Resource Guarding


RESOURCE GUARDING: Refers to a dog showing a behavior like growling, nipping, etc. This is his way of warning others to keep away from a certain pocession (resource.) A resource is often food, toys, a place or a person.

Buffy, a stray six week-old Chow, presented with object and food guarding against people and dogs. I elected to not touch the dog-dog issues, which is a relatively common approach. Her socialization and play skills were coming along nicely and she was developing good acquired bite inhibition. The guarding against people, however, needed to be actively resolved. The following is a summary of Buffy’s food guarding exercise regime.

Incidentally, Buffy also presented with socialization deficits and severe body handling problems, which were also addressed, as was her object guarding. The key to good hierarchy design is small enough incremental steps that at no point do you see the original guarding problem. In the case of a puppy, such as this, there may actually be more aggressive increment jumps. I did a few other things in the can’t-hurt-might-help category. These included impulse control (stay, off and wait) and extra soft-mouth training.

The Problem With Buffy

When approached while eating from her dish, Buffy would freeze and, if approach continued, growl briefly and then lunge and snap. If touched while eating, she would growl simultaneous to whirling and biting. Due to the independent body-handling problem, this had to be partly resolved prior to combining it with food bowl exercises. Buffy did not guard an empty dish.

The 8 Step Process

Step 1 (day 1)

Installment feeding of canned food. I sat on the floor next to Buffy’s dish and spooned in one mouthful. Once she had swallowed, I spooned the next mouthful into her dish. By the end of the second meal, she demonstrated a clear happy anticipatory orientation to my spoon hand after each swallow.

Step 2 (day 1-2)

Overlap. This was essentially the same as Step 1 except that I added the next spoonful to her dish while she was still consuming, always a much dicier proposition. We did this for three meals without evidence of guarding seen.

Step 3 (day 2-3)

Approach overlap. I was now standing. I spooned larger installments, withdrew two paces, reapproached and added the next spoonful while Buffy was still consuming. So, this combined approach with the overlap exercise.

We stuck with this for three meals, at end of which time a Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) had become evident – Buffy wagged and looked up on approach. We then repeated the exercise for one more day (5 small meals) with larger withdrawal distances and intervals.

Step 4 (day 4)

Trumping. Now I spooned her entire puppy sized ration into her bowl. I withdrew five paces, paused 15 seconds, approached and added a (hidden) marble-sized dollop of goat cheese. I had pre-auditioned the goat cheese out of context and ascertained it to be in Buffy’s Top Five All Time Foods. I withdrew to six paces and waited for Buffy to continue to consume – this was not immediate (typical of trumping – dog orients to handler rather than back to dish) – then repeated.

On the third trial I got a clear CER– withdrawal from bowl on approach, orientation to me and tail wag. Clever little thing.

Step 5 (day 4-6)

Covering High Value Base. To up the ante, I tried some approaches while she was consuming a top food (bowl of treats), rather than normal meal ration level food. I trumped it with higher value stuff (gorgonzola). In two trials, I  once again saw her happy anticipatory CER, a very rapid curve indeed.

Step 6 (day 4 onward)

Cold Trials. To better simulate real life, I initiated random trumping. At least once per meal, from a random direction, at a random time and with one of Buffy’s top foods, I approached and added the bonus. Better than 80% of the time, I got an evident “yippee” CER. At no point did she guard.

Step 7 (day 8 onward)

Generalization. I recruited my husband, colleagues in my office and a neighbor to do some random trumps, with careful monitoring for any evidence of regression, including the absence of “yippee” CERs to their approach. Had this been an adult dog, the hierarchy – and, notably, a much more gradual one too – would have been recommenced at the beginning by each new recruit, with likely accelerated progress rate for each successive person.

Step 8 (day 15 onward)

Body Handling. It was only here that I commenced patting, grabbing or pushing her around while she was eating. In most cases this would come earlier (prior to cold trails), however with Buffy it took me this long to get the independent body-handling problem up to speed. The handling during eating exercise consisted of the body touch (later handling) followed by a trumping addition, repeated until the body touch/handling elicited the “yippee” CER.

Buffy’s CER consisted of a wag as well as orientation to my hand. If I stored the bonus in my other hand behind my back or my pocket and reached with a blank hand, she would wag and orient to my face.

Buffy is now on maintenance with a cold trumping or body handling trial usually once per meal and use of other people whenever an opportunity presents itself. I ended up adopting her.

About the Author Jean Donaldson

Jean Donaldson is the award-winning author of The Culture Clash, MINE! A Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs and the newly released FIGHT! A Guide to Dog-Dog Aggression. In 1999 she relocated to San Francisco, where she directs the San Francisco SPCA’s Academy for Dog Trainers, regarded as the Harvard for dog trainers. Jean has lectured to a wide variety of groups in North American, the UK, Japan and Australia. Born in Montreal, Canada, where she studied at McGill, Jean founded both the Montreal Flyball Association and Renaissance Dog Training, the first positive reinforcement based school and counseling service in the province. Her own dogs and dogs she has trained, have earned numerous titles and wins in various dog sports. While a student, she worked as an adoption counselor at the Montreal SPCA and later served on its Board of Directors. She has a background in science and interest in evolutionary biology, the subject in which she is currently pursuing a doctorate degree.