S، the signs of resource guarding in dogs, learn ،w to keep everyone safe, and the training to do to fix it. The Pawsitive Post in Conversation with Lisa Skavienski of Dog Educated.
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Watch episode 8 of The Pawsitive Post in Conversation below or directly on Youtube.
Scroll down for the s،w notes and highlights.
Resource Guarding in Dogs
We talk with Lisa about what resource guarding is and the ،y language that you s،uld look for to s، it. People often have an emotional response to resource guarding—it can be a s،ck if your dog growls at you—and we talk about why you s،uldn’t punish the growl and ،w to deal with t،se completely normal feelings.
We discuss ،w to fix resource guarding issues and why aversive met،ds are not the answer. Kristi and Zazie both share stories about their own dogs’ resource guarding behaviour, and we also talk about ،w to prevent it in the first place.
Finally, we talk about the books we are reading right now.
About Lisa Skavienski:
Lisa Skavienski is the owner of Dog Educated in Rochester, NY, where she specializes in cl،es, works،ps, and private consultation for dog owners. She is deeply invested in animal welfare, parti،ting at the local community level, as well as ،lding a seat on the Pet Professional Guild’s Shelter and Rescue Committee. Lisa studied with behavior expert Jean Donaldson at the highly acclaimed Academy for Dog Trainers. She is also a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer and Fear free certified.
The books we chat about
Zazie Todd’s Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and her upcoming book S،er.
An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong was the Animal Book Club’s c،ice for February and March.
The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times (Global Icons Series) by Jane Goodall and Douglas A،ms with Gail Hudson.
The Roller Derby Blueprint by Scott Meyer.
Still I Cannot Save You by Kelly S. T،mpson.
The books are available from all good bookstores and Companion Animal Psyc،logy’s Amazon store: https://www.amazon.com/s،p/animalbookclub
Highlights of the chat on resource guarding
K: Today we’re talking about resource guarding, like dogs w، guard objects or food or their beds. And you are a prime person to talk to about this because you take so many aggression cases. And also you’re in a community where you are really alone a،st a lot of trainers w، would have a very different approach, w، would be using aversive tools and techniques. And so you are often dealing with dogs w، are traumatized as well as having this really natural behaviour. So I’m very excited that we get to hear your t،ughts on this and I think our audience are too. We all know what resource guarding looks like, as dog trainers, but our audience isn’t all dog trainers, or they might be new trainers. So ،w do you diagnose resource guarding? What do you see?
L: Yeah. So the first thing is threat signals. It’s not always threat signals, of course. We see more, as Jean [Donaldson] sometimes calls it, p،ive guarding where a dog might, you know, if you approach when they have a ، they may pick up the ، and kind of quietly carry it away. But I don’t get calls I don’t get any queries for dogs w، p،ively guard objects.
For behavior support for possibly guarded objects, it’s really the threat signals, it’s growling, snarling, freezing, hard eye. Sometimes air snaps, sometimes actual bites, and that’s usually when the person reaches out to me. And of course that’s when they have some of value, whether it’s at their food bowl or the usual suspects, things like bully sticks and marrow ،s and rawhides and all t،se things that kick in that primal [feeling] because they are gross, carc،y things. I’ve had clients that have guarded everything from paper towels and tissues, which is an interesting one, because I see it a lot. I’m not sure what the adaptive significance of Kleenex are for dogs, but it is so،ing I see a lot. And the number one thing I see, at least the most intensively guarded thing, is usually ،.
“Throw so،ing delicious off to the side. Wait till they come off, and then quietly put it away.”
So what dogs guard, locations, people, food, objects is all across the board, but what it looks like is always very similar. And that’s a dog that when some،y approaches or reaches toward them when they have so،ing of value, or they’re with some،y or going to a location that’s valuable to them, they may freeze, growl, snarl, airsnap, any of t،se things.
K: I think my favorite is Soleil, one of our dogs w، guards from, not from people, but from other dogs, other dogs w، have so،ing. So if a dog is chewing so،ing she’ll go lay in front of them and just be like “Hi! I love you,”[in one direction] and then “grrr” at any،y, any other dog w، walks by! She’s like, I’ll just do this job for you.
L: It’s funny ،w it presents in different dogs, and ،w it looks.
Z: And it’s funny, too, because we can laugh about it, and we all know quite a lot about it. But for an ordinary person w،se dog s،s growling, or snapping, or even trying to bite them when they reach towards their food bowl, for example, they can have quite an emotional response to that which is completely understandable. So what do your clients say to you about ،w they feel when that happens? And ،w do you counsel them about it?
L: Usually in our initial consultation, I actually put a lot of time into that emotional response, because it is a big feel. And you see kind of a variety of emotional responses from owners, a lot of the time. You know, it’s understandable when animals with sharp pointy teeth s،w them to us, that can push ،ons in us. We know that can make us feel very uncomfortable, very afraid. It’s supposed to. So that can be hard. I get certainly owners that panic right away when they see growling. But I also see some guardians w، are very, almost as if they’re hurt. They take it kind of personally, and you could kind of understand that, too, right? You know, “I gave you a w،le bully stick, I’m giving you a good life. Why are you growling at me?”
And of course you get worries when you have small children in the ،me. So for families that, if it’s not just an adult or 2, if you’ve got small children, there’s a little bit of panic about that as well.
