Click-2-Heel founder and renowned dog trainer, Di Martin explains how prevention is definitely better than cure when it comes to puppies and resource guarding. By understanding how dogs think, feel and learn, we can avoid this often man-made rehoming issue.
Picture the scene: you are sitting in a pub garden, enjoying a bite to eat, when I walk over and take your plate for a couple of seconds before giving it back to you. How would you feel, both in that moment and later? The next time I approach you, you would be wary of my intentions and either walk away with your plate or remonstrate with me. However, how would you feel if I walked over with some extra bread or another bowl of chips to offer you? Your puppy is likely to feel the same way.
There are websites that say dogs should happily give up their resources. This is not a natural behaviour, even for us!
Guarding often presents itself as aggression, which is normally due to missing pieces of information from the dog’s education. There are key times when dogs are more likely to show signs of aggressive behaviour, such as when they feel threatened, fearful, are in pain, or when they are in an over aroused state, because they may misread information in that moment.
It is fairly natural for a dog to guard food, especially if living on the streets, where they could potentially starve if they didn’t protect it! We’d feel just the same. We live under lock and key to protect our possessions because we have learnt that people can steal them. We do not want to teach our dogs that their possessions or food need protecting, especially from us. We want them to feel relaxed and unthreatened in the presence of resources.
Guarding behaviour can quickly increase, or even transfer to other situations, as they learn to read the patterns of your body language on approach. You are aiming for your puppy to feel safe around you when it comes to food, objects, locations and approaching humans.
Household Items and Human Objects
Let’s look at household items or human objects and think about puppy’s perspectives in these situations. They explore lots of things in the environment with their mouth. A common example of when you can begin to develop undesirable emotional responses in puppy is when they pick up a stone in the garden. Afraid they will swallow it; your immediate response is to approach and take the stone from pup’s mouth. Whilst you have stopped puppy swallowing a stone, you have also added value to the object.
This situation is repeated, two or three times. By the fourth time, pup is seeing you approach and getting ready to run. A great chase game has begun! They now recognise your patterns of behaviour, so their response is to run away. Think about your body language and how this picture appears to the puppy and the emotions associated with that.
As well as teaching them to run away with objects, you have potentially taught puppy that you are a threat to them when they have something in their mouth. This can lead to possessive behaviour which can quickly build into guarding tendencies. This could be transferred to other situations when you are showing puppy the same body language. An example might be when you approach to stroke them, they see the same picture as when you are taking objects from them and start to show defensive mouthing.
Puppies are continually forming emotions associated with these patterns and pictures. Stop and think about what this is doing to your relationship and how it is impacting on your puppy’s developing personality.
One of the most important things to start to teach your puppy is impulse control. This is heightened in puppies that learn to steal things and run away from you. Taking things from them can create negative emotions, such as frustration and anger, which can escalate to other situations.
Taking items from your puppy when in a negative emotional state can easily lead to guarding where your young dog can growl and even bite to protect the item. This is a man-made rehoming issue, especially if there are children in the home where it become dangerous. All these negative emotions can be avoided by ensuring you gain an understanding of how your dog thinks, feels and learns.
There are actions you can take to avoid this happening. Learn to manage the environment, both indoors and outdoors. You could watch and see what happens as puppies have a short attention span and quickly get bored, then drop objects of their own accord.
*Try and be ahead of the game and condition some tools to grab puppy’s attention prior to events to support your puppy in developing desirable social behaviours.
*Tools and techniques for retrieving items:
You are in a situation where puppy has something you need or is potentially dangerous such as your glasses or a drawing pin.
More immediate action may be required so you could employ distraction techniques such as a toy, your body movement or attention-grabbing sounds. Start to develop some simple phrases and cues to games which can attract puppy to participate in activities you want them to do. There are many ways to draw puppy away from objects and resources you don’t want them to have. You could even exchange the object for something more attractive, or teach a drop cue, but be careful! Do not use any one pattern as this could be seen as a reinforcer or develop negative emotional responses.
Many people like to train “leave it” but I prefer not to use this as I regard it as a “don’t do that cue” which is said in a negative tone rather than a “do this” cue. Try and use positive redirection, which is better for your relationship with your puppy. There is always an alternative to ‘Leave It’ and eventually, if you have good management practices in place and a good recall, this should be a cue you don’t need.
Allowing your puppy to do what is natural and to explore the world, intervening only when you need to in a positive way will ensure your relationship is on the right track. They do sometimes need a steer in the right direction so develop some phrases and tools to help you achieve this. Ensuring your dog is happy with you and your hands approaching by putting in place some approach and feed exercises along with some regular positive handling sessions will ensure you have a relationship developing based on trust.
*For more detailed information on resource guarding including behaviours on furniture, food bowl exercises, tools and techniques for retrieving items from puppies and games for helping to build trust with food, check out Di Martin’s market-leading Online Puppy Training Course –