Who Was Resource Guarding? And Why We Need to Take it Seriously

What is it with me and contests/quizzes, anyway? The Curse of Knowledge got me again!

Because of the way I made a guessing game out of two pictures of my dogs,  I may have led people to believe that resource guarding is not very serious. I may have even implied that as long as you can take the item away from the dog, all is well.

In my previous post, I wrote:

One of these dogs didn’t want to give up her item, but still, she did so without incident.

This made it appear that I may approve of walking up and taking things away from dogs who are giving fair warning. I absolutely do not recommend that, nor do I do it (anymore). But I used to, before I knew any better, and I should have explained the context of the “bad old days.” In my zeal to make the guessing game fun, I left out the backstories, and I shouldn’t have.

As mrsbehavior, one of my commenters, said, “Just because you can take something away from a dog doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.” Absolutely, and I didn’t mean to imply that this was so.

What is Resource Guarding?

Here is a definition from Jean Donaldson, from her book about the subject, “Mine!”:

Dogs behaving aggressively when in possession of (and sometimes to gain possession of) food, toys, bones, their owners, their resting spots and crates.

Although it is a very natural behavior–would could be more survival enhancing than being willing to protect valuable stuff?–it can be an extremely problematic one for a pet.

Jean Donaldson classifies most resource guarding as ritualized aggression, where dogs resolve conflict with threatening behaviors short of physical aggression. Dogs are actually pretty amazing at this, but they are also quite capable of causing great harm.

Some of the signs of resource guarding that Jean Donaldson lists are freezing up, a hard stare, eating faster, growling, snarling, snapping, and biting. There is no level of resource guarding against a human that should be ignored.

See the bottom section for resources for treating and preventing resource guarding. In the meantime, here are the answers to the previous post.

Cricket Was Resource Guarding

Cricket and her chewie

Cricket and her chewie

In my previous post about resource guarding, Cricket, the rat terrier with big ears, was the resource guarder.

The photo of Cricket with her rawhide chewie is from 2005, before I learned anything about training. I didn’t know resource guarding was that bad a problem, since she would give warning snaps but not bite, and I certainly didn’t know there was anything one could do about it. Some evenings I would separate Cricket and my other rat terrier, Gabriel, and give them each a chewie. If they weren’t done with them when I was ready to go to bed, I would take them away. Clearly, Cricket didn’t appreciate it. I would never do it that way now (see below: My Dogs at Home).

The commenters who picked Cricket named lots of “tells.” I really liked Ingrid’s observation comparing the two photos: I was a lot closer to Summer! That’s a great observation. Even if all things were equal and those were both resource guarding responses, just the fact that I was farther away from Cricket and getting that response speaks volumes. Cricket has three points of contact with the rawhide: both paws are clutching it and she has it in her mouth. Even though she has the rawhide in her mouth, she is managing to push her commissure (corner of mouth) forward, a typically aggressive response. Her little body is tense, down to her back toes. Her ears are back a little from their natural carriage. With her, that was roughly equivalent of a horse putting its ears back. Somewhere between dubious and “watch out!” Then there’s the whale eye, a result of keeping her mouth on the prize but checking up on me. Here are some side by side photos of Cricket comparing her body language and ear carriage in different situations.

Summer was Playing a Game

Summer and her bone

Summer and her bone

The photo of Summer, the sable/brown dog with the big plastic bone, showed play. We have a game where I pretend to try to get her bone. Either of us may start it.

In the case of this photo, she had started the game. I had been walking across the room and she looked over at me, pounced on the bone with a little growl, and looked again. So I played along and pretended I would get her bone. The photo is a video still, and quite typical of how fierce she was acting.

Others have done a good job of analyzing her body language. It’s actually hard to see much of her body, but she was not hunched over the bone. Her muzzle was not pointed at it. Her whiskers are relaxed (you can compare with the other photo below). Notice that it is her bottom teeth that were showing. She was not lifting her lip or snarling. She was vocalizing at the time, this funny high-pitched hooting whine that she does in play, which is why her mouth is that shape, quite similar to when she howls. But I know she looks fearsome, especially to someone who doesn’t have the context of her general personality and behavior. Here is that photo compared with another photo of Summer, where she is actually snarling (also in play, believe it or not). The one with the bone is starting to look a little better, isn’t it?

Some people took the direct eye contact and lifted muzzle in the bone photo as very threatening, and let me tell you, if I met a dog I didn’t know who was doing that, I would do my best to get out of the situation!