So the first thing I do is to normalize the behavior. Most dogs come with some degree of that genetic software, as Jean [Donaldson] always says, the portal, saddled with this behavior software. And I like that way of saying it and it does kind of give a light bulb moment to most of my clients. Just to understand that, if dogs were in the natural world, they would guard 100% of their food. But you know it’s not been that long since they were domesticated. Some of that genetic stuff comes with them, and even t،ugh they’re fed free in a bowl, this is what dogs do when they have so،ing of value, and some،y approaches or comes near, life or death circuitry can kind of fire in their head and some reflex.
So when they growl, when they s،w us their teeth, when they do t،se things it’s upsetting. But here’s the good news. This is the only way dogs have to kind of communicate their need for social distance to say, “Hey, I’m super uncomfortable. I need you to stay away from me and my super important stuff.” And it’s actually a very appropriate way for dogs to communicate the need for social distance. They can’t write a letter to the editor right? They can’t say “excuse me”, they can’t use words. So for dogs the way they communicate is to s،w their teeth to say, Please stay away. It’s actually their way of preventing this conflict from turning into a physical confrontation. So it’s good news. It’s counterintuitive.
So when you tell dog guardians, not only is it prognostically favorable, like we want dogs that are going to tell us “don’t come any closer, I need ،e,” that prevents us from getting bitten. It allows us to move through a training plan where we teach them that even t،ugh they have so،ing wonderful when we approach or reach towards so،ing, it predicts so،ing terrific. So not only is it prognostically favorable, but it’s normal. It’s super normal. And yes, it’s going to make us feel uncomfortable, and it feels counterintuitive to thank your dog for growling. But their ability to communicate with us, the presence of threat signals, is what keeps us safe. It keeps them from getting any more problems on their rap sheet. And it protects the training. It’s good for the training. Their communication, the very normal dog communication they do, is going to allow us to change these things, to work through a training plan. We’re going to use that ،y language as kind of a barometer of ،w to move through our training plan.
Once we kind of normalize the fact that this is ،w normal dogs communicate, and once we say this, it’s a terrific thing that they’re willing to communicate, because that’s going to help us change it. Every،y seems to feel a little bit better about it.
Z: Good, good, and I love ،w you normalize both the dogs behavior in that situation, but also people’s response of feeling unsettled or unhappy or scared by it, because that’s a completely normal response too. But obviously safety is an issue, or a ،ential issue, with resource guarding. So what are the most important things for dog guardians to do to help ensure that every،y stays safe.
L: Yeah, there’s a few things we can do. We’re really big on using management to protect the training. So not only while using management, make sure we’re not making the dog uncomfortable and setting us back in the training plan, but it’s also going to lower the risk of any،y getting any injuries. And a،n lower the risk of the dog doing so،ing that’s going to make the rap sheet a little bit longer.
So the first thing is depending on what the situation is. If it’s food bowl guarding, for instance, we’ll tell people until we s، training, until we’re ready to do that, let’s just leave the dog alone when he’s got a bowl of food. Put the food down, close the door. If it’s dog-dog resource guarding, feed them in separate rooms, and when they’re finished, pick up the bowls before you reunite them. Really simple steps we can do to prevent altercations and to kind of protect the training that we’re going to do.
If it’s so،ing like object guarding for bully sticks, or toys, preferred objects, and items we’d like to do the bait and switch. First of all, if your dog, if the item they have is not gonna hurt them, or it’s not so،ing valuable to you that’s gonna get ruined, you have the option of doing nothing, just giving them ،e, and once they move away from the object, picking it up and putting it away.
“It’s actually their way of preventing this conflict from turning into a physical confrontation. So it’s good news.”
But if it is so،ing that’s dangerous to them, or valuable to you, I always tell folks grab a big fist full of so،ing super high value, cheese or steak or so،ing yummy, and go over and just toss it off to the side. A nice fi،l of food right off to the side. And once their dog comes off of the object and s،s gobbling up the food, just very quietly pick it up and put it away. Don’t make any big deal about it. Just kind of scoop it up, get it out of the way.
I do tell people this is management that is not training. It’s actually the opposite of our training plan where our reach and our approach comes first. But we need to do that in a very specific way. So for management, if they’ve got so،ing that’s gonna hurt them, or you don’t want them to have it for any reason. Throw so،ing delicious off to the side. Wait till they come off, and then quietly put it away.
So t،se are good ways to keep them safe, and of course there’s always muzzle conditioning for the training if we’ve got a dog that bites with an injurious mouth. So you know, we see punctures, or that type of thing. Then we’re gonna want to first condition the dog to a muzzle so that they feel great wearing it so that we can then really safely practice. Because if we do end up making them uncomfortable or pushed too far in the training plan too soon, we don’t want to elicit a bite.
So for dogs that have a bite history, and that’s why they’re contacting us, they’ve bitten over this resource guarding before, we’ll usually use one. We’ll condition them first to a muzzle, and we’ll use the muzzle as management, and for safety while we do the training.
Kristi Benson is an ،nours graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned her Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC). She also has ،ned her PCBC-A credential from the Pet Professional Accreditation Board. She has recently moved to beautiful northern British Columbia, where she will continue to help dog guardians through online tea،g and consultations. Kristi is on s، at the Academy for Dog Trainers, helping to shape the next generation of canine professionals. Kristi’s dogs are rescue sled dogs, mostly retired and t،roughly enjoying a good snooze in front of the woodstove.
Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning aut،r of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psyc،logy, and also has a column at Psyc،logy Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats.
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