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Biting the hand that feeds you…

Tips for resource and food guarding

by Kate Mallatratt A Dip CBM, PPG, Canine Behaviourist

This article was first printed in Animal Therapy Magazine Issue 13 Summer 2018 pp 21-23. Reproduced with kind permission from the editor. To visit their website, please go to: www.animaltherapymedia.co.uk

Many dogs enjoy chasing balls, but giving back is counter instinctive © Bounders Dog Photography

The small dog’s body tensed. The half-moon whites of his eyes were clearly visible and his top lip curled back displaying glistening white teeth. The fine feathering on his tail swayed gently like a flag as he wagged it from side to side and, crinkling his shiny black nose, he let out a deep throaty rumble. His long fluffy ears were pulled slightly back and his piercing stare made it abundantly clear that the bone was his. This 12-week-old spaniel puppy was guarding. The owner, who had bent down to fuss him, was visibly shaken. Enquiring why she couldn’t pet him when he eats, it was explained that her dog doesn’t view her attention as affection, he believes she is a thief about to steal his dinner.

Possession is nine tenths of the law…
Guarding is quite common and about half of all dogs will show guarding tendencies towards material objects. Items guarded include toys, clothing, food, chews, bones, water dishes, sleeping areas and even owners. For some dogs guarding needs no prior learning: their innate desire to defend is expressed early despite a relevant training protocol as a puppy.

Discriminative breeding influences guarding behaviour. Some dogs are strongly motivated by genotype to defend territory, possessions and those in their care, especially if guarding was historically their job. A livestock guarding dog tending sheep should be worried about losing one of his flock, and those raised with stock, such as the Great Pyrenees or Anatolian shepherd, form strong affiliations and regard their wards as family. Certain phenotypes are more prone to guarding, particularly full colour show cocker spaniels (rather than working types).

Apart from the recognisable guarding breeds like German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers, gundogs may be loath to relinquish possessions. With selective breeding, a gundog’s desire to hold is hypertrophied and the kill-bite–>dissect-eat part of the predatory sequence eye–>stalk–>chase–>grab-bite–>kill-bite–>dissect-eat has been weakened. Although the release is counter-instinctive, retrieving an object to an owner can of course be trained. Discriminative breeding also means that some dogs are choosy about what they guard and may protect one species yet attack another potential predator, and some will resource guard from animals but not people.

Why dogs guard
Guarding is usually rooted in worry about losing a possession such as a toy or food, or space like a bed or the best spot in front of the fire. What is most valued depends largely on the individual. We joke that the family dog is so good natured he would lead a burglar to the family silver, and the truth is he probably would since it’s of little worth to him. On the other hand, if the crook stole Rover’s favourite toy he might find himself making a quick exit with the dog close at heel….

Guarding is selective and some dogs only guard food. This may be learned or worsened due to poor management of the environment, for example people walking closely past a food dish, children interacting with the dog whilst he is eating, or another family pet coming too close. All these reasons can make a dog feel vulnerable, and they may express calming signals to show their discomfort.

Some puppies may learn to become possessive about food if a breeder feeds from a single bowl and competition for dinner is strong. The underlying instinct to eat in comfort can start very young. At the tender age of five weeks our Golden Retriever puppies would grab a raw chicken wing and retreat to the corners of the room away from their litter mates. Mealtime management by increasing distance between bowls or feeding in separate rooms/crates is recommended to reduce tension and minimise potential issues arising. At mealtimes one or other of our adult dogs carries their bowl to another room away from the other dogs, where the meal can be peacefully enjoyed without watchful eyes – even though none of our dogs overtly resource guards their food. Speaking to other guardians, this appears quite common although a few dogs reverse this pattern and carry their bowl to eat with their owners! Given that most dogs choose to eat in safety, dinner bowls that are placed closely together or even in the same room may cause friction and may be a time bomb waiting to go off.

Making matters worse
Owners sometimes say that they can take anything away from their dog as if it is a sign of good character, but the simple truth may be that the resource wasn’t worth fighting over for that dog. A strategy sometimes employed is to take away a dog’s dinner when he is eating to show him ‘who is boss’. Based on the dominance myth, this strategy is risky and likely to increase any potential confrontation. Firstly, it assumes your dog understands why his dinner is being removed and secondly, it may increase his concern about losing his dinner thus making him more vigilant and aroused. This can quickly escalate, especially if the early warning signs (lick lips, body tensing, stops eating when approached, shows whites of eyes), are missed and the dog steps up a gear with a growl or snap. Once he has reached the point of ‘shouting’ and you (intentionally or reflexively) retreat, he learns his behaviour is successful and his dinner is saved. Successful behaviour is likely to be repeated.

