Spot the signs of resource guarding in dogs, learn how 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 show notes and highlights.
Resource Guarding in Dogs
We talk with Lisa about what resource guarding is and the body language that you should look for to spot it. People often have an emotional response to resource guarding—it can be a shock if your dog growls at you—and we talk about why you shouldn’t punish the growl and how to deal with those completely normal feelings.
We discuss how to fix resource guarding issues and why aversive methods are not the answer. Kristi and Zazie both share stories about their own dogs’ resource guarding behaviour, and we also talk about how 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 classes, workshops, and private consultation for dog owners. She is deeply invested in animal welfare, participating at the local community level, as well as holding 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 Shiver.
An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong was the Animal Book Club’s choice for February and March.
The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times (Global Icons Series) by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams with Gail Hudson.
The Roller Derby Blueprint by Scott Meyer.
Still I Cannot Save You by Kelly S. Thompson.
The books are available from all good bookstores and Companion Animal Psychology’s Amazon store: https://www.amazon.com/shop/animalbookclub
Highlights of the chat on resource guarding
K: Today we’re talking about resource guarding, like dogs who 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 amongst a lot of trainers who would have a very different approach, who would be using aversive tools and techniques. And so you are often dealing with dogs who are traumatized as well as having this really natural behaviour. So I’m very excited that we get to hear your thoughts 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 how 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, passive guarding where a dog might, you know, if you approach when they have a bone they may pick up the bone and kind of quietly carry it away. But I don’t get calls I don’t get any queries for dogs who passively 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 bones and rawhides and all those things that kick in that primal [feeling] because they are gross, carcassy 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 something I see a lot. And the number one thing I see, at least the most intensively guarded thing, is usually vomit.
“Throw something 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 somebody approaches or reaches toward them when they have something of value, or they’re with somebody or going to a location that’s valuable to them, they may freeze, growl, snarl, airsnap, any of those things.
K: I think my favorite is Soleil, one of our dogs who guards from, not from people, but from other dogs, other dogs who have something. So if a dog is chewing something she’ll go lay in front of them and just be like “Hi! I love you,”[in one direction] and then “grrr” at anybody, any other dog who walks by! She’s like, I’ll just do this job for you.
L: It’s funny how it presents in different dogs, and how 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 whose dog starts 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 how they feel when that happens? And how 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 show them to us, that can push buttons 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 who 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 whole 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 home. 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 though they’re fed free in a bowl, this is what dogs do when they have something of value, and somebody approaches or comes near, life or death circuitry can kind of fire in their head and some reflex.
So when they growl, when they show us their teeth, when they do those 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 show 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 space,” that prevents us from getting bitten. It allows us to move through a training plan where we teach them that even though they have something wonderful when we approach or reach towards something, it predicts something 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 body language as kind of a barometer of how to move through our training plan.
Once we kind of normalize the fact that this is how 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. Everybody seems to feel a little bit better about it.
Z: Good, good, and I love how 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 potential issue, with resource guarding. So what are the most important things for dog guardians to do to help ensure that everybody 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 anybody getting any injuries. And again lower the risk of the dog doing something 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 start 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 something 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 something valuable to you that’s gonna get ruined, you have the option of doing nothing, just giving them space, 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 something that’s dangerous to them, or valuable to you, I always tell folks grab a big fist full of something super high value, cheese or steak or something yummy, and go over and just toss it off to the side. A nice fistful of food right off to the side. And once their dog comes off of the object and starts 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 something that’s gonna hurt them, or you don’t want them to have it for any reason. Throw something delicious off to the side. Wait till they come off, and then quietly put it away.
So those 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 honours graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned her Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC). She also has gained 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 teaching and consultations. Kristi is on staff 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 thoroughly enjoying a good snooze in front of the woodstove.
Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author 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 Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats.
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