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Back Off, Buster. That’s My Bone!

What to do if your dog is a resource guarder
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Max loves his food. If anyone walks near him while he’s eating, he eats faster. For Rosie, a bone is her top prize. If a human family member comes near her while she’s working on a juicy one, watch out! She will immediately tell the person, with a snarl and a growl, to back off, and if that doesn’t work she won’t hesitate to snap. Duke doesn’t care one bit for bones or food, but if another dog approaches his owner he will tell it in no uncertain terms to go away.

All of these dogs are exhibiting resource-guarding behaviors. A resource is anything the dog decides is important and worth protecting. Valued items are often food or food-related items like bones, bully sticks, rawhides, or food-stuffed toys. However, it’s also common for dogs to guard toys, beds (theirs or yours), crates, sofas, and chairs. Guarding behavior simply means that a dog gets uncomfortable when someone gets near its stuff. It’s very important to identify these behaviors and follow an appropriate treatment plan because a dog that is repeatedly pushed or punished for guarding is highly likely to bite.

Children run an especially high risk of being bit by a resource guarder. Please seek help immediately if you have kids of any age in a home with a dog that guards things.

Resource guarding is a normal survival skill that allows smaller, weaker animals to keep possession of food or other important objects. If a dog had to fend for himself in the wild, a guarder would have an edge over a non-guarder in terms of survival. It has nothing to do with dominance. In addition, many dogs that display guarding behaviors also have problems with submissive urination, shyness, and lack of confidence, none of which are traits we associate with a dominant dog.

Guarding behaviors can vary from mild to extreme. The levels listed below will help you to determine the severity of the problem. Often a dog will move through these levels quickly, and you may not even notice some of the stages.

If someone approaches while the dog is eating or playing he …

Level 1: is relaxed and happy with no perceived threat.

Level 2: may look up, but continues to happily eat, chew, or play with the object.

Level 3: gets slightly tense in the body; the tail may wag faster.

Level 4: becomes still and freezes, stops eating but stays close to the resource.

Level 5: is very tense, eats faster, and pushes his face into the food bowl. He may lift his lip, freeze, and give you a “whale eye,” where his eyes move but his head doesn’t.

Level 6: offers a low growl or remains frozen in place and quiet. He may try to take the resource away and hide it.

Level 7: snarls; exposes teeth.

Level 8: disengages from the resource and snaps.

Level 9: bites without breaking the skin.

Level 10: bites multiple times and breaks skin.

The treatment for resource guarding consists of management combined with counter conditioning and desensitization (CCD). Management means keeping highly valued objects away from the dog so he can’t practice the guarding behavior. This might mean picking up toys or feeding in a private place. If rawhides or bully sticks are the problem, stop buying them. This doesn’t teach the dog anything, but helps keep its stress level low and prevents bad behavior. The important part of the CCD process is where we replace a dog’s involuntary response (like fear) with a better one. We do this through gradually increasing the exposure to a trigger paired with a high value treat. If done correctly, the trigger will become a sign a treat is coming soon, and will create a positive response. This process has to be done systematically to work.

Correcting resource-guarding behavior takes time and patience, but can work. If you need help, contact a qualified Certified Professional Dog Trainer or a behavior consultant.

~ Carla Brown is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and the owner of the Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. Info: thesavvydog.net

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