Guarding behaviors are complex and can be a puzzlement to dog owners. One moment, the dog can be very sweet and loving, and the next moment, she’s growling and snapping. What happened? The human moved too close to the guarding dog and an intense spike in arousal occurred. Dogs resource guard food, toys, chews, locations, and people. Some guard parts of their own bodies.
Attempts to press forward when the dog is communicating a guarding message often lead to human-directed aggression. The dog may stiffen or stare to warn the human to back off. If these lower level messages are not heeded, the dog must escalate his warning. The worst strategy is to punish the dog’s warnings. The growling behavior may be repressed, but the dog is still a guarder. Now he is likely to bite without warning, and this is dangerous.
Displays in Puppies
Guarding behaviors can evolve due to certain life experiences. Puppies who display these behaviors are born guarders; they lack life experience. The earlier these signals are recognized and addressed, the more likely it is that guarding behaviors can be changed. Body tension, a stare or side-eye look, and covering the valued object are all signals that the puppy is uncomfortable with the proximity of the human.
A counter conditioning program should be started. The purpose of this program is to change the puppy’s conditioned emotional response to the approach of a person while she has her “treasure”. Owners might also observe if their guarding puppies cache (hide) objects. Furniture cushions are a favorite spot. The human may not even know an object is there, but the puppy remembers, and “defends” the hiding place.
Progression into Adolescence
Puppies don’t outgrow guarding behaviors, because they work. Without intervention, a puppy who guards usually grows into a dog who guards. The human-directed aggression display often becomes more intense.
An adopted adolescent or adult dog may resource guard after arrival in a new home. They may have life experience that taught them guarding is necessary for survival. Adopted dogs are transported from shelters and foster homes by the time they are placed in permanent homes. This is extremely stressful, and guarding may be a result of that stress. Appropriate guidance moving through transitions can help erode these behaviors.
Fix or Manage
There are no guarantees of behavioral outcomes, including guarding. Counter conditioning programs to bring about changes in the animal’s conditioned emotional response require a commitment on the owner’s part. It takes many months of training and management. A few food tosses are unlikely to bring about the desired change.
In some cases, the best possible outcome may be management. Multiple factors must be considered, such as guarding intensity, length of practice time, variety of guarding objects/locations, family dynamic and ability/willingness to follow through with protocols, among others.
Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2020 all rights reserved
Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC