Not long ago I re-posted a blog about Resource Guarding (RG), but focused treatment options on dogs who direct their threats toward people. Many of you asked about RG between dogs, and I promised I’d address that this summer. Here we go…
There’s no doubt that RG between dogs is a bit trickier than when it occurs toward a person, perhaps because it is simply easier to control the behavior of a member of our species than it is a dog. But there is a lot one can do to prevent or treat RG between dogs. Can it solve all problems between all dogs? Do I have a bridge to sell you? No, but here are some ideas that I’ve found helpful in the past.
PREVENTION I know this isn’t helpful once the problem has begun, but don’t miss the chance to prevent RG before it rears its jealous head. Say you have a new dog, we’ll call her Dog A, and a resident male dog, Dog B. You can teach Dog A that a treat to Dog B leads to a treat to her, Dog A. How fun is that, hey? (Hey? Wait, am I barking now? Only if you read last week’s blog post!)
It’s easy to do: Just pop a treat in one dog’s mouth and immediately give the other dog a treat, too. Then reverse the order. I’m doing this right now with new dog Maggie. Every night after dinner all the dogs get a snack, often something off of our plate or licked off of a spoon. I’ll walk into the kitchen and the dogs will cluster around. First, I’ll say “What do good dogs do?” They all know that they are supposed to sit when I say that. Then I’ll say the name of one dog, perhaps “Tootsie” and let her lick gravy off a spoon. Willie knows to wait his turn, but if Maggie moves forward I merely move forward a step to block her. I might quietly say “Ah ah” to her, too. Assuming she backs off, I’ll then say her name and let her lick the spoon, then quickly say Willie’s name and let him do the same. Then back to Tootsie, and all around about 3 or 4 times so that all the dogs learn that being patient and polite pays off.
Here’s a selfie of me feeding the dogs one at a time. I don’t put them on a sit/stay, they just learn that if they wait for the other dog to get a treat, they’ll get theirs soon enough. Well, soon, anyway.
I would never suggest doing this if you already have tension between your dogs. This is prevention, not treatment. Think of this exercise as either the first steps to prevent trouble when none yet exists, or the end game if you already have problems. Another caveat: Pay attention to the level of arousal. If the dogs begin to get excited and pushy, ask them to sit and calm down. You want the dog to learn that being polite and patient gets the treat, not pushy and demanding. I also teach all new dogs “Leave It” so that I can eventually say “Dogs, Leave It” and then call out each dog by name for a treat. The bottom line here is that the dogs learn that being calm and controlled gets them wonderful things, and that it’s great news when the other dog gets something, because then they will too. You can see some examples of this in the DVD Feeling Outnumbered.
What if you have a full-blown problem already? Here are some steps that can help:
WRITE IT OUT First, I would sit down and write out exactly what’s going on. What is being guarded? Toys? Food that falls on the floor? Mom’s lap? Second, what context? Outside in the yard over the wading pool? Inside in the living room over the chew toy, or in the kitchen over the dinner bowl? State exactly what the guarder does, being as detailed as you can. Does she go stiff and close her mouth before beginning to growl? Or bark and lunge with little warning? What does the other dog do? What do YOU do? This process can be tedious, but I can’t emphasize enough the importance of writing out as many details as you can. I don’t know how many times I’ve written out an issue with one of my own dogs and learned something important in the process.
MANAGE MANAGE MANAGE Every time a dog growls or lunges at another dog it learns something. She might learn to be more nervous the next time, or conversely, that the behavior worked. Or that their owner is going to be really, really mad so that every time another dog walks into the room when they have their chew toy they are even more upset than before. That is why, if you want to turn things around, you need to prevent as many incidents as you can. (And another reason why “Write it Out” is so important.) It’s hard to prevent something if you don’t know that it is going to happen. If one dog growls over the dinner bowl, feed them in separate rooms. Hide the chew toys. Don’t let either dog on your lap. I know… this isn’t always possible, but think long and hard about how you can prevent the reactions you are trying to change while you work on treatment.
TEACH IMPULSE CONTROL This is yet another indirect way of handling the problem, but it’s important. RG in dogs is often exacerbated by dogs who simply are unable to handle not getting what they want when they want it. We all can relate, but we all have to learn to wait our turn, right? Next I’ll talk about teaching patience specifically around the objects being guarded, but it is a good idea to help dogs learn to self regulate in many different contexts. I’d suggest teaching Wait (at the door, or pause on a walk), Lie Down and Stay, and Leave It. You can read about all of these exercises in my book Family Friendly Dog Training, although lots of other trainers have good descriptions of how to teach them, too. You can’t ever lose by teaching dogs that it is to their advantage to be patient and polite.
