If you grew up with unruly siblings as I did, you’ll be familiar with all kinds of squabbles… the fights over the last roast potato, the times you could have throttled your younger sister for borrowing your jeans, the bickering over the middle seat, the pile-on to get the ‘best’ chair near the television…
And if you managed to get away with a polite and well-mannered family, you no doubt lock your car doors, keep your gates shut and store your valuables somewhere sensible even if it is just under a mattress.
Yet when dogs fight with their housemates over a biscuit, when they come to blows over the appropriation of favourite toys or when they get grumbly if another dog tries to barge in on a favourite spot, we humans tend to get really concerned.
If your dog won’t let strangers near your property, if they bury their treasures for safe-keeping or if they even show aggressive behaviours to anyone trying to get near you, we humans find such behaviours hugely inappropriate.
Dog trainer Jean Donaldson calls this ‘the culture clash’. She, quite rightly, points out that we humans have many, many guarding behaviours for the stuff we treasure, that we prize ridiculous things for little reason and that we need to take a good look at ourselves if we can’t understand why dogs might guard things. Whilst my spaniel guarding a dried old crab apple seems bizarre, she no doubt would think the same of us safeguarding a soft, shiny metal or a sparkly carbon stone in vaults in banks. We are, quite literally, the most inappropriately guardy species on the planet, having even roped in dogs to guard things on our behalf. It’s rich, she says, that we can’t get our heads around another species protecting its valuables.
The first thing to know about some of these forms of aggression is that for carnivores living in social groups – be they human or canine – it’s just our way of telling those around us that they better jog on if they’re planning on taking that last piece of pizza off our plate. We need to understand that our dogs are often doing something fairly normal. And just as your parents would have roped in a therapist if you went to DEFCON 1 every time your sister so much as looked at your pencil case, we also need to make judgements about what’s an appropriate reaction to a real threat and what’s a paranoid and inappropriate level of violence when our dogs react. Is it an appropriate reaction in the face of some pretty rude behaviour from others or is it time to seek out more professional support? Just as it may be a huge over-reaction to stab your brother with a fork if he made overtures towards the last spoonful of shepherd’s pie, it doesn’t seem like such an over-reaction if you are starving and if he’s a bully who’s always taking your stuff. It’s all about context. Is the reaction justified? Is it an appropriate level of deterrent?
My dog growling when another dog came too close to the water bowl as he had a drink was an appropriate level of deterrent and in a fairly appropriate context. It wasn’t particularly justified – water isn’t that valuable a resource, but I understand why he didn’t want some other dog sticking its big old snoot in there right next to his head. That kind of behaviour is not a problem, especially as the other dog moved away and waited as she should have done to start with. But if he stood there and never let her drink, and shot out at her if she came anywhere near the water bowl, well, that’s neither justified nor an appropriate level of deterrent. That’s definitely what I’d class as inappropriate.
Commonly, these inappropriate behaviours are called ‘resource guarding’ when it comes to dogs. That phrases covers a multitude of different behaviours and some behaviourists also include things like protective aggression (where your dog is protecting you with an unreasonable degree of force from other people who they consider to be threatening) or territorial aggression (where your dog is fussy about letting people into your home ground) as part of ‘resource guarding’. A resource is just something your dog considers to be valuable. We don’t get to decide what that is. I’ve known dogs guard ‘sensible’ stuff like other dogs, toys, food, treats, bed spaces or their human, but I’ve also seen dogs guarding their own pile of vomit, leaves, shower stalls, sticks, stale bread rolls and crab apples. We don’t get to be judgy: we value rocks and minerals, paper and metals. I’m pretty sure that’d confuse a good number of other species.
Resource-guarding can be targeted at other animals in the family, at family humans or even at unfamiliar humans or animals. Generally, where it most becomes a problem, however, is when it’s targeted at the owner or at other household animals.
Often resource-guarding cases are the ones where owners say they have no idea where the aggression comes ‘out of the blue’. The dog seemed to be resting and suddenly attacked when somebody moved. They seemed to be sleeping and sprang out of nowhere. Most of us can recognise when our dog is guarding a pair of our socks and doesn’t want to give them back but we’re not so good at realising they were guarding us or they were guarding a bed space.
So how do you know if your dog resource guards? Usually, it’s the situation. There will be something of value – a space, a toy, food, a human, another dog – that the dog does not want to relinquish. We call these contextual factors called triggers. Understanding the dog’s motivation around these triggers – “Keep Away!” – is also helpful.
This behaviour often starts with low level signs. The dog will be alert and vigilant, even if their head is down. Often, guarding seems to become more dramatic when your dog is tired, when they have put themselves in an emotional corner. They want to give up the item but they just can’t. They can’t sleep or rest. Sometimes, I found it with my spaniel when she couldn’t eat or hide her food when she wasn’t hungry: she only ever guarded items she couldn’t consume straight away, or that she didn’t want to. She only ever guarded her bed space when she was tired but worried some threat would appear.
You can often see the whites of your dog’s eyes as they guard, as they keep an eye on the threat as they move. Often, their heads will be fairly still – often over the thing they are guarding. If it’s a physical object, they may ‘possess’ it by putting their body on it or putting a paw on it. They use their body to block the threat from getting to the resource.
