By Emily Larlham
Some dogs have the tendency to guard resources while others don’t. One dog put into the same situation as another might never exhibit guarding his whole life while another dog will. In animal abuse cases, you will see some dogs that have been starved who still do not think to guard food, while another dog might guard food when it’s always around in his bowl and he is overweight. Dogs also guard with varying degrees of intensity. Your neighbor, friend or family member might tell you how easily they solved their own dog’s guarding behavior in one day, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that your dog’s guarding behavior will take as short a period of time to solve. All dogs are different. Also those giving out their quick fix solutions that worked for their dog perhaps in a conversation at the dog park, can also believe their dog’s guarding issue is solved when in reality they have just masked the problem. Punishment could suppress a dog’s warning signs that he is feeling agitated like growling, snapping and showing his teeth. However, the dog’s negative emotions might still remain and the worst-case scenario is that the dog will no longer give warning before biting.
It can feel embarrassing and over-whelming when you realize your OWN dog guards food, toys, loved ones and/or space. You are not alone as this is actually a very common behavioral problem in dogs, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up too much as it is commonly believed that resource guarding is genetic. However, this doesn’t mean the environment and our actions don’t affect the behavior for better or for worse. Through careful management of the environment and training we can teach dogs there is no need to guard.
The problems with using punishment or intimidation to suppress guarding
Severe punishment might seem like a quick fix to solving resource guarding. However, the problem with physical or psychological intimidation is that you might indeed get the dog to stop growling barking and snapping, but it will not condition a positive emotional response in the dog when around the things that have made the dog feel the need to guard. The warning behaviors might have been punished but the dog might still dislike what is going on and in the future could possibly go strait to biting and skip the warning signs. A dog who communicates how he feels without biting is a safer dog to be around than one who doesn’t give warning signs. Also sometimes physical or psychological intimidation can actually exacerbate the guarding, making it more intense.
You could use negative punishment (taking away something from the dog) to interrupt guarding as a way to prevent it from continuing being rehearsed, for example asking the dog to get off the couch when he is guarding it. Or you could stop handing out treats if the dog guards you from another dog… But punishing the guarding behavior by taking away things from the dog that he guards is not the solution to solving the guarding problem. Simply using this as a training method can actually make the guarding worse, as the situation that makes the dog worry about guarding what he has is now also predicting you will take something away from him as well, which could lead to more frustration and negative emotions related to that scenario for the dog. The real solution is not allowing it to happen to begin with by using management and focusing on teaching the dog friendly social behaviors you do want him to do in the situations where he previously would exhibit guarding behavior.
Habituation is not the best plan of action for guarding
Habituation is when you expose the dog to things that make him slightly uncomfortable and he finally gets used to them because they happen all the time. For example, if your dog was worried about being touched on his head, and you kept touching his head, he could habituate to it or he could sensitize and start to dislike it even more. It’s a very hit or miss type of approach…
If you were sitting at a restaurant, and someone’s kid from the next table kept coming and touching the food on your plate… It depends on your personality and life experience as to whether this would make you more stressed and agitated or perhaps realize you love children messing with your food at restaurants…. Most likely you would not end up loving children doing that. If you where then yelled at by someone when you finally told the kid to not touch your food… you can imagine that the next time the kid came back, you might not like seeing their approach even more.
Some people feed their dogs really close together in hopes of the dogs getting comfortable eating together but it can actually make the dogs more stressed at meal times and wolf down their food rather than relax.
Letting dogs create a pecking order can have the reverse effect
Some people give the advice of letting dogs create a pecking order, or in other words let the dogs intimidate, bully or fight with each other until the dogs figure out who is the most scary and not to be messed with. Usually bulling and guarding is reinforcing so dogs will continue to bully and guard even for a whole lifetime and with practice the behavior can get more and more severe, sometimes dangerous. Often when there is more than one dog who guards, they will never “choose” a pecking order and continue to guard toward each other. For example, in this viral video two corgis are allowed to show guarding behaviors towards each other. To a non-dog person this might be funny because it looks like humans arguing, but this is a very stressful life for both dogs, even if guarding is reinforcing.
The more a dog guards the more he can create negative associations with the situations he guards in. For dogs who guard space they can start to guard entire rooms as well as not want to let the other dog come in from outside. Instead of allowing the dogs to “train” each other… I suggest training them how you want them to interact, by training situational behaviors, like leave other dogs alone when they are eating and instead training them to look to you for guidance as to how to interact with each other.
