We are very grateful to our dear friends, Bud and Alice Roberts, for writing another blog post for us on resource conservation.
You can read part 1 here!
As they explain below, Bud and Alice have years of experience in the dog training world, including Bud’s military career, and working with rescues in their spare time. Their wisdom is invaluable to us and we truly trust them unreservedly with any educational questions we face. This post was mainly intended to help people know what training to do in early puppyhood to prevent the development of resource guarding. Although Labradors are not a breed that is prone to any kind of aggression, any breed can develop a tendency to conserve resources under the right circumstances. It is instinctive to them as a species.
When talking to Bud about doing this post for us, he remarked to me, “Keep in mind that most resource conservation comes from mistakes made by humans when the dog was a little puppy. The key term is 12-16 weeks.”
So, with that in mind, here are some incredibly valuable notes on resource conservation prevention and learning…
Protection of resources
As an introduction, I have trained dogs for over 40 years, mostly shelter and rescue dogs that have been abused – neglected or used in the fighting ring either as fighters or bait dogs, about 1500+. Almost all of these dogs had serious behavioral problems, and resource guarding was understandably one such undesirable behavior. I’ll try to give some advice here based on my experience on how to prevent it altogether in a puppy or once it starts in adulthood. Also, I know these things work because we can do whatever we want with our two Endless Mountain Labradors at any time. We rarely do this, except to show clients during training that a level of trust can be established and our dogs know they will get something, even if it’s just praise, as that is the most important thing to them, although a small treat is also importantly.
It must be remembered that guarding resources is quite an instinctive behavior of many dogs, it is part of their DNA. This is compounded if they come from a shelter, rescue or multi-dog hoarding situation where they have had to defend their food or prized toy.
Let’s start with puppies, which are basically the best place to start IF you have the opportunity to have a puppy that you just adopted.
The most important thing to do is to gain the puppy’s trust. Keep in mind that you went to the breeder, picked out your puppy, everyone is justifiably excited, and you bring the puppy home and want to hold and play with it. Great, BUT – start training on the second day. Start with the sit command and you can find a few tricks online to start this, my favorite is to pass the food over the dog‘s head from front to back and when the dog sits say sit and reward. This could easily be your command, and if he gets it, you start all workouts with that SIT and end all sessions with that SIT. LOTS and LOTS of praise. Then one moves on to others like down, wait, stay, etc. But let’s talk about resource protection. Feed your puppy two or three times a day, depending on what your breeder or rescue recommends. Feed in the same quiet place each time. Put the food down and now is the time to start SIT and then WAIT for the dog to learn not to be too pushy. Put the food down and go. Don’t touch the food or bowl until the dog has finished, but walk by and drop a favorite treat or piece of chicken, etc. As the dog acknowledges your treat, gradually move closer and closer over time. Never put your hands in the bowl or take the food, this is rude and can teach the dog to try to guard the food. You want the puppy to trust you and everyone else in the house. By throwing treats and coming closer and closer, the puppy learns that “those people are OK” and will accept someone near the food without feeling threatened. Resource guarding is usually caused by the puppy’s anxiety. Follow the simple instructions above and you’ll be fine, it just takes time. A week or so of walking, a week or so in a few feet, and then a week or so at the bowl. Every time the dog agrees to your stay, praise verbally, do not touch the puppy or the bowl. You build TRUST, and with that trust, all workouts are easier and more fun. Also, if you are in a hurry or in a bad mood, skip this exercise as the puppy will sense your instability and not “get” the training exercise you are going through. IF for some reason your puppy is guarding resources, call an expert who uses positive reinforcement to address this, but I have found that this is very rare with puppies, what you are trying to do is build trust and PREVENT future resource guarding.
Now let’s move on to the more difficult and potentially dangerous situation of an older dog who has developed resource guarding of either food or toys, and in most cases, a single toy.
So, as with a puppy, in most cases this is anxiety and may be a learned behavior. So, we need to get the dog out of the “protectiveness and lack of trust” mindset and build from there.
Adult resource guarding is most common in rescue or shelter dogs, but can occur in dogs you have raised from puppies. We must remember that dogs, no matter how wonderful and cute dogs are, they are animals and have animal instincts that are different from ours as humans. Treating a dog like a sibling with a child, and doing it wrong, can cause the dog to become protective of itself, objects, or another person in the home. So, as a NON-ROUGH play pup, I’m not even advocating things like tug of war. If you do play this “game”, watch your dog‘s pupils, as the game continues after a few seconds or minutes, the dog‘s pupils will become much larger, indicating that he/she is going into fight mode and “guarding” a toy Just don’t do it, there are many other ways to play with your dog that are positive and productive. I taught that all learning is a game. Watch military or police K9 training videos – it’s all fun and games for the dog and the reward is a treat, but more often than not a favorite toy, ball or kong is what they get when they’re in the field and work as a reward at the end of the mission . I recommend everyone to do the same.
