A toy is just a toy…or is it?

When did we, as dog owners, decide that our dogs must change their behavior, in order to suit our lifestyle?

Much of dog behavior is innate, not learned.  In my opinion, we are being completely unreasonable, and dare I say, arrogant, in demanding that our canine companions change their natural behavior, rather than it being us, who should change our expectations.

One trait that I have seen, that many dog owners know nothing about is “resource guarding.”  In the case of dog parks, someone inevitably brings along their dog’s toys.  Yeah, that’s not going to cause any problems (said with a hint of sarcasm)!

Picture this.  You are in a large fenced in area, with more than a dozen dogs, running around off leash playing, along with a few owners not paying attention to what their dog is doing.  Someone decides to start play with their own dog, and they toss a ball, a frisbee, or some other toy.  Suddenly, multiple dogs take off running for that “prize.” The quickest dog gets the prize, and it usually is not the owner’s dog!  The owner cannot understand what just happened.  He goes towards the dog, who is ‘owning’ that toy, and attempts to retrieve it, to resume play with his own dog.  This is where all hell breaks loose!

Many dog owners, knowing absolutely nothing about canine behavior, will immediately begin screaming, “that dog doesn’t belong in public” or “he’s aggressive!”  And then, there is always the “social justice” owner, who says, “I’m going to sue” and “you are going to pay for my dog’s vet bills and my medical bills.”

Well, resource guarding is far more common than any of us would like to believe.  Most dogs are resource guarders, just to different degrees.  Dogs will always give you warnings before a bite occurs.  It may be a simple look, they avert their gaze from you, a low growl, a snap, and then if you persist after all the warning signs, is when the lunge and bite may occur.  We have all seen what happens, how some humans react to other’s taking their food or possessions.  You may even know someone with this trait, or you may very well have it yourself.  Well, it’s the same in our dogs, except our dogs cannot communicate in our language to tell us to Back Off! 

If you have never seen resource guarding before, you are quite lucky.  Eventually, you may see it, and it may very well be in your own dog.   To guard against a potential fight breaking out among dogs, or even a human getting bit, I strongly urge all dog owners to become familiar with this very common behavior and learn how to work with it.  If your dog is the least bit territorial, which is a common trait among all dogs, then more likely, he will display some resource guarding at some point.  It may very well be minor, and it can be stopped as soon as it starts, but the behavior is still there.  You MUST work on this often, so that the dog begins to understand that this is not an acceptable behavior.  You may be able to ‘tone’ this behavior down, in order to better control it, but you will never be able to completely extinguish it.

My dog is a resource guarder.  She is also a social diva.  She loves people and most all dogs, until one gives her reason not to.  She will play well with any dog, until the time comes, that she decides to go lay down and rest.  And she may very well take that toy that she has been playing with, as it is “new” to her, and she wants to possess it.  When she does this, especially with something “new,” I don’t even try to take it from her.  Instead, I will divert her attention, usually with a piece of cheese, to where she will drop the toy, run for the cheese, making it easy for me to snatch that toy and put it away.  She always comes back and looks for it.  When she cannot find it, she acts confused and a little hurt.  I feel bad, because I just ruined her game, but I cannot have any aggression issues breaking out, especially when it is in my power to prevent them.  I will never be able to completely extinguish this behavior in her, as it is an innate behavior, and not learned.  To try to extinguish it entirely, would most likely cause me to also break down her prey drive, which is where the hunt drive comes from.  And that is completely unacceptable to me, as it would most likely affect her searching ability!  My dog is not my furry pet, for all other dogs and humans to play with.  We encounter people and dogs daily, and she gets to ‘meet ‘n greet,’ but that’s it.  My dog is a working dog.  She is my companion and my partner, but she is not a pet! 

You just need to remember, that resource guarding is completely natural in dogs, and you cannot punish a dog for his warning signs.  He has what is his, and you are trying to steal it away.  Think of a home intruder coming uninvited into your home.  How are you going to react?  Most likely, you will act the exact same way; to possess what is your’s and defend it in whatever way that you need to.  That is just what your dog is doing!  So, it is up to YOU, to learn about your dog’s behavior, and learn to communicate with him, teaching him what is acceptable behavior, and what is undesired behavior.

Here is an article that I found on this topic, and it gives some great tips for working on  resource guarding.

Here is something that I did with Zephyr when she was a VERY young pup, under 4 months of age, primarily to help combat this behavior.  At feeding time, I filled her bowl, then buried my hand under the kibble. As she was eating, I began talking to her in what I call my “Mickey Mouse” voice, a very high-pitched, almost squealing voice.  I also would start to wiggle my fingers that were buried under the kibble, and raise my hand, allowing her to eat out of my hand.  I did this often when she was young, so she would associate her food and me, to be a positive experience.  I did this, because she was, and still is, an extremely dominant dog, and fiercely independent.  I was trying to stave off any potential problems that may have come up down the road.  A WORD OF CAUTION HERE:  I strongly recommend that this ONLY be done, when the dog is quite young, as in less than 4 months old, to where he has not yet been able to form any undesirable habits of any sort.  If you got your dog from a rescue, where he already had some “aggression” issues in the past, I DO NOT recommend using this technique, as it could very well backfire on you.  Also, do not allow young children anywhere near any dog when they are eating.  Dogs visualize children very differently than they see adults.

DISCLAIMER:  Any techniques that I have described here, in my personal blog, should not be done without the in-person guidance of a qualified trainer, and one who has experience dealing with aggression issues.  I am NOT recommending that anyone does what I have done.  I am simply giving an example of what has worked for me.  If you have any of these issues, GET SOME QUALIFIED HELP FROM AN ANIMAL BEHAVIORIST OR A TRAINER.