Resource Guarding Part 2: Growling and Teeth

When early guarding behaviors go unrecognized, they can intensify.  Dogs do what works for them:  if a side-eye warning fails, and a valued object is removed, the dog learns that he must be clearer in his communication.  No one misses the message of a growl, lip curl, or air snap.  A contact bite is not far behind.  These behaviors are further down the continuum and require intervention.  An owner can either attempt to change the dog’s conditioned emotional response or devise a management plan to help keep everyone safe.  Dogs may guard from other dogs in the home and from their human companions.  This article addresses guarding from humans.  Food bowls, treats, toys, chews, locations, their owners, and parts of the dog’s body are common guarding targets.  At times, a dog guards out-of-the-ordinary items within his radius.  Insecure dogs are more likely to be guarders.

Fix vs. Manage

Whether an owner decides to attempt to fix the dog’s guarding behaviors or manage them is a preference.  Guarding behaviors are complicated.  Changing the dog’s conditioned emotional response is required in order to stop guarding behaviors.  Owners must be willing and able to implement and closely follow behavior change protocols as well as manage carefully in the meantime.  There is no guarantee of the outcome.  Success depends on various factors, such as the age of the dog and length of guarding as an established behavior.  The scope of guarded objects and the intensity that the dog displays also heavily impact the likelihood of success.  It’s more likely to stop guarding of a particular style of chew bone than if there are numerous other chews and toys that the dog guards, too.  It’s harder to stop a location guarder who growls when someone approaches multiple locations, such as his bed, the sofa, and his spot on the rug. 

Fix It Attempt

Behavior change protocols vary and are specific to what the animal guards.  Depending on intensity, the appropriate protocol many have over 100 steps to work.  Observation of desirable changes in the dog’s conditioned emotional responses is critical in progressing through the steps.  There is no room for unrealistic expectations or impatience.  Behavior change programs can take six months or longer to produce desired results.  The use of threshold distances and timeframes and high value food to reinforce a different set of behaviors are essential elements of these protocols.  Placing the dog in a situation where he has practiced guarding behaviors is setting him up to fail.   Using a low to high value hierarchy is a better way to elicit calm and passive behaviors that you want to reinforce.

Reducing overall stress is part of any behavior change plan.  If formalized training has been lacking in your dog’s world, it’s rarely ever too late to begin or refresh.  Dogs love to problem-solve; it keeps brains constructively occupied.  Obedience training places a structure on daily routines and opens the door for lots of mentally stimulating play, games, and other activities.

Manage It

Due to the complexity of guarding behaviors, many dog owners choose to manage their pets.  This strategy can work, if the dog’s guarding behaviors are targeted in only one direction, for example, his food bowl or a particular style of bone or chew.  Diligent and knowledgeable observation is required to keep everyone safe, especially in a home with children.  When you give your dog a toy or chew that HE may perceive as valuable, make sure he is crated or gated, where there is no rehearsal of guarding behaviors.  Locations can be trickier.  Call your dog away from those prized places and be aware if he transfers his guarding behaviors to a different spot.

If your dog guards a particular style of bone or toy, remove that object from his collection.  Some dogs guard toys and chews only when they are new.  Set up to move past the novelty interest and keep everyone safe until the dog is no longer likely to guard that object. 

A Cautionary Note

Regardless of the objects or locations that your dog guards, behavior change protocols are a complex mix of thresholds, observations, and reinforcement schedules, among other elements.  Working with a qualified, experienced professional is recommended.  Complacency has no place in either a “fix it” attempt or “manage it” choice.  Guarding is a potentially dangerous behavior. 


Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2018 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC