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A Dogs Instincts: Resource Guarding

Not too long ago a majority of the dogs I knew were outside dogs. They lived their lives outside, performing some duty or job for their family – guarding livestock or protecting the family or house. Their lives were more adjacent to ours, still there but less incorporated in our day to day.

Today, most dogs are members of the family. They’re a part of our daily lives and join in on many of our everyday activities. Some might even get to sleep in a bed, or some table scraps from time to time 😉

However, with this increased integration, dogs are required to follow more strict rules and adhere to a great many of our strange human rituals. They’re required to become more tolerant and accept scary situations like vacuums, babies, music, etc. And failure to do so results in punishment to the dog.

A common thing I see in my dog training clients is that we tend to ask either too much or expect too much from our canine companions. We fail to take the appropriate time to make them comfortable with a new experience or request and we see their animal instincts surface. Let’s look at an example of this with resource guarding and figure out what we can do to make ours and our dog’s lives easier!

Our first example comes from a facebook post where a small child is reaching for something on the stove.


The idea is, in this photo, we see a child unknowingly reaching for something they don’t understand can and will hurt them. Not all parts of the stove are dangerous but eventually they will find the part that is. So what happens after this?

Do you get rid of the stove because it’s dangerous? Do you blame the stove for hurting your child? Do you remove the child from the area?

Most people blame themselves. The stove was just being a stove – doing what it does naturally. They say they should have paid more attention. They shouldn’t have let the child have access to the stove.

However, the issue arises when we replace the above image with one like this (credit:

Unlike the stove, we expect the dog eating here to tolerate being grabbed and pulled on while eating. We expect the dog to tolerate being leaned over and having a human this close to his face while eating.

If the dog does not. We blame the dog. The dog should have known she didn’t mean to hurt him, she was just playing. The dog should have just moved away if he didn’t like the attention. The dog should understand she doesn’t actually want this food. The dog. The dog. The dog.

The thing is, guarding food is a totally normal behavior for dog. It makes evolutionary sense. If an animal just gave up his food to everyone else, he’d starve. He needs to protect it and keep it safe. This is how dogs are programmed to work. We, as their caregivers have to teach them an alternative behavior if we want this natural instinct to change and even if we do change it, we still must be aware it’s still there under the surface.

“Resource Guarding” is when a dog guards or protects something valuable to them. It doesn’t have to actually be valuable (monetarily) or even something valuable to you. It can be a sock, a toy, a bone, tablescrap, etc. Anything they themselves find valuable.

When this resource is attempted to be taken from them, the react with a behavior to ensure they get to keep it. The type of behavior they reactive with tends to be whatever has worked for them in the past. If a growl will keep the person away, they’ll growl. If a growl is ignored, and they lost the item, maybe next time they’ll snap, see if that works. Their goal is never to hurt you or be mean. They aren’t aggressive. They’re only trying to accomplish their goal: keeping the object.

Teaching an alternative behavior for me comes in two ways. One, as food is the most likely resource to be guarded, I like to teach food avoidance. If food is dropped, I want their default behavior to be to move away from it. Two, if they take something I don’t want them to have or something that is dangerous, I want them to drop it. Upon request, I want them to readily (and happily) give the item back to me.

If you’d like to attempt either of the above, I’d recommend you seek out a positive trained professional to show you the ropes. Going too fast or using punishment, actually tends to increase the chance of a dog resource guarding. A trained professional will teach you how to get your dog to enjoy giving you things and how avoiding say a dropped pill or poisonous food item, is fun for them.

Little Esther, a TLC Graduate, is a master at both of the above. If you’d like to check out her food avoidance work, see this:

One other caveat I’d like to mention is dogs tend to be learn behaviors based on their situation. If you only practice food avoidance in the kitchen, then drop a hot dog in the livingroom, they’re likely to forget most of the training in the kitchen and be celebrating with a new found hotdog. That’s why, no matter what your teaching your pet it’s important to do so in as many different situations as possible until they start to generalize the behavior to other scenarios. Each new scenario, you’ll see some regression (wait, what did “leave it” mean again?) then faster learning as they pull from previous experiences (oh yeah, that thing we did in the kitchen where I move away from food).

Happy Training!

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My Crossover Journey

A wanted to share with you folks how I came to be the passionate force & pain free dog trainer I am today. Believe it or not, I started out a lot like many of you folks are now. I used to believe that you needed to be a “balanced” trainer, that there were some stubborn dogs who needed a strong hand to guide them to the right decision. I used leash corrections and tools to control dogs because I thought that’s what you HAD to do to train them. You were the human, and they the dog, so you had to show them who the boss was and then they’d respect you.

Now I’m what you call a crossover trainer. A crossover trainer is someone used to train dogs using something other than positive reinforcement and force free methods and now they have more scientific based, positive, fun approach to dog training.

Growing up, I had always been an animal lover even before I can remember. My parents have loads of pictures of me playing with all sorts of critters from cows to dogs to kittens. I used to daydream all the time about me suddenly getting the power to speak to animals. I was just fascinated by them how they moved and how they communicated with each other without any words. It blew my mind.

When I was a bit older in high school, I read dog books about training and learned as much as I could on the subject. Then I found Cesar Milan on National Geographic channel. I watched this man take a dog and within a few (television) minutes completely transform him or her into a seemingly well behaved house pet. This, I told myself, this is how you do it. This gets results. So I read up on him. I read his books, I read his blogs, I watched all his episodes on television. This reasoning about showing the dog who the pack leader was seemed to make sense. After all, I wanted to be a good leader. I wanted the dog to respect me. I was sure that his way was the only way to get results.

Then I got my first dogs, Rufus and Esther. Rufus was 100% old man, so relatively easy to manage. He required little to no effort. I started off in an apartment so there was a wee bit of potty training, but other than that he was golden. I saw folks that would have their dog auto sit at each curb and determined that was what I wanted Rufus to do. So I’d stand at each corner and pull up on the collar until in confusion eventually he’d sit. We “practiced” for weeks and he didn’t really get it. Every corner required a pop of the collar or pushing his but down, and walks became more frustrating than fun.

    Rufus! Very handsome!

Then I a few months later, I got Esther. Despite her old sounding name, Esther was a six month old, 100% puppy, Jack Russel spitfire (seriously why did no one warn me?!?). So I tried what I saw Cesar do. I tried what I had read about and seen on his show.  And it kinda worked, but made me feel horrible. Enthusiastic pup would run up to the end of the leash, after some squirrel or a leaf, or a bit of grass whatever, and I jerk the collar (a pop) and maybe, maybe she’d turn back towards me. But again, walks became terrible. She’d never listen, just run off. And I started resorting to more severe punishments thinking I was being as strong of a leader and that Esther was willingly not listening because she didn’t listen to me. The jerks on the collar got stronger and the puppy got more out of control.

Esther: Cuteness 1000!

Then I met a wonderful lady named Lindsey who I met in a consultation to see if Esther could be brave enough to try out agility. Lindsey handed me a clicker and showed me how to use it. She clicked it and Esther ran for the hills. TOO SCARY. I thought this is silly, toss your little metal clicker out and we’ll just go back to doing it the way I’m comfortable. And to be honest, that probably would have been easier (for me) to do. Doing things the same way IS easy. It’s safe. No risk. Changing it up and trying something new, is scary!

But I stuck with it. We started by swapping out the metal clicker to a plastic clicker and hiding it in my sweatshirt. Then eventually I started to see a change in Esther. Her expression would change after every click and you could see her building up the anticipation of getting the reward. Teaching her new things started to actually be fun and while slow at first, I was shocked at how quickly she’d learn new crazy things. I started to enjoy thinking up new ways to get her to do a bizarre behavior (like running over a teeter totter) and Esther started to gain confidence to do such crazy agility things like I never saw. My dog became braver!

I was pretty much hooked. I looked forward to every Saturday running around with my friends and their dogs on the agility course and the fact that Esther would easily sleep for 4-6 hours afterwards certainly didn’t hurt either 😉

From there on, the rest is history. I started reading more scientifically based articles and books about dog training. Then researched, applied and was accepted into the CATCH Professional Dog Training program and this weekend I will be taking the final test to receive my certification as a professional dog training. I’ve learned so much in my journey and I LOVE sharing my knowledge and experiences with others. I hope you all have enjoyed learning a bit about how I got to where I’m at today in dog training. If you ever have any questions about my journey or your own, please don’t hesitate to ask!