If the threat doesn’t take any notice of this vigilant state and moves in, you may see the dog’s whisker bed become lumpy as they’re about to growl, and you’ll hear a low, but audible growl. Should the threat not pay attention to these signals, the aggressive behaviour will then escalate in severity and growls will become snarls and bared teeth. Bared teeth and snarls will become snaps and snaps will become warning or inhibited bites. Warning bites can end in a fight, or, if the warning is repeated and the threat pays no attention, then the dog is left with no choice but to escalate further.
What often happens as a by-product of guarding is that some dogs develop a sensitivity to being handled. Because we so often physically restrain dogs to remove items from them or because we intervene with our hands in fights between our dogs, we can cause our dogs to feel very uneasy about hands coming towards them. Virtually every guardy dog I’ve ever worked with has had a really bad reaction to being handled by humans.
In the past, sometimes this was called ‘dominance aggression’ where it was used by ethologists to decide the ‘dominant’ animal in a pair relationship or to explore hierarchies. This term is rarely used anymore because it is confusing and unhelpful: dogs don’t usually form hierarchies and many breeds or mixes of dog showed no particular pattern over who’d ‘win’ a resource. Often, it is the sign of an insecure or anxious dog, not a confident one at all. The phrase is also not used very much anymore because it gave rise to outdated and inaccurate notions that we should ‘show the dog who’s boss’ or that dogs who didn’t relinquish things were ‘trying to dominate us’. When using punishment with any form of aggressive behaviour, owners need to understand that almost half the time, punishment makes aggression more severe, not less. On the other hand, no forms of positive behaviour management or training have ever been found to cause aggression. Our aim is to make our dogs feel more at ease, not suppress that behaviour.
Think about it this way: if every single night, your neighbour came and got into your bed, making you feel so uneasy that you ended up sleeping on the floor, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little edgy every time you saw them sneak in after lights out. And if you were told you absolutely must accept this huge invasion of your space, you’d either end up tolerating it and snapping one day, or going mad at both the intruding neighbour and the person who told you to suck it up and accept it. This is exactly what happens with dogs who are forced to accept the situation… they seem to tolerate it and then explode ‘out of the blue’ or they snap at both the intruder and the person laying down the law. Sometimes the humans or other animals are provoking the guarding behaviour by constantly – if unwittingly – threatening the dog.
But it’s not always like that.
If I were worried – unreasonably! – about my neighbour coming and getting into my bed when they had never ever done it, nor shown any desire of doing so, then I’d be justifiably called paranoid.
This happens with our dogs, though. They sometimes – for no good reason at all – feel paranoid about another animal or human. My griffon Amigo gave my spaniel Tilly no cause to distrust him, and yet he was often the target of her growls. Unreasonable paranoia from a grumpy canine troll.
Obviously, you don’t want to have to deal with an unreasonable little guardy troll living in your house, though. You don’t have to just live with it!
The very best way to deal with it is like a good parent with warring children: management. Do you think we were unsupervised at the dinner table once we got to stabbing each other with forks? Do you think my parents just let us fight it out as to who got the television remote and the best armchair? Careful supervision and absolute fairness are essential. If certain things are too valuable to have out and are going to cause a war, make sure all your dogs are safe from one another when they have them.
Management is acceptable but it does mean your dogs live an impoverished life if they can’t be trusted around each other or around you. Teaching ‘Drop’ in the way Chirag Patel teaches it on Youtube, teaching ‘trade’ or ‘give’ are vital. Having a 100% amazing 100% rewarded experience that will cause all dogs to leave their troll-den and surrender their treasures is vital. If “treat time!” means 100% of the time that paté will become available in the kitchen, then it’s worth surrendering objects for. Whilst I generally let low level grumbles go when it’s between canine members of the household, it’s not acceptable for grumbles if humans can’t approach and this needs careful teaching.
Dogs can be made to feel better about each other through a process called counter-conditioning and a good behaviourist can help you with that. The process involves making your dog feel safe but also making them realise that the approach of other animals or of human beings is nothing to be worried about. Of course, the ideal is to raise a puppy who is super happy to give you things and never bring out their inner troll, but at the same time, it’s also about us and about other dogs learning to respect a growl or a grumble. Counterconditioning is not about turning your dog into a Moonie who thinks other dogs stealing their stuff is cool. It’s about helping your dog understand that the humans or animals they see as a threat are not a threat really under normal circumstances.
Resource guarding can be complicated, but there are well-established and very effective protocols to deal with it. It’s something many people can work through themselves with sensible guidance. Jean Donaldson’s excellent books Mine! and Fight! are accessible for owners and easy to follow. Anyone who has a lot of contact with dogs would really benefit from having a copy hanging about.
However, if the level of threat is unreasonable, if your dog has come into physical contact with another dog or human in your household, and especially if bites have caused injury, it’s time to call a behaviourist. Since the behaviour is rooted in anxiety and fear, it’s vital that you seek out the help of someone qualified who will use positive methods to re-educate your dog rather than just telling them “no!” and expecting them to feel less anxious as a result.