The solution: Prevent guarding and create a behavior modification plan
1 Write a list of the situations where guarding behaviors occur.
2 Use management to prevent guarding in those situations. Write down what you will do so when the time comes everyone in your family knows the plan.
3 Train reliable cues that have a positive association to interrupt guarding before it starts or after it starts (if you make a mistake and it happens).
4 Train default situational behaviors. For example, teach all dogs to leave each other alone when eating.
5 Create training setups to condition a positive emotional response in small achievable steps to the situations that cause the guarding behavior to happen.
I will go over each of these in more detail below.
If you have a dog who you think might bite, your not sure what he might do or you don’t have experience reading dog’s warning signs, it is important to hire a vet behaviorist or trainer who doesn’t use intimidation to work with your dog’s resource guarding issues instead of trying to do it on your own. This is because some of the subtle signs of guarding are hard to read unless you have had a lot of experience seeing them before and what can happen is if you raise criteria too quickly in training you can make the guarding issue worse rather than better. So it pays off to have an experienced person help you to prevent your dog having an avoidable set back.
Guarding can come back no matter how you train – Use management and prevention when needed
No matter what type of training you do, even if you did use some sort of extreme aversive, there is something called regression, where the animal returns to doing behaviors he’s rehearsed in the past. Dogs can regress to guarding behaviors in new situations, when stressed, in pain, ill or overly tired. For example, you have a party at your house or perhaps your dog went on an extremely long hike. A lot of people have the misconception that if they were to use some extreme form of punishment that it can some how prevent regression, but this is simply not true.
It is my opinion that the way to reduce the intensity of the regressions or sometimes prevent them from happening at all, is spending the time to create training setups where you are teaching your dog only good things happen when a dog or human approaches him when has something he wants to keep for himself creating a new positive emotional response in the dog toward these situations.
1 WRITE A LIST OF ALL THE SITUATIONS WHERE GUARDING BEHAVIORS OCCUR
Some dogs will only guard a specific category of things, for example their toys but never food while others might guard in many different categories. I suggest sitting down with your family and writing the list together as one person might have noticed something another didn’t. Write down what your dog guards and in what situations he does it.
Here are some examples of what dogs can guard:
- Space and places – Dog beds, couches, chairs, your bed, your lap, under a specific table or any place the dog is standing or lying down.
- People/Other dogs – A specific dog or family member, visitors to your house, or everyone. When given attention or simply ignored.
- Objects – Dog toys, your clothing, shoes, bones, or sticks.
- Food – Food or chews that are available to him, but also food that is stored out of reach or further from the dog. Sometimes dogs will want to guard when they see another dog or person across the room with something he would like to have. The areas where food has been for example the kitchen or an empty dog bowl. Some dogs will guard water.
- Smells – Yes some dogs will guard the smells they are sniffing in the grass from other dogs.
Things that factor into guarding for some dogs:
- Time period - The longer the dog is in the location the more likely to guard or the opposite.
- Excitement level - The more excited the dog is the more likely to guard(when guests visit, after playing fetch, after an exciting outing).
- Distance from the thing they guard - Some dogs will guard things that are only within their reach. Others will guard things they are not even close to or something that another dog or person already has possession of.
- Time of day/ situation – Some dogs are more likely to guard during a specific time of day. Perhaps they have a habit of guarding after a walk, when you cook food or after eating a high value chew.
- Gender of specific dog or person – Some dogs will guard more toward one dog than another. Some dogs might guard more toward one person than another.
- Age of dog or person - Some dogs will guard only from adult dogs and not guard from puppies. So if you have a dog who guards and you get a puppy, be ware that when the puppy starts to grow up things might change. Also some dogs might guard more from puppies than adults. Some dogs who don’t guard from people might guard from a toddler or child in the same way they guard from dogs.
- Species – Oddly enough there are dogs who ONLY guard from dogs, dogs who ONLY guard from people, and dogs who guard similarly from both dogs and people. But children can sometimes fall into the “dog” category for some dogs that only guard from dogs.
- At home versus out of the house – Some dogs might show more extreme guarding behavior at home, while others it can be worse in other locations.
- Multiple triggers at the same time – Some dogs will guard a lap with greater intensity if they are stroked or held. Some dogs might even guard your lap from your own hand… The dog also might just want to be on your lap or next to you, but not be touched while there, so it could just be a dislike of being touched sometimes rather than guarding, but it can still exacerbate the situation.
- Age/hormones of dog showing guarding behaviors – Some dogs will show sudden increases in guarding as they mature but then when reach adulthood things stay the same. Some females will guard more intensely when going into heat. And another dog going into heat can cause other dogs to guard more.
- Sick, tired and in pain – Some dogs can guard more when they are not feeling well.
What does resource guarding look like?
Some dogs who guard go strait to biting if approached with very subtle and brief warning signals and bite extremely hard as well as multiple times. Dogs who have bitten should always be managed for the rest of their lives to prevent an accident happening if regression were to happen.
Other dogs give off lots of extremely scary and obvious warning behaviors like snarling, growling and snapping and can do these for quite a long duration before taking action. Sadly, these are the dogs that are usually filmed and laughed at like the corgis in the video. Sometimes these dogs will have enough of being messed with and will bite. Some only give subtle signals and other dogs snap or put their mouth on the other dog or person but do not do damage. These dogs also can end up biting if their warning is not heeded. Resource guarding is not a joke, it is a dog telling you he is not ok.
Some signs of guarding:
Different dogs display different signals:
- Dog suddenly darts away with whatever he has.
- Dog quickly turns his back when approached by dog or person.
- When approached the dog freezes, gets very stiff, lowers his head, his eyes become wider, pupils dilate, you see the whites of your dogs eyes, ears go back or one ear goes back, wrinkles between the dogs eyes, the dog stands with legs spread apart, the tail can arch over the dogs back (depending on the dog’s type of tail), the dog stares or suddenly stares into no where, the dog vocalizes, the dog’s hair can raise, the dog starts chomping down on whatever he has, eats faster or holds it in his mouth hard.
- Posture, walks around on his toes, with head raised around what he guards.
- Dog can bare teeth, snap and bite.
Some behaviors might seem like guarding but could be caused instead by fear, frustration, reactivity, aggression or a previous history of being punished. However, the solution to issues that might look like guarding is the same, to change the dog’s emotional response to the situation in training set ups and to teach the dog what you do want him to do instead. So it doesn’t really matter to label the behavior. Growling, snapping and biting can simply be a way your dog is communicating to not be bothered, so isn’t really an indicator of guarding. Perhaps a dog has taken your shoes and chewed them many times and you have punished the dog for it. The dog might exhibit behaviors that mimic guarding when you approach because the dog knows you will take what he has and wants to avoid punishment.
2 USE MANAGEMENT TO PREVENT GUARDING IN THOSE SITUATIONS
After writing down all the circumstances your dog might guard in, now write down what you will do to prevent your dog from being in these circumstances outside of training sessions. You might need the help of a trainer who has experience with resource guarding to help you out with this. If you are simply unsure what to do, use the safest method. For example, put the dog away in a locked room with music on when a plumber comes to fix something. Then let the dog out on leash when whatever it is is over. You might then want to keep the dog separated from other dogs and social interactions until he’s had time to calm down. Instead of subjecting your dog to strangers to help you train your dog, you can instead have someone you know and trust to visit your house to help you with the training. Strangers who are distracted with their job might not remember what you asked of them or simply do not understand and might end up doing the thing you didn’t want that causes your dog to have a set back, like reaching to pet your dog on his bed.
It is extremely important to prevent the dog rehearsing the guarding behavior because the more the behavior happens the harder it will be to teach him not to do it. Everyone makes mistakes, but being careless will undo all the hard work you have already put into the management and training of your dog. With a dog who has bitten or you are worried might bite, you can’t make mistakes so you will need a safety protocol. This might involve the dog having to wear a muzzle at specific times or being separated from dogs or people in a safe manner.
Here is an example of managing a specific dog who guards the inside of the house:
Instead of just having visiting people or dogs enter your home with the dog who guards space inside, have the guest call you when they arrive and you can meet the guest outside in the street without your dog interacting with them. You can go for a short walk with the guest with your dog at a distance he feels comfortable, then follow the guest into your house with enough distance that the dog is not near the guest but that the guest doesn’t suddenly disappear and then reappear. Following the guest into your house is not some sort of dominance thing… For most dogs who guard space, if someone else is there first before them it greatly diminishes the guarding behaviors. Also the startle of hearing the doorbell ring and a person suddenly appearing at the door can cause guarding to be more intense because the dog is also startled. Hey, you also would exhibit some guarding behaviors if suddenly your front door opened and there was someone you don’t know coming into your house! For some dogs this setup would be too much for the dog, and their management and prevention plan would first be to try to have no guests at all while the owners worked on the issue in training sessions, then move on to having the dog put away in another room with music on, then to meeting outside, then having the dog at a distance behind a barrier or on a leash and harness. The dog should also definitely be in a muzzle if you are worried your dog might bite.
It may seem mean to separate your dog from your other dogs or family during certain situations… and for the dog to have to be on a leash and managed. Yes, it may be stressful for your dog at first, because he won’t be used to the new situation. However, the end goal is in his best interest. Guarding can be stressful for the dog, because he is constantly worrying about things being taken from him.
Teaching your dog to enjoy relaxing and spending time behind a barrier or in a pen is extremely beneficial for preventing resource guarding in between training setups. Being separated doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience. Perhaps you’re having guests over and your dog can guard your guests from your other dogs. You can put the dog away behind a locked door and give your dog a bone while in the other room after a nice walk and have your other dogs and family interact with the guest. Then you can switch. Put the other dogs away first, and then let the dog who guards out of the room to enjoy interacting with the guests without the other dogs being there to compete with. If your guests are up for training, you could then bring out the dog who guards on a leash with one of your other dogs who is also on leash at a distance and then work on training the dogs for a short period of time say 10 mins and then put the guarding dog away. An example of a setup is having the guarding dog watch the other dog receive treats and petting from a distance, and the guarding dog is being reinforced for watching this.
In the future when the dogs are more trained they can learn to take turns saying hi while each dog waits their turn on a mat or behind a barrier.
Some dogs who guard food get over-aroused by being given high value chews or food. So in these cases, it’s not a good idea to give the dog something of high value even when separated as it could cause the dog to be more likely to guard or act aggressively when back with your other dogs or family members. Avoid all high value food and chews until you have worked in training sessions with low value food and increased the value in small increments. You can get a trainer to help you with working with high value food if you are not sure what your dog might do.
Keep in mind some dogs guard more when confined to a pen or behind a barrier, so you might have to have the dog further from the distraction for him to be comfortable than when he is loose and make sure he is not stared at or approached by dogs or people. You could create a double barrier so that other dogs and people don’t approach the dog while he’s confined or on leash or simply put the dog away where he cannot see what is going on or be approached when you are not there next to him to train him.
As you work on the guarding issues, your dog might need to be separated from other dogs or managed when greeting your family or guests, meal times, getting treats or chews, playing with toys, getting petted and at resting times. In a multi-dog household with toy guarding issues, you can keep all toys put away and take the dogs separately outside to play with them and their toys until the dogs have had more training and can be trusted to not have a conflict over toys.
If your dog guards your bed, keep him off the bed until he is reliably not guarding it in all types of scenarios you have worked on in training sessions. You can train him to sleep in a new cushy bed that he doesn’t have a history of guarding and you can also keep him in a pen if you think he might sneak into your bed and then growl at you if you roll over in the night.
If your dog guards the bedroom from your spouse or partner, have the person call the dog out of the room to receive a treat, and then the person can enter the room before the dog and give the dog a treat for following him in. This can especially happen when everyone has gone to bed and is settled and then the spouse comes into the room later. If you have a dog who won’t be called out of the bedroom for a treat yet, that dog should be kept from the bedroom until the last person or dog goes in or not get to go in the bedroom at all and sleep somewhere outside the bedroom to prevent guarding.
If one dog in the household is gone for longer than usual, for example is at the vet for days and then returns, to be on the safe side meet outside, go for a walk and let the dog that guards follow the other dog in. Then they can settle in pens or out of reach on a leash and harness until they have calmed down and gotten over the excitement of seeing each other again.
3 TRAIN RELIABLE CUES THAT HAVE A POSITIVE ASSOCIATION TO INTERRUPT GUARDING
Train reliable cues to interrupt guarding before it starts or after it starts (if you make a mistake and it happens). You might need a trainer’s help with this to train the behaviors reliably as well as to decide what cues to use to interrupt your specific dog’s guarding.
Often dogs start to have a negative emotional response to a cue that has only been used in a situation when the dog is guarding something and is told he can’t have it anymore. For example, for dogs who guard furniture and are told “Off”. After some repetition, some dogs guarding behavior might become more extreme when the cue “Off” is used, because it predicts Negative Punishment or in other words what they really want taken from them. Some dogs also will start to refuse getting off the furniture, because listening to you is punishing for them. It can feel frustrating and annoying when a dog doesn’t listen, but the reason dogs don’t listen is that they do what is reinforcing to them and don’t do what is punishing to them. So all we need to do it teach dogs what we want them to do is reinforcing for them.
I find it important to condition cues that are used frequently in the dog’s everyday life and are not just associated with the times of conflict for the dog. So instead of teaching a cue like “Off” I will have clients use the release cue they use for sit or down stays if they have worked on that, for example “Release!” or “Free!”. When my little dogs look like they might guard a bed I can tell them their release cue “Free!” and they happily jump off because we use that cue all the time for other fun training games.
If you have a dog who guards things and you use the cue “Drop” to interrupt him if you think he might guard, I suggest using that cue when playing tug or fetch where he learns dropping something isn’t punishing because you with start the game again.
The same goes for an attention noise and recall. If you always call your dog away from something he likes, he will actually stop coming. So the best plan is to play games in training setups where you call your dog away from something he wants and then release him back to it.
Here is a video I explain the many ways to interrupt behavior without using intimidation:
The safest way to interrupt guarding is hands off. You can train and proof reliable behaviors that the dog does on his own:
- Drop it – Drop what you have. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVivnOwiMoA
(You need to make sure you train this with things your dog doesn’t guard at first)
- Leave it – Cue the dog to leave whatever it is. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jYfKK17ZBs
- Recall – Call the dog away from something. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIR3MtTSyIw
- Attention noise – Get the dog’s attention and then tell him what to do. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4ASIKw-urY
- Go to bed/crate/pen – After telling your dog to drop or leave it, you can tell him to move away from whatever it is by calling him or telling him to go to a different location like a bed or crate. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2c5EkytNU0
- Release cue – Say your dog’s release cue to get him off furniture. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKHTYneseaw&t
- Let’s go- On leash when you want your dog to follow you in a different direction. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eo-L2qtD7MQ&t
- Back up – You can teach your dog to back up away from another dog or person. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBAz0kqeJYg
Some dogs you might need to move physically for some reason, for example you are on a walk and need to move the dog away from something. For a lot of dogs this can make the dog more agitated so you need to condition the ways you will move your dog in training sessions, so the dog understands it as a cue to mean move with you and not an intimidation game or stressful event. I suggest hiring a trainer first before trying to use this with resource guarding.
- Giving into leash pressure – This is when you need to move your dog using the leash when he is not listening to you, say he’s staring down another dog who is approaching and the person with that dog is not listening and just keeps coming at you. It is important to train this in training sessions because most dogs when you try to move them will get more aroused and also perhaps lean into the pressure rather than come with you. By playing games in training sessions at home you can condition your dog that being moved on leash is simply a cue to mean “move with me”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4vEayrRyB0
In an emergency situation if a dog does some extreme display of guarding or you think might bite you, don’t go near the dog. Get everyone else out of the room carefully and leave the dog in there alone to calm down, then get help. Trying to work through guarding usually makes it worse and it’s dangerous as you can get bitten. The best plan is to then get a vet behaviorist or trainer to help you reintroduce a safety protocol and prevention plan and reduce the stress in the dog’s life for 10-14 days before returning to working on guarding in training sessions. It you immediately try to work on guarding issues right after your dog had a set back, it can actually make things worse rather than better. So let your dog take a break first to calm down.
4 TRAIN DEFAULT SITUATIONAL BEHAVIORS
Default situational behaviors are behaviors your dog will do because he is in a specific situation. When you make your dog his dinner, most likely you’ve taught him to wait for you to serve him his food rather than just jump and put his paws on the counter to get to the food. This is a default situational behavior, as the dog does it without being asked. Teaching dogs to respond to cues in the environment is a great idea for managing guarding in a multi-dog household as it will mean you don’t constantly have to tell your dog what to do all the time.
Without guidance dogs naturally can get on each other’s nerves like kids. They are opportunists and often want to take each other’s food or toys. In a multi-dog household it is important to not only work with the dog who guards but also teach the other dogs in the household to not bother the dog who guards. This will greatly reduce the stress of all the dogs in the household when hovering over, bothering and taking others toys and food is not an option.
In my multi-dog lectures I talk about how the first step to a multi-dog household is having the dogs interact with each other through the owner and with rules. Then when the dogs will listen to their owner and not try to manipulate the other dogs’ behavior, then they can start to have more freedom of interaction with each other.
Here are some examples of default situational behaviors:
- Leave it when the other dog is eating, playing with a toy or is in a specific location like his dog bed. Teach the other dogs to not stare at and keep a specific distance from the guarding dog that he feels comfortable when he has the thing he usually would guard.
- Teach all the dogs to take turns with getting attention, petting and playing with toys. If one dog is being pet it means leave it and back away or go to their bed.
- If food falls on the floor, it means leave it and perhaps back away.
- If food falls on the floor and another dog goes for it, it means leave it and back away.
- Leave it when another dog is receiving a treat. Don’t approach the dog or the hand with the treat in it.
