Academy Vet Talk: Resource Guarding in Dogs

Academy Vet Talk: Resource Guarding in Dogs

As a veterinarian and dog trainer, I often get asked, “How can I stop my dog from snarling at me when he's eating? It is so disrespectful. No matter how much I yell at him or take his food away when he does it, he still seems to forget that I'm the one who feeds him.” Luckily, disrespect isn't part of the equation, even though it really looks and feels like it is. I can usually make a quick diagnosis: Resource Guarding. Thankfully, it's a problem that is usually straightforward to address.

What is it?

Resource guarding is when dogs exhibit behaviors designed to prevent other animals (dogs, humans, cats, etc.) from obtaining something that is in their possession. They've got a thing they want to keep (the resource), so they do stuff (guarding) to make sure the other animals in the area don't try to take it. Dogs most commonly will guard food, treats, toys, and locations. Sometimes they will also guard certain humans. Guarding is usually directed at other dogs (dog-dog), or humans (dog-human).

What does it look like?

Some guarding is quite obvious: growling, snarling, snapping, biting, lunging/chasing, or even taking an item away to hide. Some is more subtle: tense muscles/freezing, “hard eye” (staring), or eating food or treats faster than normal.

Why do dogs do it?

Because they evolved to want stuff!

It's very important to understand that resource guarding can be a very normal behavior for dogs. The warnings that dogs give—growls, snarls, stares, freezing—are the dog trying to communicate politely, in dog language, that they would like you to back off. If you or the other dog listen to his request and back off, this is likely where the situation will end. It's perfectly reasonable for a dog to say, “I'd rather keep this delicious snack to myself, thank you.”

 

If I had a $1000 bill in my hand, you would not fault me one bit for pulling it away from you as you reached towards it. I might even say, “Sorry, you can't have that!” as I put it back in my pocket. Of course I want to keep my money. I need to pay my mortgage and feed my kids! A dog freezing, staring, growling, eating faster, or even snarling, is doing the same thing. He's saying, “Hey, that's mine! Please don't take it!”

 

What should we do about it?

As with many behavior problems, there are three main ways to go on this one: acceptance, management, and training. In this case, the training would consist of desensitization and counter-conditioning.

            Acceptance—or doing nothing—is appropriate when the guarding is mild, does not inconvenience or scare anyone, and NEVER involves injuries. For example, dog-dog guarding in which the dogs are “talking” but never injuring each other can usually be left alone. It's like Animal Planet in your living room—just sit back and enjoy watching two animals talk in the language of their species!

            Management alone is appropriate when there is minimal risk to humans or animals, and when the type of guarding allows for changing the environment to accommodate the guarder. For example, a dog who growls and practically inhales his food when other dogs are nearby can easily just be fed in another room with the door closed. He will most likely appreciate being able to eat in peace! A dog who growls at the owner when he approaches while the dog is working on a dental chewy can be put in his crate at chewy time and left alone until he is done. Management may also be used in more serious cases either while training is taking place, or if training is not feasible. 

            Training is appropriate when the guarding is more severe, results in injuries, or if it is inconvenient enough to the owner to make the time investment worthwhile. Training can also be done preventatively if the owner wishes (this is highly recommended for puppies!). Rather than focusing directly on changing the behavior (growling, biting, etc.), this training focuses on changing the dog's emotional reaction to having his “stuff” taken from him. Instead of, “Oh crap! Here they come to take my food!” we want, “Oh boy! Here they come to take my food! Yayayayayay!!”

What should we NOT do?

Unfortunately it's all too easy to make resource guarding worse. Punishing the warnings dogs give us, taking items away repeatedly with no reward, smacking or “alpha-rolling” dogs for guarding all actually make the guarding more serious. Dogs that are punished for guarding may stop giving the warning signs, but they still don't want you to take their stuff. And if pushed too far, they are more likely to bite.

 

You see that I have $1000, and you ask me for it. I say ,“No way, that's mine!” You grab it out of my hand and leave. Next payday, you ask for my money again. I yell at you, “NO! IT'S MINE AND YOU CAN'T HAVE IT!” You get right up in my face and yell, “DON'T YOU DARE YELL AT ME!” and then take my money and leave. Two weeks later, you walk up to me when I have my paycheck in my pocket. I don't even wait for you to say anything, I just deliver a knock-out punch right to your nose. Whoops.

 The second scenario is even worse. You take my money, then smack me or yell at me for protesting politely. I tend to be a pretty timid person, so the next 5 times you take my money, I'm silent. You think, “oh good, she learned to respect me,” but inside I'm getting more and more upset. The final time you take my money, I blow up, break your nose, and give you a concussion. Dogs can easily do the same thing when punished for objecting to their things being taken. They learn that they aren't allowed to TELL you they are upset, but it doesn't change the fact that they ARE upset, and they may eventually be pushed too far and end up biting you or someone else with no warning. 

 

How does this desensitization and counter-conditioning stuff work?

Desensitization and counter-conditioning is all about starting where the dog is comfortable (a toy or object he really couldn't care less about), and gradually teaching him to LOVE having his stuff taken by giving him even better stuff than whatever it was we took away. As he learns to love having his stuff taken, we very slowly increase the difficulty towards the stuff he really doesn't want to give up.


Remember my $1000? What if, instead of you taking my whole $1000, you started out just taking a dollar, and then handing me $2 in return. The next time you see me, you take $5, and immediately hand me $10. You gradually take more and more, but each time you give me back twice as much. As I figure out the pattern, I start getting pretty happy when I see you approach. I might even try to get you to take my money.

That's what we want with dogs. We want them to want us to take their stuff. And we get there by paying them handsomely for giving their stuff to us. It may take a while, especially if there's a history of you taking my money with no reward. But if we work on it carefully and slowly enough, we can get there.

 

Hire a qualified trainer!

When working on sensitive issues like resource guarding, the devil is in the details. I highly recommend working with a qualified trainer for this problem. You'll make progress much faster, and you'll be less likely to get stuck or start going in the wrong direction. When hiring a trainer, be sure to ask about their methods and training education. You want someone who will train without pain, fear, or force, and ideally someone with a lot of high-quality education and experience. There is an excellent blog on finding a good trainer here, and you can search for an Academy for Dog Trainers graduate in your area here.

 

Cover photo credit: Jeannie Hutchins Photography

Second photo: iStock Credit Tepepa79

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Bringing Play Back to Sequestered Dogs

Bringing Play Back to Sequestered Dogs

One of the most glorious times in a dog trainer’s life is that moment when we gently (if metaphorically) grasp our client’s hands and escort them and their dog into a play session. This is especially the case if the client is a bit wary or unsure—they believe in us, sure, but also trust their gut: my dog is a scary beast, isn't he? So their flat-out joy at seeing their dog play gleefully warms the cockles of our hearts.

Often this scenario comes up if our client’s dogs have had a scuffle with another dog at some point in the past. A cautious dog owner might, from that alarming moment on, sequester their dogs: leash walks only, no more play dates, or in multi-dog homes, they might even start a program of crate-and-rotate or otherwise keep dogs separated at all times. In some cases, owners find leash reactivity alone to be worrisome enough to decide that they can’t chance dog play—a sad scenario indeed, as many leash reactive dogs are frantically pro-social with other dogs and would in fact be improved by the chance to decrease their social motivation through dog play. 

To trainers familiar with normal and healthy dog play (which occasionally includes a minor squabble or some intense moments), it can feel a bit like we are spinning our wheels when we allow the minutes to tick by in a consult, normalizing what is really just normal dog behaviour. However, it is simply not time wasted: we must be thorough and caring to really help owners move past their feelings of alarm and fear, no matter what else is on the training to-do list. A non-injurious scuffle or one resulting in a few minor facial dings is not a walk in the park for a dog trainer but certainly doesn’t make us throw in the towel on all future dog interactions. For dog owners, though—who do not understand ritualization and acquired bite inhibition—this stuff is really scary. A few comforting words and a “get over it” attitude will do no one any favours.

In fact, spending time with our clients normalizing non-injurious interactions can pay real dividends. First, we are getting more dogs to play. Play with conspecifics is a great way to provide exercise and enrichment and a tremendous welfare boost for members of a social species like dogs. Second, our clients get access to an easy and enjoyable way to tire out their dogs. Play time is a quick energy burner for dogs and an enjoyable social occasion for humans, if orchestrated well. Clients with active dogs especially appreciate the big payoffs and small investment from having play available to them as an exercise option. And third, our businesses will grow with the ever-elusive word of mouth. Many people find watching dog play to be exquisitely enjoyable, and if we open the gate to dog play, it keeps them talking about our services.

If you have clients with dogs who are good candidates for dog play and who are pushing back due to wariness from an alarming (to them) but safe and normal encounter, consider the time you spend normalizing and myth-busting to be time well spent. On one hand, dog play may form a key component to a behaviour modification program. For certain diagnoses like leash reactivity in a friendly but barrier frustrated dog, dog-dog play can be used within your behaviour modification protocol for saturation (getting the dog bored of dogs), motivation (using play as a reinforcing consequence) and distraction (for training very solid alternate behaviours). On the other hand, even in cases where play won't be of direct use for your training plan, dog play is of value for the exercise and enrichment it provides. For example, owners who have experienced a minor scuffle might easily misinterpret the seriousness of it and end up preventing their young, active, and bored dog from playing. "He would have killed the other dog if I hadn't intervened" is a common theme, despite the strong likelihood that their dog has a species-normal and safe way of settling minor disagreements. It makes good sense to take the time to discuss acquired bite inhibition, which is the ability of dogs to bite with attenuated, non-maiming force in social interactions. Talk about how the dogs, if they had intended on hurting each other, could have done so immediately. And recognize that these owners are quite legitimately scared, so need a gentle approach. You may have to repeat the message often, and in many different ways, for the owner to get some clarity about their dog's behaviour and needs.

Getting previously-sequestered dogs set up with playmates is good for your client, good for your business, and good for the dog. And all that hand-holding has a delightful bit of reinforcement for you, too: a video card full of play between dogs who (without your intervention), simply wouldn't have the chance.

Joya, sequestered after a minor squabble, was able to shine as a dog-friendly dog after some work by Academy graduate Sabrina Mignacca of Ivy League Dogs. Anna, also sequestered after a squabble, took it upon herself to reintroduce play in her life after two years away from it. Anna's newfound sociability was fostered by Academy graduate Lisa Skavienski of Dog, Educated.

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On-Leash Etiquette, Management and Reactivity

On-Leash Etiquette, Management and Reactivity

It can be helpful to understand and appreciate the inherently frustrating situation we put our dogs in a lot of time. Dogs are highly social animals and when we put them on a leash they are set up for frustration by the sight of people and dogs they cannot access. If this happens repeatedly, the frustration becomes associated with these stimuli: barking and aggressive displays can result, eventually even out of the original context. Here are some management techniques to help mitigate these situations:

  • Keep on-leash interactions short & sweet - keep the leash loose - tight leashes amp dogs up. Let your dogs sniff each other for 3 seconds max, then happy talk and go on your way.
  • Avoid mixing on-leash and off-leash dogs - this is a volatile combination - and not by fault of any of the dogs concerned.
  • Change your gear to a no pull harness or if you have an exceptionally strong puller/lunger a head harness. This is the equipment of choice for this problem because you have control of the head and the jaws.
  • Maintain social skills with regular off-leash access to own species (provided your dog is not aggressive off leash), even if your dog is not a big player. Dogs can get rusty and hyper-motivated over time.
  • If your dog goes off - do a Turn & Go - Don’t just stand there!

What is a Turn & Go?

If you have a dog who is reactive on leash, whether it be to strangers, other dogs, cars, skateboarders, joggers, etc, knowing how to do an emergency turn & go is essential. This simple maneuver will help you manage your dogs reactivity by avoiding your dogs triggers, and having a habitual and effective way of quickly redirecting them if you have any incidents.

When out with your dog, constantly be scanning your environment, looking out for your dogs triggers. Get to know your particular dogs stress signals and early signs that they are starting
to get upset.

 If your dog starts to reacts do a Turn & Go:

  • Immediately just turn and walk in the opposite direction from the trigger.
  • Keep moving and Happy talk your dog until they calm down.
  • Don’t ask the dog anything, don’t try to bargain. 

 Why are Dogs Leash Reactive?

