eileenanddogs

Tag: ritualized aggression

Just Try to Get It!

Just Try to Get It!

This is a fun little body language study. The consensus of the viewers is that Clara is a brat!

Here is some background about Clara and Zani and their play habits.  It’s pertinent to the interaction in the video. I’m rewriting this in 2021 after Zani passed away in late 2020.

Clara and Zani played together since Clara was tiny and Zani was 3 years old until Zani was about 10. They played only with complete supervision, especially after Clara got a lot bigger than Zani. Also there was Clara’s assertiveness, although Zani was no slouch in that department either. I interrupted them frequently and they learned to self interrupt.

They played frequently when Clara was a puppy and adolescent. They played chase, bitey face, wrestling, and steal the toy. Once Clara got bigger she learned to self-handicap in almost all the games. Clara would never catch Zani when they played chase, even though she was faster. She let Zani catch her, and then Zani would hurl herself on Clara. When they wrestled, Clara lay down and Zani chewed on her legs. Of the two, Zani used her mouth a lot more during play. Zani often snatched a toy away by stealth and when she did, Clara didn’t aggress about it. But Zani generally deferred if they were both going for a toy at the same time (as in the video).

Clara used to stare at Zani with a very erect posture (as in this video) often as a precursor to play. It was usually followed by her running and chasing Zani.

When playing alone, Clara frequently drops her ball and observes it. She has done this her whole life. She will drop it on a hill and let it roll, chase it down, then carry it up to the top and drop it again. She plays a similar game on a slanted board, pushing the ball up and watching it roll down again. She drops the ball in holes and pushes the ball under objects and reaches in to pull it out. This even morphed into a game where she would drop the ball, then Zani would pick it up and bring it to me, and I would toss it back to Clara.

My Interpretation of the Encounter

I tend to agree with the commenters that Clara made a bratty plan and I caught it on video. I haven’t seen another dog do what Clara is doing here, but it does seem that Clara is trying to get Zani to make a play for the ball, then making sure she doesn’t get it. I have seen dogs do things like that with a little less apparent planning: prancing around with a toy trying to get another dog to try for it, then darting away. It is also possible that Clara’s dropping the ball was initially a “nice” play invitation, or at least an experiment (as described above). “What will happen if I drop the ball?” But after she dropped it she could have changed her mind and taken steps to keep it in her possession. This would go along with behavior I have witnessed from her before. She will bring me a ball to throw, then can’t quite give it to me.

Regarding Clara’s stare and possible aggression concerns expressed by some commenters: my teacher always says, “Watch the other dog.” I do not see fearful behavior on Zani’s part. I see interest and yes, caution. To me, the thought bubble over Zani’s head is, “Is she about to be a jerk, or is this going to be fun?”  Zani lip licks when Clara approaches her head, and turns away as Clara pushes into her space, both stress signals. But right after that when Clara nudges the ball Zani makes a play for it. She turns sharply away as Clara grabs the ball, but walks casually after that.

Jean Donaldson describes something she calls a “consent test” that you can do when you can’t tell whether two dogs are both enjoying play. You restrain the suspected bully and see if the other dog attempts to continue to play. Often Zani continues to want to play when my observation is that Clara is being awfully rough or bratty. Zani and I have a deal though, that I will help her leave play with Clara anytime she wants, and she makes it very obvious when she is fed up and wants out.

On the evening I filmed this, the two dogs played on and off for 1–2 hours. After the filmed episode, Clara approached Zani with the ball several more times and dropped the ball on Zani’s back. (Didn’t get that recorded!) Zani got the ball on the rebound a few times. Zani did leave the area several times but would return after taking a break. At the time I originally wrote this, they were separated by an ex-pen and Zani was lying on her back, reaching her nose through the wires at Clara, who was gently batting at her with her paws.

I was always careful with dear little Zani.

Dog/Dog Resource Guarding in Slow Motion

Dog/Dog Resource Guarding in Slow Motion

Clara guarding the sprinkler

Before completing it, I showed the  movie featured in this post to two different training buddies and both responded with questions. Is it really resource guarding if the dogs don’t escalate to violence or obvious threats? How come the “winner” in the interaction is throwing stress signals right along with the other dog? I thought we were talking about aggression; how do we know this particular interaction is resource guarding? Isn’t Clara just giving play invitations sometimes? I don’t know the answers.  I think these are great questions and also inevitable when we are trying to discuss dog communication and body language in real life.

