Resource Guarding- How to introduce New Household Members

bigstock_Angry_Chihuahua_Growling__Ye_7629174-720x437I recently received the following question on my Facebook page:

Knowing you post discussions on training issues, I need some guidance on guarding behavior. Our 2 yo sight hound/?? mix has been with us for 1.5 years. He doesn’t guard anything from people, and really just raises his lip a bit if one of the other dogs tries to take his food. I feed him separately so he gets his fill, but he is not a big eater.
However, more than a few times, he has snapped and really growled at the Golden and the Cairn if he perceives encroachment while I am petting him. The altercation takes place very close to me as he is usually right next to me when it occurs. The other dogs are absolutely okay with all being around me, and fortunately, tend to ignore his aggressive behavior. I have been correcting him verbally, which he decides means taking himself into a time out on his bed and not looking at us.
Is this correction appropriate? Can you suggest something else that would be a more positive approach? Thanks for all suggestions.

This raises a few issues so I thought I would write a complete post about it here to share, rather than trying to respond  on Facebook and to one person only.

First, I commend this person for referring to this as “guarding” behavior, rather than aggression or jealousy.  I find myself telling people that dogs don’t get jealous and then realize that doesn’t make sense when people SEE behavior which so looks like jealousy.  What I mean is that by labeling dog behavior as “jealousy”, then we lump a lot of human jealousy behaviors into the definition which doesn’t fit dog behavior.  As humans, we can stew on jealousy, spending time thinking about how to get revenge on someone we are jealous of.  This leads to people thinking that dogs who chew up furniture or pee in the house do it because they are jealous of the new dog and are “getting back at” the owner.  I do not believe this is remotely true.  I believe bringing a new dog (cat, baby, spouse, etc) into the house can upset the normal balance which can lead to stress which can lead to frustration or house soiling, but that’s not jealousy and indicates a dog who needs compassion, not derision.

So, I encourage people to look at behavior like this as resource guarding.  The resource being guarded can be anything from food, to a person, to a favorite chair, to access to the door, etc.  And each dog (or horse or whatever), may have a different importance associated with that resource.  Food may be more important for one dog, and access to a chair or bed more important to another dog.  And this is why the linear model of dominance is a myth.  I have one horse who will willingly share a hay pile…but gets very angry if another horse tries to approach when I am with him.

The more limited a resource, the more likely it is to be guarded.  If there is a chair for every dog, (and each chair is of equal value in their eyes according to comfort, view of the outdoors, warmth, etc!), then there won’t be nearly the problem with someone guarding a chair. So when jacks sharing bedwe have multi-dog households, people are a valued resource; we only have two hands after all!  And one lap, depending on the size of the dog.

So, what is my advice to the above problem? I had a similar experience when I brought Eloise into the household.  I was adamant that a new dog would not make life unpleasant for my dear Beetle.  I didn’t want a new Jack coming in and pushing him around.  Eloise was perfect in that regard.  She came quietly into the family.  At the same time, I wanted her to feel welcomed and loved, not like a second class citizen. Beetle was not thrilled with this interloper and raised his lips and growled if she came close. So my job was to make her presence and proximity a Good Thing as far as Beetle was concerned, rather than a threat.  If I had scolded Beetle when she came close, then he would have equated her with unpleasantness. And that, in turn, would have made him more uneasy when she approached. “Eloise comes close=scolding.  I hate her.” Yes, there I go anthropomorphizing.  Sorry.  But you get the idea.

Beetle loved to be in a chair with me when I was reading.  It was warm, soft and he was close.  He wasn’t actually in my lap as he’s not a lap dog.  He squished in next to me.  Eloise is a snuggled who is more than happy to be in a lap, but got growled at when she even entered the room.  Immediately I imposed the following: if Beetle was in the chair and Eloise entered the room, I started giving Beetle a neck rub- which he loves. That served two purposes.  It distracted him in the immediate AND it began to teach him that Eloise approaching meant good feelings.  If food was within reach, I would also begin offering him treats as she came closer.  If she walked away, then the neck rubs and treats stopped.  The new equation was “Eloise comes close=treats and neck rubs!  Bring her back here!”.

Now this wasn’t an immediate nor clean switch.  There was still growling.  If he growled, I simply got up out of the chair and walked away.  I didn’t scold or use any other punishment.  Losing his warm seat mate was punishment enough.  Now growling=Jane leaving.  Growling does serve as a threat.  But it wasn’t working on the right target.  I don’t know if that made any sense to him or not, but overall, he quickly learned that having Eloise around was just fine, and she could jump into my lap and curl up and he just got more and more attention.

One final word in general about growling: I have to quote a good friend who says “punishing a dog for growling is like taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm”  (and the same goes for punishing a horse for putting ears back).  Those are warning signs.  They tell us the animal is uncomfortable, worried, angry.  We need to respect those emotions.  If we punish, we do nothing to change the emotion.  The dog or horse is still uncomfortable, worried and/or angry.  But he isn’t allowed to express it.  So the emotion builds…and builds…and eventually it bursts out in a bite or some other stronger expression. We need to own that.

If, instead, we observe the things which are upsetting our animals and work to change the way they feel about those things (by using things they like when the threat is at a LOW LEVEL), then the threats cease when the feelings cease.  Everyone is happier and safer.

The original question was about a dog who had been in the household for 1 1/2 years and it’s this “new” dog with the problem. This is not surprising as when newer family members begin to settle in, they feel more comfortable; become more attached to places, things and people; and therefore these resources become more valuable and a tendency to guard them can arise. If this behavior continues, or if it arises out of the other dogs not allowing him access to resources, then it can take more time and focus to come to a resolution.

As with all behavior, that which is practiced and reinforced becomes stronger. Therefore it is important to address problems as soon as possible. It always helps to have the support of a good trainer- if you need to find a great dog trainer:

jack heads sleeping
Beetle and Eloise now happily share sleeping spaces




Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: