or even friends who try to help themselves to a share. Give a famished person a plate of French fries and then try to take it away from them. Whether the resource is French fries or money, if it is very important to the person, chances are the person will resource guard the valuable object.
To someone with a full belly, guarding a plate of fries seems silly. To someone with an empty belly, a plate of French fries may mean the difference between satiation and extreme discomfort. To a wealthy individual, $10,000 may not be worth guarding. To an impoverished individual, this same amount of money might be the difference between a comfortable lifestyle or a lifestyle full of struggle and hunger.
I mention this because resource guarding is contextual; this is based on the concept that “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” The things I may find worth resource guarding might be meaningless to you and vice-versa. We don’t get to decide what other people find worth guarding. We also don’t get to decide what dogs find worth guarding, which is why some dogs will guard a food bowl, water bowl, roll of toilet paper or paper towels, a human, a candy wrapper, an empty baggie, a space, or particular toy.
PREVENTION OF RESOURCE GUARDING/FOOD AGGRESSION
I. Hand feeding: Feed your dog’s meals by hand initially – good stuff comes from people!
II. Sweeten the Pot – while your dog is eating kibble, practice tossing “better stuff” (higher value reinforcers) towards her food bowl. Gradually decrease distance until you are adding “better stuff” directly to the food bowl as she eats. This will teach her that human hands near her food bowl make good things happen to her. Have other family members and friends practice this. If your dog growls, back up and proceed more slowly. You want her to be actively happy with the current level of approach before you make it harder.
III. Take food bowl away, sweeten pot, give back. Once your dog is comfortable with you reaching your hands in her food bowl as she eats, practice taking the food bowl away, adding better stuff, then giving it back to her.
IV. Have other people practice this step.
V. Practice trade ups – get two identical objects. Start with objects of low interest. Give your dog one of the objects and let her interact with it. Present the same object, only with “the pot sweetened.” I like to use a Kong, bowl, or paper plate to start out. Give her a clean, empty Kong initially then present her with a Kong smeared with liverwurst. This is an easy choice for dogs – I call it “If you give me that five, I’ll give you a fifty.” Stuffed Kongs are better than empty Kongs. Most dogs will abandon the “empty” item in favor of the “better” item. While she is cleaning off the “better” item, prepare the previously “empty” item by coating it with liverwurst, then repeat the process.
VI. Repeat step 5 with multiple objects.
WAYS TO CREATE RESOURCE GUARDING PROBLEMS
I. Punish your dog for “stealing stuff”
II. Leave all kinds of things that she likes to steal all over the place and be unequipped with tradable items.
III. Expect her to spit out a live squirrel before she can spit out an empty paper plate. (PhD before ABC expectations)
IV. Yell at her when she growls at you (remember, she’s growling because she’s nervous about being approached when she has such a valuable object). Yelling only reinforces her belief that you approaching while she has great stuff is something to be nervous about.
ADDITIONAL WAYS TO PREVENT RESOURCE GUARDING PROBLEMS
I. Manage the situation. If your dog is an accomplished toilet paper stealer/guarder, close the bathroom door until her trade up behavior is reliable.
II. Have lots of grade “trade up” stuff on hand at all times.
III. Teach “leave it”
IV. Teach “auto check in”
V. Praise your dog for stealing stuff.
* OK, I know this sounds totally crazy, but it’s worked amazingly well with many of the dogs I’ve worked with. Resource guarding stems from fear – fear you’ll take away this ultimate prize. When Mokie was a puppy and would get things she wasn’t supposed to have (socks or undies, let’s say), I would praise her like crazy – “YAY, Mokie! Look at those panties!” and run in the other direction, then I would reward her for bringing them to me. I took the fear out of the situation – instead of punishing, I was partying!
This actually made it really easy to teach her a retrieve – she had an established reinforcement history for finding things then bringing them to mom to see if it would pay off. Instead of being afraid I’d take things from her, she saw “finding taboo stuff” as an opportunity to return to me, deliver the object, and receive reinforcement. Voila! Retrieve! Some dogs will actually go around finding your lost socks after this training, bringing them to you upon finding them as if to say, “Here, mom, see what I found?! I found this sock, can I have a treat or tug or scratch as a reward for turning in lost items?”