Resource Guarding – The Misunderstood Problem

What is wrong with my dog?

Recently, there has been much discussion about resource guarding, particularly since a certain famous self-proclaimed dog trainer incited a dog to bite him while guarding her food dish. There are many misconceptions about what dog experts call “resource guarding”, that is, the act of guarding something that a dog considers of value. This could include food, treats, toys and even people and other companion animals. The most common type of resource guarding, and the most misunderstood, is that involving food.

While there are various ideas among dog lovers as to why a dog might guard his food, the main reason is simply instinct. Guarding of resources is an innate survival impulse.  According to the natural law of animals, “what is in my mouth or between my paws is mine.” There is no disputing this. If you try to take something from the dog that he doesn’t wish to part with, he will often feel that it is his “right” to guard it. This has nothing to do with status seeking; instinct tells animals that if they don’t guard their food, they may starve to death. Can you imagine a non-resource guarding dog in the wild? It would not survive.

For a more human perspective, think about U.S. law: it states that a search without a warrant is unlawful. If the police show up without one and you lock your doors, you are not defying authority; you are exercising your rights under the law as you understand it. So it is with dogs. A dog that guards food or toys is not defying your authority. He is simply asserting his rights under his perception of the natural law.

This is MINE… stay away!

One of the reasons that many people have a hard time understanding this is that we have bred the resource guarding instinct out of a lot of dogs over the centuries, so they simply won’t do it. Think of the majority of Labradors and Golden Retrievers – not only have they lost their instinct to resource guard, but they and many other dogs actively seek to bring you things!

So, how do you teach your dog to give up a cherished resource?  If you are fortunate enough to begin with a puppy, teaching a “drop it” command is an easy first step. Start by giving the pup a toy that he considers low in value.  When it’s firmly in his mouth, tell him “drop it” as you wave a tasty treat in front of his nose. As soon as he lets go of the toy, give him the treat. Then return the toy to him.  By receiving the toy back, the pup will learn that responding to “drop it” is always worthwhile.  Otherwise, a smart pup may actually begin to weigh options: “do I prefer this or that?” As the “drop it” response improves, work with gradually higher value items, until you can tell him to drop a meaty bone, give him a treat, and return the bone to him.

With a puppy at the food bowl, walk nearby while he’s eating. As you go by, toss a yummier morsel into the bowl, such as a piece of hotdog or cheese.  As the pup becomes comfortable with your being closer, slowly work up to picking up the bowl, dropping in the treat, and setting it back down. This teaches the pup that good things come when someone takes your food bowl. Eventually, the pup will be happy to have you nearby when he’s eating.

Hand-feeding is also easy to incorporate into your puppy’s routine – there is no rule that meals must be served in a bowl. By hand-feeding your dog, you have the opportunity to further improve your relationship, remind him that you are the source of good things, and emphasize that having you around while he is eating is a positive thing. This is particularly beneficial with puppies, but can be incorporated with adult dogs as well.

What if you have an adult dog that is already resource guarding? The process in this case must proceed much more slowly. You can start by simply teaching the dog that “drop it” means there are tidbits of food on the floor, as in the video by Domesticated Manners. Over time, you can eventually move to the point where the dog will actively drop items in his mouth when he hears the words “drop it.”

If your dog is a serious resource guarder, to the point of being dangerous, or if he displays resource guarding around people or companion animals, talk to a professional behavior counselor or trainer for assistance, and make sure they are using the most modern methods. Note the completely different techniques and vastly superior results in this video from my colleague, Lisa Mullinax, as she teaches a dog not to guard a food bowl.

Most importantly, remember the natural law and try not to break it outright. With patience and consistency, you can teach your dog that it is to his benefit to give up the things that you ask for and thus he won’t feel the need to guard them from you.

Where will Fido stay?

