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  • Writer's pictureRebekah Piedad

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

Minimizing Resource Guarding by Letting Stuff Go


An Anatolian and German Shepherd-type mixed dog walks on leash with a paper coffee cup sticking out of his mouth that his trainer allows him to keep.
Truman picked up a paper coffee cup while on our walk that I decided to let him keep.

There seems to be more or less two types of dog owner. There is the totally laid back owner who gives every trainer and veterinarian ulcers with their dangerous permissiveness and lack of supervision ("Ah, yeah, Fido eats pieces of blankets all the time, but it never causes any problems." "Spot runs free in the unfenced front yard when we aren't home, but it's cool 'cuz he knows he's not s'posed to leave.") And there is the helicopter parent who has a recipe 3 pages long for each meal, who very carefully selects toys and chews (no rawhide because it's a choking hazard, no hard bones or antlers because they could break teeth, no plush toys because they could cause a blockage, no tennis balls because they could wear down teeth, etc.), and who swoops down upon their dog the moment they dare to sniff an unapproved item. ("OMG! Poopsie might have been thinking about eating that tiny piece of cardboard!!!" *gasps*)


Okay, probably this is really a spectrum and not a binary, but as you are reading this, you know where you most closely belong, don't you?


I'm not going to talk to the overly permissive owner today (though I have plenty to say to them; don't you worry!). Instead, I'm going to talk about the hyper-vigilant owner and how they can unintentionally contribute to their dog's resource guarding.


Resource Guarding Is a Form of Insecurity


Imagine if you were looking in the fridge, found yourself some tasty homemade lasagna, heated it up, and just as you were about to take a delicious bite, someone in your household suddenly ran toward you, grabbed your plate, knocked your fork out of your hand, and started frantically cleaning up anything that dropped on the floor before you could even register what happened. Weird, you think, but you move onto something else. You flip on the television to see what's on Netflix. And once again, a family member charges into the room, yelling at you, "Stop that right now!!!," yanks the TV off the wall, and runs away with it. Okay, this is getting ridiculous. You get up and head to your room. Maybe you'll just read a book. Guess again! A family member invades your private space, steals your book, yells at you some more, and drags you out of your own room.


You don't feel you are safe to do anything. You can't eat. You can't watch television. You can't read a book. You can't even exist unmolested in your own bedroom. Everything you care about gets taken from you. You doubt you can safely do any normal human activities

So You Learn


You learn to be sneaky. If want to eat, you better grab it and scarf it when no one is looking.


You learn to defend what you value. Ain't nobody entering your room without your permission again. Those are your books, and anyone trying to take them risks life and limb. And God forbid someone attempt to take your food away...


You also learn to be fast. If you wanna watch television, you'd better get to that remote first! And if you can't get to the remote first, you can just take out the person who beats you to it.


And you learn that anything people try to take from you must be really important, so even if you were just looking to see if the baked potatoes on the table were appetizing enough to eat, the fact that someone in the household immediately tries to take it from you lets you know just how good it is, even if you don't typically care for potatoes.


This Is What We Do to Our Dogs


We get so worried about dogs doing normal dog things that we sometimes overreact, taking things away that are relatively harmless, terrifying our dogs should they dare to investigate something they find, and otherwise teaching them that the only way they are ever going to be able to do normal dog things is if they do them as fast they can and they defend their right to do so.


And this is how we teach a dog to guard the mail scrap that we accidentally dropped. Fido may have investigated it, but he would have soon realized that it was pretty boring and likely dropped it. But we taught him that the only way he could interact with it was to steal it quickly (because that's the only way he gets to interact with anything) and to defend this new item of immense value. Why does the mail scrap have so much value? Because we taught him that everything he has interest in has value.


The Solution Is to Stop Sweating the Small Stuff


Sing it with me now... "Let it go!..." Before swooping down on your dog for investigating or even destroying or eating something they've found, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is this item truly dangerous to my dog?

  2. Can I live without this item?

  3. Is my dog interacting with this item in a dangerous way right now?

Notice that numbers 1 and 3 are slightly different questions. A bottle of pills is absolutely dangerous to your dog. However, if the dog is merely sniffing the bottle or rolling it around on the floor, this definitely still requires some action, but it doesn't require the swiftness in response as a dog who has already popped the bottle open and has pills in their mouth.


If the item is neither dangerous nor something you need, I have a crazy suggestion for you:


Let your dog have it.


Seriously.


Since there is no reason to be stressed about it, you could even use that item for training. Would Fifi be willing to give up the empty box for a piece of juicy chicken? Oh, what a good girl, Fifi! Now, you can have your box back! And if Fifi isn't able to hand over the box, you could just leave her some chicken near the box anyway.


In this way, the dog learns that you are not the taker of things but the giver of better things and that sharing with you is safe.


If the item is dangerous but the dog is not actually in immediate danger, take the time to create a plan to help your dog give up the item willingly. Maybe they get an early dinner. Maybe you pull that stuffed Kong out of the freezer. Perhaps it's time to play ball in the yard. Keep yourself low key and chill, at least on the outside, and give your dog something better to do away from the pill bottle so that you can go back and pick it up without causing your dog any stress.


Even if the item is something you can't live without, before accosting your dog over it, assess whether or not the dog is actually destroying it before acting with urgency. No, I really don't want my dog eating my socks or putting holes in them (I live in cold country. Socks are valuable here!), but if I don't panic, I can probably convince my dog to bring me my sock and trade for a tug toy or a piece of my breakfast before any harm is done.


Chilling Out Is Really the Best Prevention


If your dog has no reason to guard resources, they will be much less likely to ever learn to guard them, so don't be the one to give your dog that reason.


There Are More Methods of Prevention,


but this is a biggie. Another thing we can utilize is judicious use of a crate to prevent the dog from getting into things that we'd only have to take away. We can also go out of our way to toss extra special treats toward our dog when they are eating, chewing, playing with a favorite toy, or resting in a favorite space. And we can always invite interactive toy play or holding chewies as the dog chews while also making sure to let the dog have their toys and chewies if they decide they do not wish to share.


Security Is the Best Resource Guarding Prevention


So let's give our dogs every reason to feel secure by not sweating the small stuff.


Please note that this post is intended to discuss resource guarding prevention and does not provide a treatment plan for dogs who are already guarding resources. If your dog is guarding resources, please seek the help of a qualified positive reinforcement trainer. Additionally, this formula will not prevent all resource guarding as some dogs are genetically predisposed to guard resources, and some dogs may have an earlier learning history from before joining their current home. These methods will reduce guarding in dogs with earlier learning histories or a genetic predisposition, but additional training with a positive reinforcement trainer may still be required.


This isn't the first time I've written about resource guarding. You can read more about it here.

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