- Go to your dog bed when people eat at the table (rather than sit under the table and guard it).
By training the dogs these behaviors without using physical or psychological intimidation, the dogs will start to have a positive emotional response in the situations rather than worry about avoiding punishment.
One way to train default situational cues is to first present the situation to your dog in a way he’s comfortable with and then cue him what behavior to do in that situation and then after a few repetitions, wait and see if he learns to offer the behavior on his own. Here is a brief explanation on training a dog to leave it from another dog eating. First put a bowl of food or treat on the floor while your dog is 5 feet away on a leash and harness, then say the cue he knows such as “Leave it” then reinforce him for turning away and ignoring it. Then after a couple of repetitions, see if he will think to do the leave it behavior without being asked and mark and reinforce that choice. Once your dog has practiced this successfully without another dog in the picture, you can then have another dog on leash eating from the bowl. The bowl can contain low value food while the dog learning leave it is getting higher value food for turning away and ignoring at first. Keep the dogs at a distance that BOTH are comfortable with during this exercise (this might be on other ends of a room). You might need a trainers help to break up the steps small enough that both dogs are successful as they learn.
You can also train default situational behaviors from scratch, by presenting the situation in a way the dog is comfortable with and then teaching the behavior you want your dog to do.
You can work in small approximations by first getting the dog to ignore food, toys and distractions using positive reinforcement first, before raising the criteria and adding another dog or person to the picture. When you add another dog, you can use distance to make the game easier, where both dogs are on leash or separated where they can’t suddenly rush up to each other.
Don’t take default situational behaviors for granted. Dogs can “forget” what to do when they are over-excited or in a new situation. So even though your dogs will leave each other alone when eating chews or their dinner it’s still best to always monitor and/or use management like separation to be on the safe side.
In this picture you can see a puppy hovering over another dog chewing on a bone. I suggest interrupting this behavior and telling the hovering dog what to do.
If you see your other dog approaching to sniff or try to interact with your dog who is with something he might guard and is not doing the default situational behavior, you can tell the approaching dog to “leave it”, “back up” or “go to your bed” or “go play with your own toy”. You can get up and help guide the approaching dog away. This will help teach your guarding dog he doesn’t need to train the other dogs because you will.
By never letting the guarding dog be bothered in his every day life it will reduce his stress drastically making the guarding issue easier to tackle in training sessions.
5 CREATE TRAINING SETUPS TO CONDITION A POSITIVE EMOTIONAL RESPONSE
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article just simply using habituation or in other words just exposing a dog to what bothers him and hoping he will get used to it is not the best plan of action. Instead we can set up training setups where the dog starts to actually find the situation a positive experience. For most dogs, simply giving them a treat during the actual situation that they guard in is not going to work because most likely in that situation, the dog will not find the treat as reinforcing as what he has… nor will it be able to compete with the punishing effect of the dog or person approaching that he is worrying about guarding from. So the way to work on guarding is to break the training up into small achievable steps where the dog is interested in the reinforcement you have control over. At first this might seem like more work and going back to basics, but in the long run, because you will keep building on successes and creating a strong foundation of positive experiences, in my opinion the emotional progress is faster. If you keep trying to work on the guarding issue when your dog is feeling stressed and slightly overwhelmed by the situation, it’s hard to assure the dog is having a positive experience as well as it’s harder to avoid set backs.
If you have a dog who guards food from yourself and/or other people, a great resource is Jean Donaldson’s book ‘Mine’ which has examples of plans for breaking up the training into small achievable steps to condition a positive emotional response in the dog when being approached by people when he has something he guards.
Some behaviors to train first
I suggest teaching leave it, drop it, let’s go and a recall away from what he guards first before working on setups with people and dogs. This is because when trained without intimidation, it will give your dog a good foundation of trust with you. While learning the behaviors in training games he will also learn the concept of when something looks like it will be taken from him, he gets something even better and then gets what he had back. Teaching a settle on a mat while on a leash and harness first is also really helpful.
Make sure before beginning the training session that your dog will leave what he has to get his treat from you. If this is not possible, use lower value things at first and/or have him out of reach of them on a leash and harness. It is ok during the training sessions that your dog is preferring the treats you have and looking to you rather than showing interest in what he usually guards.
Take the list you wrote down of what your dog guards and in what situations it occurs and try to find ways of working on one aspect of the guarding puzzle at a time. I call this separating triggers.
Some ideas for separating triggers:
- The location Choose a place where the dog is less likely to guard to train in first then after success work progressively toward the area he guards the most. For example, if your dog guards the bedroom from your spouse, first practice with him in a different room that he doesn’t guard like the garage, and have the spouse come and go through the door there, and multiple other doors in training sessions before working on the bedroom.
- Time of day/situation Choose the time and situation your dog is least likely to guard to work on the behavior. For example, if your dog guards your bedroom when you go to bed, practice first in the morning. Don’t try to work on it at bedtime at first.
- Value of what is guarded I suggest first start with your dog guarding nothing, to teach him simply the “game” of the person or dog approaching meaning only good things. Then begin by using the lowest value item or an item that means nothing to your dog like a book or some vegetable he doesn’t really have interest in. Then you can progress to toys and food he has low interest in and then to higher value food or toys if he is successful. Keep in mind the treats you are using to train might also cause guarding so use treats of high enough value that your dog can work but not something extremely novel and exciting as that might make it harder for your dog at first. If your dog guards you from people and dogs, you can have someone else you trust to work with him that he doesn’t guard or guard as much as he guards you for example a dog trainer. The other person can reinforce your dog for your own approaches toward your dog in the same way the other dogs or people will approach in the future. Then you can approach your own dog with another dog, as the first step to your dog being approached by dogs if your dog guards you from other dogs.
- Duration of possession For some dogs they can guard with more intensity the longer they have been with what they guard. So in the beginning, make sure to begin the training promptly and don’t have the decoy disappear for too long. When your dog is successful you can increase the time periods between when the dog is approached or the dog or person appears from behind a barrier.
- The dog or person who approaches If your dog doesn’t like dogs approaching but is fine with people, first work with people approaching to teach the dog the concept of being approached is great before adding the dog. You could then have the same person who approached your dog in the training sessions, with another dog on leash. If your dog guards from people, choose a person that your dog is least likely to guard from to use first. Then work towards the people he guards from the most. Never use children to train your dog. I suggest getting help from a veterinary behaviorist if your dog has issues with children. Keep in mind dogs might guard more intensely at first when exposed to a strange dog or person they have not met before.
- The way the dog or person approaches Most dogs find a direct approach the most stressful to them. So to begin with you could have the other dog or person walking back and forth in front of the dog at a distance but not approaching the dog or looking at the dog (you can have the decoy dog follow a treat so he won’t be staring at the dog), then with success arcing toward the dog, then passing the dog at a distance (if there is enough space for this), then walking in the dog’s direction a few steps from a distance without looking directly at the dog before turning around, then gradually increase how close the approach is before turning around. If the dog who guards is successful you can repeat the steps with the decoy dog looking briefly and then looking away as you complete the exercise. It might take multiple training sessions to progress to a direct approach depending on the dog. Another variable you could work on is speed of the approach.
Work on the triggers separately before adding them together systematically.
Here is an example. The potential triggers for a dog who guards the bedroom from the spouse would be: Spouse entering, the specific room in the house, specific time of day, the dog laying in his bed (or your bed) and the duration that has passed while he’s been in the bed.
To begin with you could work outside the house on your spouse approaching in the same ways he will later in the house, then do training sessions in a guest room or garage with no bed where your spouse could work your dog while you do the approaches entering and exiting the room then switch, then add the dog bed to that scenario, then repeat the process in the bedroom early in the day without any dog bed, then repeat the process with the bed in the bedroom, then practice with the dog in the dog bed in the evening in the bedroom, and then practice adding some duration between the entries into the bedroom. For some dogs eye contact might be a trigger too, so the spouse could work on looking at the dog when approaching outside, and in the garage, but then when in the bedroom return to not looking at the dog until the dog is successful with just the approaches.
Step 1 Mark looking
At first you can mark your dog the moment he looks at the decoy person or dog as they move. You could use a marker word that your dog already knows like “good” (or a clicker if your dog doesn’t get excited by it). Then put the treat down calmly on the ground so that your dog has to turn his view toward you and away from the distraction to eat it. By doing this it makes it easy to see when something is too much for the dog because they won’t turn back to receive their treat. It is also good for the dog to stop looking to eat because if he is just constantly staring at the decoy it’s hard to know if he’s making a connection that their approach predicts the reinforcement or if it is more like he is watching a horror movie and eating popcorn absentmindedly as he watches.
Step 2 Mark the dog for looking then looking back
After multiple repetitions where the decoy is doing a repetitive predictable movement, wait 4 seconds and see if your dog thinks to look at the decoy and then back at you as if to say “This means I get a treat!”. If your dog looks back at you you can mark and feed. Then I suggest going back to marking and feeding a few times before trying to wait and see if he looks back again. The key with this training is to not always make it harder and harder, so any time you raise criteria higher than you have before, then drastically reduce it right after.