Imagine a scenario where you are enjoying a splendid Sunday roast and someone swiftly removes the plate from under your nose. You may be taken aback and quite rightly question the purpose of these actions. If this happens repeatedly the urge to protect your dinner may grow stronger until your patience runs out, and you snap.

A dog who growls evokes strong emotions and is often labelled a ‘bad dog’, but let’s put these feelings aside for a moment and see growling simply as communication and information that something needs to change. How else can your dog tell you he is worried about losing his beloved bone, prized chew or delicious dinner – especially when you may have missed calming signals? Putting yourself in your dog’s shoes and learning what he is trying to communicate can often bring about understanding and resolution by putting the correct teaching in place. He needs to learn that he has nothing to fear and his environment is safe. The use of punishment can increase fear making guarding worse, but so too can neutering.

Neutering may be recommended as a solution for guarding, however this not an advisable treatment for most behaviour problems as the loss of the sex hormones – especially testosterone – may make existing problems worse and lead to other issues arising. Unless there is an underlying hormonal reason, it is not recommended that your dog goes under the knife, and there are less invasive and more successful alternatives using positive reinforcement

Minimising guarding
Your dog needs a quiet place where he can eat undisturbed away from other pets and busy walkways in the home. If there are young children in the house, feed your dog in a covered crate where he cannot be interrupted and if the children are old enough to learn, teach them how to safely collaborate with your dog when he is eating by following some of the recommendations below.

Spooning food into 12-week-old English Setter Evie’s bowl when she is eating teaches her to accept people approaching her dish.

Your dog needs a quiet place where he can eat undisturbed away from other pets and busy walkways in the home. If there are young children in the house, feed your dog in a covered crate where he cannot be interrupted and if the children are old enough to learn, teach them how to safely collaborate with your dog when he is eating by following some of the recommendations below.

Train your dog to see people being close to his bowl as an agreeable event not a threat. Drop several morsels of high value food in his dish when he is eating, or divide his dinner into several portions and spoon into his bowl separately. Using a cue like “dinner’s coming” before giving your dog more food develops a positive conditioned emotional response with this phrase, associating it with the anticipation that great things come from people near his dinner. When eating your Sunday roast, envisage how you feel if a waiter brings more gravy for your beef, offers second helpings of fluffy Yorkshire Puddings, and places a large chocolate dessert in front of you. Of course you would be thrilled to see him approaching your table! Just as your perception of someone’s impending arrival around your food should be filled with joyful anticipation, so should your dog’s.

Holding a KongTM for 10-week-old Bernese Mountain Dog Zeva teaches her to feel safe around people and food.

Hand feeding can help your dog learn that hands around food give, not take. With your hand in front of your dog’s nose and palm upwards, clench your fist around a treat. If he mugs you wait until he is calm (no verbal cue necessary) and clearly indicate he can take the treat by opening your fingers, feeding from your ‘pony-feeding’ hand. Holding a KongTM for him to eat from can also teach him to accept people around food, however for some dogs the urge to guard is very strong and this is especially true of raw bones.

Should you give a dog a raw bone if he defends it? If the benefits outweigh the risks then probably, with the caveat that it is done safely. Although it could be argued that the dog’s guarding is being reinforced, there are many benefits to feeding raw bones such as cleaning teeth, providing nutrition, offering enrichment, fulfilling the instinctive need to chew and relieving boredom. A dog that guards raw bones can be safely managed by feeding him in a covered crate and calling him out of the crate with a titbit (away from the bone) before removing it.

Aside from food guarding, some dogs will defend objects and this may be rooted in puppyhood. Most puppies are thieves and delight in running off with socks and shoes and other household items. If these articles are forcibly taken from the dog without giving a reward many puppies learn to run away as you approach in fear of losing their possession. Before long this turns into a game of chase. To avoid this and minimise any potential guarding, always swap the object your dog is holding for something of high value. If he learns he will get a favourite toy or a tasty treat he will be much more willing to offer you the object in his mouth. Playing hold/ release games such as tug can teach your dog that dropping the toy is reinforced with more play. Manage the home environment too by picking up anything that may be guarded, especially in a multi-pet household.

Not all dogs guard food and objects; sometimes they become over protective of a guardian. If a dog is guarding his owner, a slightly different protocol needs to be taken with desensitisation and counter conditioning by working with the dog at a distance where he does not guard the owner, and reinforcing non-reactivity.

Another type of guarding is protecting the home. Territorial guarding can often be minimised by managing the environment by restricting visibility such as access to windows and covering car crates. A common question asked is if a dog should be allowed to sleep on your bed or sofa, and it depends. Some dogs willingly jump off when asked but not others, for whom these sleeping areas are highly prized. If your dog growls when you try to move him and you step away, your dog learns how to retain his snug spot. To avoid confrontation, a dog that guards sleeping areas should never be allowed access to these places– why put yourself in a conflict situation when you may not win? It is better to entice your dog off the bed or sofa with a treat or call him for dinner, and remember to close the door to restrict future access.

The old adage that prevention is better than cure prevails and there are many steps that can be taken to help reduce guarding, and even if your dog isn’t protective it is never too soon to put a training protocol in place. On the other hand, if your dog guards you can help reduce this by managing his environment alongside positive behaviour modification. And if your dog is likely to guard his bone while allowing access to the family’s belongings, lock away the silver!

Buddy’s ‘guarding’ behaviour

Proud as punch! 8-year-old
Nancy and Buddy winning a rosette
at a local dog show © Jonathan Ponting

Buddy was a bright and trainable 19-week-old entire male ‘Sprocker’ referred to me for possible resource guarding, which appeared to be of sudden onset at 17 weeks. He was growling when approached and seemed to be object guarding, and this appeared to have a strong genetic element. The parents, who have children of eight and ten, were understandably concerned especially as Buddy’s behaviour was unpredictable with no clear triggers. Fortunately, they were committed to using positive reinforcement and clicker training, since suppressing Buddy’s ‘naughtiness’ with punishment would undoubtedly have made him more anxious and exacerbated the situation.

Normal guarding protocols were put in place and the owners were advised not to neuter Buddy, as it was felt that any reduction in testosterone could make him more fearful. Buddy was changed from kibble onto a raw diet, which satisfied his nutritional needs better. Despite following my recommendations to the letter, Buddy’s guarding continued.

After further consultation it became apparent that although Buddy’s behaviour had all the hallmarks of resource guarding, the underlying cause was due to social conflict and he was using growling to distance people when he felt uncomfortable. In essence he was guarding but not in the traditional sense – he was defending his personal space. With this new diagnosis, his training protocol was changed accordingly. A holistic approach was taken to Buddy’s care and the training was complemented by the family meeting Buddy’s other emotional and physical needs, not simply addressing the isolated problem.

The children were encouraged to watch Stop the 77 videos aimed at educating kids around dogs, and a catch phrase “Hi Buddy” was introduced when anyone walked past him and a treat was tossed to him. Buddy’s environment was managed so that he was not put in difficult social situations such as at the school gates. Choice is a powerful reinforcer and confidence builder, and Buddy was allowed to approach people in his own time and crated if a situation could not be managed successfully. Buddy’s family were marvellous at carrying out recommendations.

Much to everyone’s delight, Buddy’s owners reported that after three weeks on the new regime he was growling less, was more relaxed, displaying fewer calming signals and seemed happier – he was ‘smiling’ more. It was particularly pleasing that eight year old Nancy’s confidence had grown so much that she took Buddy to the local village dog show where they won two rosettes!

Buddy’s owner summarised his delight: “At this stage we are much more hopeful that we can give Buddy a long-term home, which is fantastic. He is very driven to work and so I have booked us on a clicker based retrieving course in September.”

This is a very pleasing outcome for a complex case and clearly demonstrates that it is imperative to find the root cause for unwanted behaviour in order to successfully modify it.

My thanks to Andrew Hale of Train Positive for his collaboration on this case. www.trainpositive.co.uk

Kate Mallatratt is a founder member of International Canine Behaviourists and is a member of Pet Professional Guild for force-free training. She is the author of Home Alone – and Happy! and worked in television as an assistant animal trainer for Plimsoll Production. Kate holds an Advanced Diploma in Canine Behaviour Management and specialises in errorless learning, a concept she incorporates into problem prevention, behaviour modification and enriching the home environment for the family dog. Kate has owned and trained dogs for many years and runs her behaviour and training business, Contemplating Canines, in East Devon, UK.


Stop the 77. Excellent teaching videos and resources to help keep kids safe around dogs www.stopthe77.com

Bounders Dog Photography. Offering a 10% discount for ATM readers with code “ATM10” www.bounders.co.uk


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