Frustration - Most dogs who react on-leash at the sight of other dogs (or strangers, joggers, skateboarders etc) are doing so out of frustration. They are motivated to investigate or chase something and are being thwarted by the leash. This is very similar to when you are running late for an appointment and get stuck in traffic, you are motivated to go somewhere and being thwarted by traffic is very frustrating. For many people this can lead to physical outbursts and over time can develop into genuine “Road Rage.”

Fear - Some dogs who react on-leash are doing so because they are genuinely afraid or uncomfortable around the trigger. They do not want to get closer to it, rather they want it to get farther away. What’s more, they know they are on-leash and therefore “trapped,” meaning they are unable to exercise a “flight” response and so for resort to “fight.”

How can you tell which is which?

Off-leash history - How are the dogs when they are off leash around the trigger of their reactivity? If they are pro-social, playful and relaxed then you are dealing with frustration. If they are asocial, uninterested or aggressive then you are dealing with fear.

 
What can we do about it?

Frustration - Positively Reinforce an Incompatible Behaviour

As soon as the dog notices the trigger, ask them to do a pre-trained incompatible behavior like sit or “watch” and reward with really yummy food treats until the trigger is out of view.

Fear - Change the Underlying Emotional Response to the trigger

As soon as the dog notices the trigger, happy talk (praise them) and give them really yummy food treats until the trigger goes out of view. Do not worry about asking for a behaviour.

In both cases always work at a “Safe” distance

IF the dog starts to react on leash they are over threshold and unable to learn. Do a “Turn and Go” to get them back to a distance they feel safe or less frustrated.

Avoid yelling or physical corrections to punish the reactive behaviour as this can lead to an association between the trigger and the punishment (rather than the behaviour) and make the reactivity worse.

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The Double Advantage of Reward-Based Training

The Double Advantage of Reward-Based Training

The science of dog training shows risks to canine welfare from aversive methods, and positive benefits from using rewards.

 Although an increasing number of dog trainers are force-free, there are currently no regulations on dog training  and still some on-going debate amongst trainers and dog owners about what is the best method to train a dog. But the science, which already pointed to risks in using aversive methods, has continued to develop.

Many dog trainers are concerned the use of punishment in dog training may have unwanted effects. They point to the position statement of the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior which warns of “potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increasing fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals.”

These potential unwanted effects are put into sharp focus by a review by Gal Ziv PhD published earlier this year. The review covered 17 research papers, from large-scale questionnaires to observational studies, experiments, and veterinary case studies. It compared reward-based methods (positive reinforcement and negative punishment) to aversive methods (positive punishment and negative reinforcement). For example, use of a shock collar, hitting the dog, pinning the dog, using a choke or prong collar, bark collars, and sharp tugs on the leash (“leash corrections”) are all aversive techniques.

We’ll look at the results of this review and then consider potential reasons, as well as other important changes in how we think about animal welfare.

 Aversive methods are not more effective

Some people still hold to the view that aversive techniques are more effective. Not so, according to this review.

Some people say shock collars are better for teaching a dog to come when called (recall). Again, not so.

In a study that directly tested this, using a controlled experiment and with trainers suggested by the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association, a shock collar was no more effective than using rewards (we’ll get to the welfare issues in a moment).

In fact 3 studies suggested reward-based methods to train dogs might work better.

Another study found dogs with a history of being trained more often with rewards learned a new task more quickly. Dogs with a history of being trained more often with aversive methods were less playful with their owner and interacted less with the researcher. The scientists explained it like this:

“a past history of rewards-based training increases a dog-owner partnership’s success in future training; possibly by increasing the dog’s motivation and aptitude to learn, because it learns to anticipate rewards.” 

 Aversive techniques have risks

The review showed an increase in fear and aggression associated with the use of aversive techniques. For example one study asked owners about the dog’s direct response to particular methods. Among the responses, 31% of owners reported an aggressive response when they did an “alpha roll”, 43% said their dog was aggressive when they hit or kicked it, 38% when they forced the dog to let go of something in its mouth, 20% said using a spray bottle got an aggressive response, and 15% who yelled “No!”.

Other studies also found an increased risk of fear and aggression in dogs that received punishment, or that were punished more often. An increase in other behaviour problems, such as attention-seeking, was also found in some research.

Aggression is obviously of concern because of the risk to people, who might receive a bite. Fear is also a concern because unfortunately it can take a lot of work and a long time to resolve it (if at all).

Signs of stress, such as lip licking and a lower body posture, were another risk. Over the long-term, chronic stress can be bad for a dog’s physical health, just like chronic stress is bad for humans too.

The studies of electronic collars (including the one mentioned above) found their use carries risks for animal welfare even when the trainer is experienced. Signs of stress included more time being tense, a low tail, lowered body posture, yawning, less interaction with the environment, and sometimes vocalizations. Unfortunately when scientists looked at electronic-collar-trained dogs outside of the training environment, some of these effects persisted beyond the training session.

 Why do we find these results?

There are a number of reasons why aversive techniques might have negative effects.

In causing stress, there is a risk the dog’s ability to learn will be affected. It is possible the dog will associate the stress with the owner (or trainer), rather than with the behaviour they were doing. It’s also possible the dog is not sure what to associate the stressful event with. This could lead to generalized anxiety and/or to the dog being fearful of the owner.

One study found that dogs taught with negative reinforcement (including tugging on the leash until the dog walks to heel) look less at their owner. This could impact learning because the owner does not have the dog’s attention. (We know from other research that in successful dog training sessions, the dog looks at the trainer a lot.

Another issue is that aversive dog training methods focus on teaching what not to do; they do not teach the dog what you would actually like them to do instead. This could be one reason why dogs trained with rewards are more likely to be considered obedient.

The use of rewards also directly addresses the dog’s motivation in a way that is likely to make the dog want to learn, and to enjoy future training sessions.

But that’s not the only thing…

 Positive Welfare

In the past, animal welfare guidelines were all about preventing harm, and this approach has made a huge difference to how we care for animals. More recently, and as we’ve learned more about animals and how they feel about and interact with their world, we now understand that good welfare includes positive experiences too:

“…the overall objective is to provide opportunities for animals to ‘thrive’, not simply ‘survive’” (Mellor, 2016).

Reward-based training is enjoyable for dogs. They like the rewards, which are usually tasty bits of food they don’t normally get in their diet (but could also be play or petting or other rewards when appropriate). Dogs also enjoy the process of earning those rewards.

Training with rewards is one way to provide positive experiences that will make your dog happy, and that in itself is good for animal welfare. When people train with aversive methods instead, dogs are missing out on these opportunities.

 Reward-Based Training: Fewer Risks, Good for Welfare

Although there are some issues with the scientific literature (e.g. most studies are correlational and do not prove causation, and difficulties with interpreting cortisol results), Ziv’s literature review concludes by saying it’s time for a new program of research into reward-based methods.

In fact, researchers are already looking at things like whether dogs prefer food as a reward, the timing and sequence of events (like rewards) in dog training and the quality of information in popular dog training books. These are exciting times for canine science, and force-free dog trainers can look forward to reaping the benefits of this research.

And we can take heart that reward-based methods are better for animal welfare in two ways: they avoid the risks of stress, fear, and aggression that are associated with aversive methods; and they give the dog positive experiences that contribute to good welfare.

It’s the double advantage of using rewards to train dogs.

 If you’d like to know more about the scientific research on dog training, I maintain a list of articles and places where you can read about them on my blog, Companion Animal Psychology. 

 

 

 

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Throw Open the Jailhouse Doors: When and why to choose training over management

Throw Open the Jailhouse Doors: When and why to choose training over management

As dog trainers, we love management—that is, arranging the dog’s environment to prevent mess-ups.  It’s a godsend for a bunch of pesky behaviour issues. We use baby gates, dog-proof rooms, curtains, and crates to provide relief to our clients (and often, their dogs). Management can also protect shy or fearful dogs from experiences that they are not ready for, either as a permanent solution or temporarily during training.
 
But long-term management, no matter how alluring or easy it seems, nor how ‘humane’ it feels, is not always the answer.
 
In cases where a management-only solution impacts a dog’s quality of life, and where well-vetted, humane, and aversives-free behaviour modification options exist, we have a double duty as dog trainers. First, we must disclose to our clients that a training option exists, and that the training option will protect or even increase their dog’s quality of life. Second, if our clients then wish to train, we must be proficient at the techniques needed and offer them, or refer on to practitioners who are. Enrichment—an increasingly hot topic in both dog training circles and animal welfare more broadly—matters to us, our clients, and their dogs.
 