Step 3 When not looking at all/Ignoring you can raise criteria
Repeat the same scenario without variation until the dog stops noticing it completely. The dog will either look at you for treats or simply just ignore the decoy. Once you have achieved this you can then add one aspect of criteria. When you do this go back to Step 1 of marking the moment it happens. If you are adding steps to an approach, you can mark the moment the person gets closer than he has been before.
If the dog can’t ignore the decoy this means it the trigger is still concerning to him. Its best to only add criteria when you know for sure the dog is ok with the step he is at.
Step 4 Add variation of movement as the final step
When working on something new, make sure the decoy moves in a rhythmical predictable pattern. If the movement is varied in Step 1 and 2 then your dog might never get to Step 3 where he is not alerting on the approaching dog or person because the movement is not predictable enough that the dog can relax. The final step when you have worked on adding all the triggers together is then to add variation of movement. But if you notice this makes your dog worried you can add small variation then go back to patterns of movement your dog is used to before adding a little variation.
When you add the thing the dog guards like a toy or a chew you can start with it next to the dog where he can’t reach it. Then when the dog is extremely successful with the approaches you can give it to the dog. If it’s a chew the dog might start chewing it. If at some point the dog won’t stop chewing to get his treat, then you need to stop the training, or use a lower value chew the dog will stop chewing for his treat.
When to lower criteria
If you see that your dog is showing signs of stress, showing the beginning signs of guarding, is not turning back or delaying turning back when you mark go back a step or train at a later date.
What to do if the dog reacts
It really depends on your specific dog what the best plan of action is. The most common thing to do is have the decoy dog or person turn and leave promptly before it gets worse and then make criteria much easier for a while since the dog had a negative reaction. I suggest not trying to raise criteria that high again in that particular training session. If it was a reaction that made your dog more stressed, then I suggest ending the session and begin again when the dog is calm and relaxed at another time or day. If your dog reacts more when the person or dog turns their back on the dog and moves away, then I suggest, moving the guarding dog with a previously trained cue like “Let’s Go” and walk in the opposite direction away from the other dog or person. If moving the guarding dog away makes his reaction worse, you could instead block the dog’s view of the decoy. If you are inside you can block the dog’s view by moving behind a couch or tall bed. You could also put a sheet over an exercise pen that can be moved across the dog’s field of vision to prevent him being able to see the decoy, or the decoy could just move to the side to not be seen behind the barrier if he begins to show signs of guarding. The idea is to break the steps up small enough that the dog doesn’t react at all but if mistakes happen it’s good to already have a plan in place of what to do. If you are not sure what your dog might do you should have your dog in a muzzle to be safe.
You can say to your dog “Leave it!” in a positive tone of voice, but I don’t suggest saying things like “What was that?”, “No” or “What’s wrong with you?” because if you have a dog who is sensitive to you they might start to make the association that the approaching decoy means you will get annoyed, disappointed or angry.
Adding drop it and move away if needed
For some dogs you could also add the step of back away from what you have when approached as the final step after being approached in the setup. My own young Border Collie will drop the toy she has when pursued by another dog and come to me instead of being at a distance with me having to run to her to help her out from being bothered by another dog when she has something she might guard. Also I taught my Chihuahua to back away from her food or chew when another dog tries to take it because, sometimes when a dog guards what they have, it can trigger another dog to want to go after or fight them sadly enough. This is not something I wanted to ever happen to my 5 pound Chihuahua so the safest method is having her back away, and know she will get more food and higher value food for doing it. You could also teach a dog to jump off the furniture when approached as part of the final step of the setups.
- Get help -Work with a veterinary behaviorist or trainer who doesn’t use intimidation to train so you can stay safe and get help setting up a training plan.
- Make a list of all the scenarios in which guarding happens.
- Create a Management and Prevention Plan to prevent guarding from occurring in these situations outside of training sessions. Create a safety protocol to prevent accidents and injury.
- Learn what guarding looks like and be observant.
- Train emergency behaviors to interrupt guarding before it starts or interrupt it after.
- In training sessions teach your dog what you do want him to do in different social scenarios.
- In training setups work on building a positive emotional response to situations your dog has a tendency to guard in by breaking the training up into small achievable steps by separating the triggers and adding them together systematically.
- Know that it could always come back due to regression in a new scenario, stress, arousal, pain or illness. Be prepared for it.