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




Using Management While Clicker Training

Beetle in his mud boots
Beetle in his mud boots

One of the first things I tell clients is that both management and training are essential to living happily with a dog.  There is no magic wand to wave, and so unless I want Beetle, pictured at left, to go into my house with that mud, I need to MANAGE the situation.

Beetle has not been trained to wipe his feet, or hose himself off, or that when his feet are muddy, he must wait for me to clean them before going into the house.  If I neglect to shut the mudroom door, and he trots his muddy feet into the house, then I need to go to that special place in my house for banging my head against the wall (which is the only appropriate response when a dog does not do as I had hoped).

It is not fair to yell at him as he trots through the house (I would argue it’s never fair to yell, but that comes later).  He doesn’t know better.  I used that phrase- “he knows better!” for a long time, but I have no idea why I thought a dog would know anything other than what I taught him.  And if I never taught him to stop and wait at the door, then why would he?

I know many people who train their dogs to wait until their feet are wiped off before going inside.  I could do that as well, but I would have to go through a training process (no wand waving) to teach that.  I would need to train that long before mud season if I expected it to be a solid behavior in mud season.  I would need to hold myself accountable if the dog did not wait; if he doesn’t wait, then I haven’t done a good enough job of training it.

I would also need to make sure I reinforced the dog (with a click and a treat) for waiting at the door even if he wasn’t muddy.  I can’t let him walk into the house without waiting on dry, sunny days and then be upset if he doesn’t stop when his feet are muddy.  I think that’s where some people get frustrated thinking that the dog “knows better”.  THEY know that they always stop the dog to dry off his feet when it’s muddy so they think the dog should figure it out as well.

Dogs pick up on many cues- but they aren’t always the cues we think they are.  “Muddy feet” is not a cue easily distinguished to a dog who has no problem with muddy feet and barely 286340_10151053062730925_368639312_onotices.

Today I worked with Eloise on a similar behavior: waiting until I asked her to get into the car.  She is very good about jumping into the car promptly as soon as I open the door.  It’s quite handy most of the time…but not when she looks like this.  So I realized it is my responsibility to teach her to wait until I tell her to jump in.  We practiced that many times today.  I approached the car and then opened the door a tiny bit and then gave her a click and a treat while she waited outside the car.  I shut the door and did it again.

Here I was managing her ability to get in the car.  Before, the door opening was a cue to jump in- a strong cue.  I didn’t want her to make a mistake and jump in- that would have been practicing behavior I didn’t want.  I want to practice behavior I do want- that’s what makes it stronger.  If I only opened the door a crack, she couldn’t jump in- she was bound to be successful and she was learning in baby steps.  The next time I opened the door a tiny bit further- click and treat for waiting.

I continued to increase the amount I opened the door each time, but by now, she realized she was getting treats for just standing outside the door, so the urge to jump in was gone.  Finally I could open the door all the way and she just waited for her treat outside. Then I said “hup”, which basically means jump up on something to my dogs, and she jumped in the car for which she got another click and treat.  I want both behaviors to be equally as strong.

After practicing this several times, I noticed that Eloise was hesitating as we approached the car, rather than dancing excitedly to get in.  That was information to me that she was starting to realize that every time we approached the car, she would be expected to wait.  Eventually, approaching the car will become the cue to wait outside the door…as long as I am consistent in remembering to ask her every time!  At that point, I will no longer need to go through the stages of opening the door many times, but I will still reinforce her for waiting- and jumping in.