Choosing a Kennel or Dog Sitter for the Holidays

I hate to admit this, but it is time to be preparing for the holidays. While many of us will be off to visit family and friends across the country or abroad, some of us will not be able to take our dogs (and other pets) along with us. The question for pet lovers is “what do we do with our pets while we’re away?”

Of course, a luxury resort would be great!

While bringing pets – particularly dogs – on a trip can be fun, it’s not always practical and, may not really be in the best interest of the pet. Before deciding to bring Fido or Fluffy along, consider what his accommodations will be and how much time can be devoted to him. Will he be left alone for long periods while you’re off doing family things? And just as importantly, will your high energy pet be welcome if he gets stressed out and starts to destroy things, or bark or whine excessively? If these are concerns for your dog, then leaving him home may be less stressful for everyone.

Once that decision is made, the next question is “who should care for him?” Many people opt to have a neighbor watch over the home. This is a good option if you have a dependable, caring neighbor who knows and loves your pets. Unfortunately, during the holidays, neighbors may also be traveling or busy with their own families, so they may not even be available.

The next best thing to being home with your pets is to have a home service care for them while you’re away. Look for a reliable service and ask for references.  There are services in most communities that will watch over your pets and take care of other household needs such as bringing in mail, putting out the trash, and watering plants. There are many advantages to this type of service, but the most important is that your pets won’t have the added stress of being away from their home. For many dogs and cats, this is far less stressful than a kennel environment.

If an in-home service is not for you, the next option is to kennel your pets. The advantage of this is that your pets may get more supervision than in your own home. If your dog is sociable with other dogs and with people, there may also be doggie day care and boarding options available in your area. Keep in mind that the quality doggie day care providers all require pre-admission evaluations, and most require at least a few day visits prior to any overnight stay to reduce the likelihood of the dog becoming overly stressed during his stay. So get in touch well before your departure date in order to be ready in time.

We’ll make sure Santa is well received in your absence!

Remember that most pet care providers book up well in advance of the holidays. Don’t wait until the last minute to make arrangements or you may be left with few options. If you’re in doubt as to what would be best for your particular pet, your local trainer or behavior counselor may be able to provide advice as well as referrals to the best options in your area.


I’m OK. Are you OK?

The little dog, some kind of terrier mix, nervously paced back and forth in the shopping cart at the pet store where I was in between class sessions. I had been called up by the cashier to talk to them about their dog’s behavior problems at home, where he was destructive and had house soiling challenges, though he’d been previously housebroken. As I began to talk with the couple, I could already sense the hostility between them. Then, like a volcano, it erupted. At the tops of their voices, they shouted at one another. Shoppers heading to the cash registers turned 180 degrees to find other things to buy rather than continue to approach. I was stuck there, looking down at the now trembling little dog, desperately wishing to send him a telepathic apology, “I wish I could help you, but I can’t”. What this couple needed was a marriage therapist, not a dog trainer.

While this true account is an extreme example, the gist of the problem is not unique in the work of a dog trainer or dog behavior counselor. Periodically, I work with families trying to draw me into their disagreements, with comments such as “can you tell (a family member) that she has to (fill in the blank)”. On other occasions, I’ve arrived at sessions that were supposed to include all family members only to have someone blatantly missing from the meeting, or clearly annoyed by my presence. This is the least enjoyable part of my work, and at such times I wish I could just hand them the business card of a local Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist to contact instead.

Anthropologist, Brian Hare, recently demonstrated in studies that dogs are masters at reading human social cues. While many of us who grew up with dogs already knew this, it is nice when someone does a scientific study that validates what we know in our hearts. While there are many benefits of this, including the ease of training and the connections that this allows us to make with our canine companions, there are pitfalls as well. Specifically, dogs that have close connections with their humans will be affected by their emotions, whether positive or negative.

When I was in high school, my German Shepherd Dog, Nick, was particularly attuned to my ever-changing adolescent moods. One day, when I was sad about who knows what, I took him for a walk in the park. Once off-leash, he ran full speed toward a puddle of water. The puddle turned out to be deeper than he’d thought, resulting in his stumbling and getting his entire face wet. When I giggled lightly, he stopped, looked at me, and then proceeded to repeat this behavior several times until I was heartily laughing out loud. Laughing is good, sad is bad. Any dog with a close human relation understands this.

Smile and the world will smile with you...

This being the case, we have to consider that our dogs may be affected by our other emotions as well. My Border Collie, Claire, leaves the room whenever there is football on TV, because in her 12-1/2 years of life, my San Francisco 49ers have unfortunately had more bad years than good years. She doesn’t like it when I yell, even if it’s at the TV.

But what is there to do? We can’t change what we feel, or suppress our emotions just for the sake of our dogs, right? Of course not, but I do recommend doing what you can not to have loud screaming fights in the presence of your dog if you can avoid it. More importantly, try to be aware of how your behavior and routine affects that of your dog. A change as seemingly minor as a job change, which we may think is transparent to our dogs (we still get up, go to work, etc.) can actually affect our dogs if they sense that our mood has changed.

If you are having problems with your dog’s behavior and you think that it may be at least partly due to challenges you are facing yourself, consider the possibility that a personal counselor or a life coach may be as worthwhile an investment as a professional dog trainer. In less stressful times, try to remain diligent about continuing your dog’s physical and mental exercise routines to reduce his or her stress level. Playing games can be mutually beneficial, whether it is a nice game of ball retrieving, a hearty tug of war with a favorite toy, or your favorite dog sport.

I read a reminder recently that, in a plane going down, it’s important to first make sure that your own oxygen mask is securely in place before you can effectively assist others. Using the same principal with regard to your dog can go a long way to keeping everyone’s stress levels at bay. Do what you can to improve your mental and emotional stability, and your dog’s behavior should reflect this positive change.

Dog Scouts of America

If you are looking for something interesting and fun to do with your dog, but the popular dog sports are not your thing, why not consider Dog Scouts?  This non-profit organization was founded in 1995 by Lonnie Olson, whose original goal was to do as many different things as she could with her dogs. Per the Dog Scouts website:

If you believe that dogs really enjoy learning new things and spending time with their owners, you’re our kind of dog person.  Dogs were not meant to be “furniture.”  Working dogs want to work.  Without having an acceptable activity in which to use up all of that energy that comes “built-in” with a dog, our canine companions often get into trouble. By better understanding how your dog thinks, how he learns, and what drives his behavior, and by participating in a variety of dog sports and activities, you will become a more responsible dog owner. We hope to prevent misunderstandings, communication failures and behavioral problems which often lead to dogs being given up as a ‘lost cause.’

While, due to my involvement in several dog sports, I’ve not had the time to get very involved with our local troop here in the Silicon Valley, I am in close contact with several people who are, and have had the opportunity to offer some learning lectures to them as well as attending several meetings.

“Our dog’s lives are much shorter than ours- let’s help them enjoy their time with us as much as we can.” — Dog Scout Owner’s Motto, from the DSA Website,

After filling out an application of several pages, the new dog scouts members are welcomed to train with the local troop. They learn about training, proper socialization, and how to be good canine citizens. They then take a number of tests which must be videotaped and sent to the dog scouts headquarters. After passing these tests, they get to be official dog scouts. Then they go on to merit badges! Badges range in a wide variety of areas, including many dog sports and activities such as hiking, kayaking, and community services such as therapy dog work.

Troop 198 at Humane Society Silicon Valley

In the Silicon Valley, Troop 198 meets at the Humane Society Silicon Valley on a monthly basis. They work together to achieve official membership and merit badges, in addition to offering interesting meeting topics and guest presenters such as police dog handlers.

The DSA mission is “To improve the lives of dogs, their owners, and society through humane education, positive training and community involvement.” If this resonates with you and you are interested in expanding your dog’s world, consider looking into – or starting – a Dog Scouts troop near you.