What the interactions in the movie have in common is that they all show two dogs who appear to want the same thing. The dogs communicate rapidly with body language, and one dog keeps control of the thing. There is usually a definite assertion of ownership by the guarding dog, but both dogs may also exhibit other types of body language.

Defining Resource Guarding

Jean Donaldson defines resource guarding in her excellent book, “Mine!”, as

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

— “Mine!” p. 6

She goes on to describe ritualized aggression, where an animal behaves in truncated versions of more serious or violent behaviors. The truncated versions allow animals including humans to indicate intent but avoid bloodshed. Some of the behaviors that Donaldson categorizes under that include:

…hard stares, growling, snarling, snapping and biting without maiming force…

— “Mine!” p. 3

She describes these ritualized aggressive behaviors as:

 …the “legal” conflict resolution behaviors in dog society.

— “Mine!” p. 3

Donaldson’s book is a how-to manual on dealing with dogs who resource guard items from humans. She uses protocols of desensitization and counter conditioning to change the dog’s emotional response to a human approaching when the dog has a valued item. She makes the point that guarding is a natural behavior tied to survival, and common among dogs in a group.

There is plenty of online information on resource guarding. I like the definition of resource guarding in this blog post as well as the comprehensive list of dog behaviors that could fall under that heading.

Also, I highly recommend the FaceBook Group: Observation skills for training dogs. This group is great for anyone who wants to hone their observation skills. Members post videos, their own or others found online, and the behaviors in the videos are described and discussed. The group has a very smart guideline: the participants are asked to practice using descriptive words to describe observed behaviors and THEN (emphasis mine) attempt to interpret the behaviors they see. We humans tend to skip right to what we think the motivations of the behavior are, rather than first observing and describing what is happening. This is a great place to learn about both. I got some nice comments and encouragement there for an early draft of my movie.

Guarding against Humans

I am fortunate that none of my dogs currently resource guards items from me. This is a combination of luck with Summer and Zani, and deliberate training with Clara. Because of her feral history, Clara has abundant, strong survival behaviors. (Translation: she is very pushy.) So I made a special effort to head off potential resource guarding against me when she was a baby. This is a good idea with any puppy or new dog.

Notice I said my dogs don’t currently resource guard against me. Here’s a photo from many years ago of Cricket with a rawhide chewy. Enough said.

Small tri color terrier holding a rawhide chewy between her paws and showing "whale eye"
Cricket is ready to defend her rawhide chewy

Is it Resource Guarding or a “Discussion”?

My movie shows my dogs having “discussions” about objects and places they want to have control of. The resource guarding behaviors are mostly on the very low end of ritualized aggression, which to me is a very good thing. They are working things out without coming very close to harming each other.

In addition to the hard stares, growling, and snapping that Donaldson mentions, my dogs perform several other more subtle behaviors that I would also classify as resource guarding and these are shown in the movie. They include moving forward into the other dog’s space, standing with a stiff, straight stance, muzzle feint (my name for a mouth closed muzzle punch without contact), and even intrusive sniffing and licking.

I agree with my friends that there is a lot of different stuff going on in the movie. Clara rarely looks very stressed. At times her guarding behaviors resemble (and could be) invitations to play. In Summer’s “successful” guarding of her toy in the last interaction, she darts a furtive glance and a lip lick towards Clara, who seems to be considering stealing her toy. This does not seem to be very assertive behavior. Perhaps Summer lucked out that time, but still, the outcome of the interaction was that she got to keep her toy.

What else do you see?

Final Note

I am fortunate at the low level of aggression my dogs show. I don’t mean to minimize the real dangers that resource guarding behaviors can pose, and of course I don’t encourage them. These clips were taken over several years. I take habitual precautions: supervising heavily when valued toys are available, intervening when someone (ahem Clara) is being a jerk, and separating all four of my dogs completely when I am not home.

Resource guarding can be a very serious problem. I hope if any of you have a dog who has started guarding things from you, you can get access to an experienced trainer or behaviorist.

Discussions coming soon:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2012

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