I showed these pictures to some friends before I ever posted them, because I myself had a hard time telling the difference between the resource guarding and play signs, even though I know the dogs and the situations. So in the end, although we can observe and analyze away, perhaps the main lesson is that resource guarding and play can look very similar. And we should take care!

Think how many games that dogs play with each other are about guarding places and objects. “King of the couch,” “You can’t have it,” even “Tug.” All sorts of things. My game with Summer was not all that different from playing tug with her. Any game can escalate, but with a clear rule structure they can be a lot of fun.

There is another thing I learned from the photos: one of the reasons Summer looks so convincingly fearsome is that she has a very mobile and expressive face. I have shown lots of pictures of her before, including in my ill-fated contest. She is very expressive. And Cricket, bless her heart, was not. She had those inscrutable terrier eyes and didn’t have near the breadth of facial expression Summer has. So when putting the pictures side by side, Summer’s certainly looked dramatic.

My Dogs at Home

I currently have three dogs, none of whom resource guards anything against me. Partly they came out of the box that way; none of them is particularly “guardy” with humans. But the other part is that I have been doing prophylactic and maintenance work with all of them to keep it that way.

In the rare situation that I take something away from one of my dogs, their reaction is, “Great! What do I get?” I have a huge “bank account” with all of them. I have classically conditioned walking toward them, reaching toward them, touching what they have, or even just looking at them when they have something, to predict great things. (The links below describe this process.)

But if your dog exhibits any of the above behaviors–from either picture–when in possession of something, you should take some steps to get some help about it.

Resources on Resource Guarding

Here is a nice blog by Dr. Patricia McConnell about resource guarding, including steps to prevent or treat it: Resource Guarding: Treatment and Prevention.

Here’s a good article on the Whole Dog Journal about resource guarding: Unwanted Dog Food Guarding Behavior.

Jean Donaldson’s book Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs has written protocols with every step split out. (It is geared toward trainers, but it quite clear and readable for anyone. The trick is that trainers are probably better at recognizing the subtle behaviors tied with tension in the dog than the rest of us are.)

Finally, here is a video that shows a professional trainer dealing with resource guarding and food aggression. It’s not a how-to video, but shows the general methodology, and some of the more subtle signs of resource guarding: Resource Guarding/Food Aggression.

Conclusion

I was feeling bad for a while, since there is not a clear cut answer to this “quiz.” I wished that I could say, with authority and certainty, that if you saw “A, B, and C” happening with a certain dog you should worry, but that if you saw “X, Y, and Z” you didn’t need to. But life isn’t like that. In retrospect, I think it is a good lesson that both of these pictures show behaviors that are worrisome, even if one dog is playing. As reader Jennifer said,

This is a wonderful exercise. I certainly would not risk my own flesh, or the comfort of either of those dogs to test my hypothesis, since really both pictures could be resource guarding.

Exactly.

Coming Up:

  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

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About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek.

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4 Responses to Who Was Resource Guarding? And Why We Need to Take it Seriously

  1. Genie says:

    Thanks for the answer Eileen. I think pictures, a frozen miniscule moment in time, are not always good ways for us to judge anything. Just look at the tabloids on your way out of the super market. LOL This was a good exercise and I think we all gained a lot from it.

  2. I had read other posts about your dogs so I didn’t spoil the game by commenting. However, there’s one point I always like to make about resource guarding. It’s really an easy fix most of the time, with the protocol outlined in Ms. Donaldson’s book. Unfortunately, many dogs are put to sleep in shelters every year for exhibiting this normal behavior (well, normal among dogs anyway). If your dog is a resource guarder, even if it’s mild, you should address it, because if something ever happens and your dog is made homeless, you don’t ever want him to find himself in a shelter that does not have the means to train before adopting out.
    Eileen, thanks, as always, for sharing good information with the public.

    • From my status as a pet owner that sure seems true to me. I “talk the talk” fairly well but I have many weaknesses as a trainer; probably the worst of them is raising criteria. I’m not generally a lumper; I go too slow most of the time. That means that I over-reinforce lots of interim behaviors so I rarely get ultra precise, consistent responses in the end. But all that is to say that I find the RG protocols a lot simpler than training, say, tricks. They are so straightforward and easy to follow if you can learn to read your dog even a little bit. And just doing them as a preventative can save a dog’s life. Thanks for making that point, Anne.

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