COUNTER CONDITIONING is the exercise that focuses on changing your dog’s emotional response to another dog approaching her “treasure.” I’ll use the example of food, but you can substitute anything that one dog guards from another. The basics are simple: You simply teach Problem Dog A to love it when Dog B gets the food, so that instead of feeling protective, Dog A is hoping against all hope that Dog B will come over closer to his bone or dinner bowl. You’ll note this is what I described in the Prevention section, but in this case you’ll have to start differently. Your job is to prevent Dog A from stiffening or growling as the other dog approaches by managing the distance between them. If two people can work on this at a time, both dogs could be on leash, and a good fifteen feet apart. Dog B gets a treat, and Dog A gets one immediately after. Rinse and repeat, until you notice that Dog A is anticipating a treat when Dog B gets one. That’s the response you want.
If you don’t see that in the first session, don’t worry. Just keep it up, being sure that the dogs are far enough apart to not elicit RG in Dog A. Once you do get a look of happy anticipation, you can begin to move the dogs closer together. You can do this without a helper if the dogs have a good sit-stay, you can keep gates between them, or you can tether one dog.
Exactly how you handle this next depends on many factors–from how serious the RG is, to how many different types of things the dog guards, to the personality of the dogs, etc etc. In general, your job is to create situations in which the RG’g dog learns that the appearance or approach of the other dog always leads to something wonderful for him. Rather than “Oh no! I might lose my bone, go away!”, you want a dog who is thinking “Yo! Come a little closer, would you? I just love it when you do because then I get CHICKEN!!!” I highly recommend two resources on the subject. My favorite is a great article in Whole Dog Journal by Pat Miller that is clear and well organized. Jean Donaldson wrote an extremely thorough book on RG, Mine! It is not specific to dog-dog RG, but it describes, in great detail, how to use classical conditioning to change a dog’s emotional response from “Oh No!” to “Oh Boy!”
RESPONDING TO RG Life being what it is, no matter how hard you try it is often impossible to eliminate all instances of RG while you are treating it. Here’s how I suggest responding (once you have decided that the behavior was inappropriate, which is of course, a complicated issue all by itself): Look at the RG’er, and say something like “What was that?” in a low voice. I’d avoid raising your voice if you can, stay quiet and low-voiced and focused. Move forward toward the dog and back him or her up in space or step or two. Try to stay calm and quiet yourself but make it clear that you are directing your attention toward the RG’er. Tell him to sit and stay, again in a low, flat voice. I like to indulge myself here, and talk for a moment about how “we don’t do that here” or “what did you think you were doing?” or “your mother eats kitty litter.” It well might have no effect on the dog, but it’s quite satisfying. Keeping the offender on a stay, I’ll then go over and pet or feed the other dog for a moment. If the RG’er stays in place and is polite, I’ll go back and treat or pet him, again teaching him that good things happen to him if the other dog gets food/attention/toys etc. Exactly how this is done depends very much on you, the dog and exactly what the dog did.
CALL IN THE VILLAGE It’s often a good idea to have someone else act as either a coach or a support group. Make sure that person 1) reads dogs well and 2) understands how to use positive reinforcement and classical conditioning to influence behavior. Granted, that’s not going to be just anyone off the street, but then, you wouldn’t get medical advice from a guy selling gum on the corner, would you?
TWO MORE RESOURCES for you are the booklet that Karen London and I co-authored, called Feeling Outnumbered?, which emphasizes teaching dogs in a multi-dog home to be patient and polite, and the DVD Feeling Outnumbered that illustrates many of the exercises.
WHAT ABOUT YOU? Have you had to deal with a dog who is a dog-dog resource guarder? If so, how have you handled it? What has worked, what hasn’t? Any more great resources out there that I’ve missed?
MEANWHILE, BACK ON THE FARM: We are JUST back on the farm, having just finished a nine hour drive from upper Michigan. We stayed in a a stunningly beautiful cottage, owned by dear friends, on Lake Walloon. We weren’t there long, but savored a few lazy hours reading under a white pine tree looking over the lake and watching Titmice bathe in the bird bath, swimming, kayaking, ping pong and yeah, well, you know me… eating. A lot. Yum. A highlight was a trip to Lavender Hill Farms, now one of my favorite places in the Midwest. It turns out the property is the perfect environment for lavender. They don’t water, till or fertilize, and the lavender loves the sandy, sloping soil. We were lucky enough to be there when it was in full bloom. If you can visit, don’t miss it, especially in July when the air is so scented you feel like Dorothy in the poppies…
You can walk around the farm for free, which is exquisite, and visit their lavender-themed gift shop. If you do, fair warning: get out your credit card. I think the scent of lavender makes me crazy and it might you, too.
But of course, as wonderful as it was, did we love coming home to three dogs who acted like we hung the moon? Circle wags all around!