Example: Play issues

Dogs are, in general, social creatures who enjoy the company of other dogs. Play (or simple companionship) with the conspecifics of their own choosing is profoundly enriching and important. Trainers dealt a steady diet of dogs who are fearful and aggressive towards other dogs sometimes forget how deep the pool is of socially normal dogs. But salience, of course, does not mean prevalence.
 
Many dogs who enjoy play also, and separately, have play-related behaviour issues. They might target and bully some dogs, or their play might frequently tip over into squabbles. Dog trainers skilled at using a well-planned combination of positive reinforcement on the one hand, and reducing problem behaviours through removal from play on the other, can generally resolve these cases over a number of weeks. In other words, the dogs stop bullying and scrapping, but get to keep playing. Although using a differential reinforcement protocol (for example, recalls out of play) may work for some of these cases, for many dogs the problem behaviour itself seems to be exceptionally self-reinforcing, and simply re-directing the dog fails to produce the desired outcomes.
 
Removal from play is a time-out—in other words, “negative punishment”. This label sounds distasteful but simply means making a good thing disappear. We have to leave the play session at some point anyways, so having “play ends” contingent on problem behaviour simply harnesses this pain-free, fear-free learning opportunity for the benefit of the dog. The dog learns that bullying results in loss of play opportunities, and they modify their behaviour accordingly. And like all aversives-free training, using removal from play as a consequence can even be considered enriching. We can compare this protocol to the puzzle toys that we are so quick to recommend to our clients. A dog might try pawing, but finds that doesn’t work to open a compartment. They might then try chewing, but that doesn’t work either. Finally, they try moving a lever with their nose, and out comes the food. The dog learns to get more of what they like from doing one behaviour (just as the dog learns that acceptable play gets them more play), and to avoid doing another behaviour because it clearly terminates what they want (similarly, bullying means play will end).
 
The management-only solution for play issues (“no more dog park” or even “no more play”) radically decreases these dogs’ quality of life. These dogs enjoy play, and benefit tremendously from the opportunity to interact with other dogs. The very fact that these dogs will change their behaviour to avoid the consequence of removal from play is proof positive that they like play, and that they aren’t secretly trying to communicate a negative state like “over-stressed”. If they were over-stressed we could expect that bullying would increase with a time-out protocol, because the dog would be in a hurry to get away from the dog park and would learn that bullying brings relief. (And luckily for dogs, savvy trainers can usually pick up when a dog is stressed through their body language.)
 
A management-only solution may also cause new behaviour problems like barrier frustration (“reactivity”) on leash, due to deprivation. So if the play issue is left unaddressed, a social, enriched dog with a fixable problem can easily become a bored, destructive dog without playmates and without leash walks. We have all seen these dogs and felt for both the dogs and their owners too, who are very much at the end of their ropes. This is not an academic or theoretical outcome.
 
And it leads us to another, more serious, point. Dog owners may also find a management-only solution simply doesn’t meet their needs. They may themselves recognize the value of joyful dog play. If we do not offer them humane alternatives, they may (quite reasonably in their eyes) knock on the door of the local force trainer, who will certainly modify the dog’s behaviour. This trainer may do so with painful corrections and ‘negative reinforcement’, though, and will likely not disclose the well-documented side effects of training this way. Negative reinforcement may sound similar to negative punishment, but it is a whole world apart. It refers to making use of the relief an animal feels when something painful or scary ends. In dog training this typically means something truly awful like a long-duration electric shock.
 
There is a suite of behaviour problems that can seemingly be solved through management, but at great cost to the dog’s quality of life: play issues, aggressive guarding of chew items, and jumpy and mouthy dogs, to name a few. These solutions, which needlessly deny dogs things they enjoy due solely to practitioner preference, must eventually be taken off the table as an acceptable practice for dog trainers. We simply care too much about dogs’ quality of life to continue to prescribe needless emotional warehousing.
 

If you are ready to take your training to the next level and offer your clients a full complement of services, please consider applying to the Academy for Dog Trainers.

 

Cover photo iStock.com/mimadeo

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