Possession is Nine-Tenths of Canine Property Law: What To Do If Your Dog Resource Guards
Sitka likes to “dispatch” mice in our pasture. She’s a perfect and perfectly sleek greyhound/husky cross, fast and joyful. She’ll carry the mouse around for a while after the deed is done, the whole thing hidden in her long and delicate mouth (sometimes the tail will be sticking out…how delightfully macabre). Then she’ll put the mouse down, sigh, and take a break, stretched languorously on her side with the spoils of her hunt just inches from her snout. Often, one or more of my other dogs can be found waiting nearby, their blinkingly innocent faces full of hope. They’re not as successful in the fields as Sitka is (she’s all speed and lithe vulpine grace, that one), but they seem to want Sitka to know that they, too, like mice. If a dog manages to get too close—a Sitka with a mouth full of mouse has a rather large ‘personal space’ bubble, I’ll have you know—she’ll react. A rumbling growl and the slightest twitch of her lip into a snarl, pearly white enamel clearly visible.
Yes, it’s true. Sitka guards her booty from one and all.
Do your dogs guard stuff from each other? Bones, chew toys, food, beds…dogs can guard a stunning array of stuff. I’ve had clients whose dogs guard their owners; I’ve had clients whose dogs guard scents on the ground. My own dogs guard stolen Kleenexes and farm-related…“matter” which shall remain, mercifully, unnamed. Sometimes when dogs guard against each other, the guarding is lackadaisical: a halfhearted growl as another dog sneaks in and absconds with the goods. Sometimes the guarding is ferocious: a snaking run across the room and an explosive dog-dog brawl at even the slightest suggestion of a “hey, want to share?”
It can seem inappropriate when our dogs guard from each other, and it’s tempting to try and stop guarding from happening. Sharing is caring, right? I mean us humans don’t guard stuff from each other, we don’t show our teeth and vocalize when a dinner companion reaches across the table to snatch a fry from our plate, do we? [Editor’s note: not sure this example proves the point.] This feeling of “hey, dog, don’t do that” is especially the case if it seems somehow unfair from our human perspective. Once, my beautiful all-white sled dog Sugar snagged a mouse from (literally) right under Sitka’s nose. After this outrageous bit of canine thievery, Sugar then proceeded to guard the mouse from Sitka herself. It was, to say the least, nervy.
Luckily for those of us with Dogs Who Guard Stuff, this behaviour is beautifully normal. If no-one is getting hurt and no-one is getting scared, you can just sit back and watch it happen. I will never tire of watching the wordless conversations between Sitka and my other dogs when she’s staking her claim. Recently, our very fearful dog Walter started guarding slobbered, ripped, and chewed up dog toys from other dogs, and we (quietly) celebrated! How exhilarating, to see him comfortable enough to be a dog!
If it’s time to change your dog’s guarding behaviour, because it really gets on your nerves or one of your dogs is getting hurt or scared, there are a few ways of handling it. The easiest thing is to separate your dogs when they have “hot” items. If you’re handing out chewies, do it with your dogs in their own crates or in separate rooms. This simply prevents the problem behaviour from occurring. You can also prompt the guardee away from the situation. Happy talk, trill, or use your recall cue, and then reward them with a cookie (have a canister of biscuits nearby for ease) to encourage an ‘it pays to walk away’ behaviour in the future. I use both of these techniques frequently, since not all my guarding dogs are as blasé as Sitka (I’m looking at you, Timber). It might be tempting to yell at the guarding dog to share, goldarnit, but this is unlikely to help, and may actually make the guarding worse.
Side note: when I say “all my guarding dogs”, I mean all my dogs. They all guard. Every single one.
If these easy fix-its aren’t enough, I would encourage you to call in a credentialled, force-free dog trainer. We can help you set your dogs up for success, and we can help reduce guarding by using one or more of a few standard techniques: we can get right to the root of the issue by changing the guarding dog’s underlying emotional state (a la “Oh, I actually like it when another dog approaches me when I have a mouth full of mouse!”), and we can change the behaviour of the guarded-against dog (a la “I used to accidentally walk by my canine sister when she had mouse breath. Now I head to my own bed and get a treat”).
No reputable trainer nearby? Feel free to get in touch with me and we’ll figure something out. In the meantime, I’ll just be over here with some popcorn, watching my dogs be hilarious and wonderful. You’re absolutely welcome to join me…but you’ll have to get your own popcorn, my friend. No sharesies.
This post is a part of the "Train For Rewards Blog Party 2019", with Companion Animal Psychology.