For example, if your dog is guarding a bone, remove it from the house or yard and never return it. The same with the guarded toy, it’s already history – gone. Also, if you’re looking to protect things, put away many, if not most, and don’t leave a few toys lying around the house or outside. One way to help with this is to teach your dog to return toys to the “toy basket or bucket”. It takes a little bit, but with a treat reward and praise it becomes a game rather than a challenge that you’re going to remove the dog off his toy. Guarding facility resources is difficult as you never know what will be considered important to a dog so I think training is key… Simple basic training in all areas will build your dog‘s trust and respect both of which are key . Remember, if it’s not fun for the dog, it probably won’t work. All training should be a game, FUN for the dog. We play “find it” in the backyard almost every day. My wife or I throw out a handful of Cheerios and then let the dogs out to find it. Using their noses and eyes and running around they burn tons of energy and love it. Before we start I give our “finish” command where they come to my left and sit down, our youngest, 10.5, sometimes jumps up on all four paws to my waist and lands on my left seat. Our 12.5 year old jumps like a rabbit and lands “close enough”. I want to say that they train and play ball. Trust and respect are KEY.
About the protection of food resources. As with the puppy, never take food away, it would be like me taking away your favorite ice cream when you were a ball. Feed the dog in a quiet place and some time alone. Then gradually drop or drop a real treat like cooked chicken into the dog‘s bowl and walk away, you can say “good dog” or his name but move on. After about a week, move closer when you pass by, and it’s okay for others in the house to take turns, especially if there are problems with certain members of the house. But consistency is key, it can’t be once today and then two days later, every day and every meal. Move closer and closer as time goes by and eventually stand next to the bowl BUT never touch the bowl or stick your hands into it. Also, I would suggest that you and anyone else never pick up the food or the bowl or touch the food in the bowl because once it’s on the floor it belongs to the dog. Some recommend hand feeding, it can work, but I believe that letting the dog see that the food and the bowl are his/her own and they can trust the family will make things easier for them and the outcome will be better.
Another aspect of all of this is, as mentioned earlier, TRUST and RESPECT. This is developed through training, and if the dog has not been or has not been fully trained, do it now. Often times I would do the first lesson just sitting in the client’s living room discussing issues, weather, etc. and let the dog come up to me and get to know me, trust me. At the kennel, I would often go into the kennel, close the door, sit on the floor and often read aloud to regain trust. In recent years my wife has trained with me, and now our daughter works alone with foster dogs, senior foster dogs, and using these techniques, she turns around even difficult dogs in about a few weeks. She already has a 13.5 year old run down poodle that is house trained, sleeps in a crate in her bedroom closet (the closet door is open) and rings the bell to go outside. Yes, old dogs can be trained and they can learn new things. Our two Labradors are 12.5 and 10.5 years old. These two go through some type of training every day, every now and then something new, but at this point mostly updating and refreshing what they know. Things like waiting up and down the stairs, entering and exiting the room IF one of us is also in or out, if not they are free to go anywhere in the house. They also constantly practice “let it go” and “give it” as these are key commands that can save lives, and we used them often when the two of us were providing certified therapy at a local large cancer hospital, meeting with hundreds of staff, hundreds of patients and families. Many wanted to give them food, “leave it” worked…plus pills etc thrown on the floor were also “leave it”. Simple and easy commands can be taught, and this will further strengthen the bond and trust. All of this you can teach the dog if you haven’t already OR go through it again with lots of praise and no yelling or swearing. POSITIVE and FUN.
If your dog growls at you or another family member or friend, this is a warning, the next action is to bite. So, heed the warning and start working on it today, and if necessary, call in an expert, someone who knows and has trained dogs in “positive reinforcement.” I can assure you that once you go through this process, you will have the loving, reliable and trusting pet that you want. If the dog is not trained, he/she will learn and learn that he/she can “win” by protecting his/her food or valuables.
Under no circumstances should you yell at, criticize or scold your resource dog, use some of the tips mentioned above or contact a positive reinforcement trainer – but one who trains in your environment, not on a board and train. Yelling will aggravate the dog and he will not understand and possibly lose trust and respect for you. In the K9 world, respect is key, as is trust.
I wish you all the best in your efforts to raise a happy healthy puppy OR get your resource guard dog back. If you are unsure or nervous, hire and work with a qualified trainer. If you like the positive reinforcement training being used and the coach, follow his words and recommendations. You won’t regret it. The cost shouldn’t be too high and it’s worth it. If the trainer doesn’t emphasize TRUST and FUN, I would recommend a new trainer.
Bud and Alice