Before completing it, I showed the movie featured in this post to two different training buddies and both responded with questions. Is it really resource guarding if the dogs don’t escalate to violence or obvious threats? How come the “winner” in the interaction is throwing stress signals right along with the other dog? I thought we were talking about aggression; how do we know this particular interaction is resource guarding? Isn’t Clara just giving play invitations sometimes? I don’t know the answers. I think these are great questions and also inevitable when we are trying to discuss dog communication and body language in real life.
What the interactions in the movie have in common is that they all show two dogs who appear to want the same thing. The dogs communicate rapidly with body language, and one dog keeps control of the thing. There is usually a definite assertion of ownership by the guarding dog, but both dogs may also exhibit other types of body language.
Defining Resource Guarding
Jean Donaldson defines resource guarding in her excellent book, “Mine!”, as
Dogs behaving aggressively when in possession of (and sometimes to gain possession of) food, toys, bones, their owners, their resting spots and crates.
She goes on to describe ritualized aggression, where an animal behaves in truncated versions of more serious or violent behaviors. The truncated versions allow animals including humans to indicate intent but avoid bloodshed. Some of the behaviors that Donaldson categorizes under that include:
…hard stares, growling, snarling, snapping and biting without maiming force…
She describes these ritualized aggressive behaviors as:
…the “legal” conflict resolution behaviors in dog society.
Donaldson’s book is a how-to manual on dealing with dogs who resource guard items from humans. She uses protocols of desensitization and counter conditioning to change the dog’s emotional response to a human approaching when the dog has a valued item. She makes the point that guarding is a natural behavior tied to survival, and extremely common between dogs in a group.
There is plenty of online information on resource guarding. I like the definition of resource guarding in this blog post as well as the comprehensive list of dog behaviors that could fall under that heading.
Also, I highly recommend the FaceBook Group: Observation skills for training dogs. This group is great for anyone who wants to hone their observation skills. Members post videos, their own or others found online, and the behaviors in the videos are described and discussed. The group has a very smart guideline: the participants are asked to practice using descriptive words to describe observed behaviors and THEN (emphasis mine) attempt to interpret the behaviors they see. We humans tend to skip right to what we think the motivations of the behavior are, rather than first observing and describing what is happening. This is a great place to learn about both. I got some nice comments and encouragement there for an early draft of my movie.
Guarding against Humans
I am fortunate that none of my dogs currently resource guards items from me. This is a combination of luck with Summer and Zani, and deliberate training with Clara. Because of her feral history, Clara has abundant, strong survival behaviors. (Translation: she is very pushy.) So I made a special effort to head off potential resource guarding against me when she was a baby. This is a good idea with any puppy or new dog, and here is an article that describes some good exercises for that.
Notice I said my dogs don’t currently resource guard against me. Here’s a photo from many years ago of Cricket with a rawhide chewy. Enough said.
Is it Resource Guarding or a “Discussion”?
My movie shows my dogs having “discussions” about objects and places they want to have control of. The resource guarding behaviors are mostly on the very low end of ritualized aggression, which to me is a very good thing. They are working things out without coming very close to harming each other.
In addition to the hard stares, growling, and snapping that Donaldson mentions, my dogs perform several other more subtle behaviors that I would also classify as resource guarding and these are shown in the movie. They include moving forward into the other dog’s space, standing with a stiff, straight stance, muzzle feint (my name for a mouth closed muzzle punch without contact), and even intrusive sniffing and licking.
I agree with my friends that there is a lot of different stuff going on in the movie. Clara rarely looks very stressed. At times her guarding behaviors resemble (and could be) invitations to play. In Summer’s “successful” guarding of her toy in the last interaction, she darts a furtive glance and a lip lick towards Clara, who seems to be considering stealing her toy. This does not seem to be very assertive behavior. Perhaps Summer lucked out that time, but still, the outcome of the interaction was that she got to keep her toy.
What else do you see?
I am fortunate at the low level of aggression my dogs show. I don’t mean to minimize the real dangers that resource guarding behaviors can pose, and of course I don’t encourage them. These clips were taken over several years. I take habitual precautions: supervising heavily when valued toys are available, intervening when someone (ahem Clara) is being a jerk, and separating all four of my dogs completely when I am not home.
Resource guarding can be a very serious problem. I hope if any of you have a dog who has started guarding things from you, you can get access to an experienced trainer or behaviorist.
Discussions coming soon: