Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dog/Dog Resource Guarding, Part One: Management and When the Shit Hits the Fan

Resource guarding is one of the few behaviors that actually is dominance related. Dominance, in it's purest form, is the two dogs/one bone conundrum: if there are two dogs and they both want one bone, who gets it? In an established dominance hierarchy, there's no argument: the more "dominant" dog gets the bone. Trouble enters the picture when who the "more dominant" dog is comes into question. If both dogs are well fed, if the bone isn't that interesting, if one dog "knows" to always defer to the other dog, then there's no problem. But what if the dog who usually defers is really hungry that day? Or the dog who usually gets the resource is feeling unwell, and the other dog gets a little too close? Or if both dogs really want the resource? To me, there are too many variables involved in resource guarding to let the two dogs just work it out. I also don't want my dogs to get in the habit of solving problems with their teeth. Instead, I teach them that respecting each other's body language is rewarding for everyone.

The first step in any behavior change protocol is good management. Progress will be much slower if dogs get the opportunity to practice bad behaviors. So put away all the tasty rawhides and bones and food toys; if there's a chance the dogs could fight over it, it goes away unless you're actively working on the resource guarding issue, or the animals are completely separated. Often, management is enough to restore harmony. When I brought Marnie home, I found that she would start fights over a certain antler chew toy. I put the antler away, and we haven't had any trouble since.

Most dogs will guard food.
Other resources can include favorite chewies or toys, comfy spots to lay, and people.

In addition to putting away high value resources, be sure to feed your resource guarder away from your other animals. Often, a resource guarding dog will guard things from other animals in the house - cats, for example. Try to prevent them from resource guarding from other animals. It makes everything much harder for you if you're working on resource guarding from dogs and your dog is practicing their resource guarding skills on the cats. Remember: practice makes permanent, and the more your resource guarder practices their bad behavior, the harder it will be to change. Personally, I crate all my dogs during meal times. Not only does this prevent the dogs from trying to steal each others' food, but it also gives each dog a space to relax and enjoy their meals. It's hard to relax when you're constantly worried that someone is going to come along and steal your stuff. Your resource guarder doesn't want to have to protect their stuff; they just want everyone to leave them in peace. Resource guarding is stressful for everyone, including the dog with the behavior issue.

When actively working with your dog on her resource guarding issues (and I'll get to training in Part Two), always error on the side of caution. It's SUPER important to protect your "normal" dog. Many times, serious resource guarders give little to no warning when they attack, so to the other dog, they are being attacked "out of the blue." And it doesn't take long for resentment to build up and destroy a relationship. A ruined relationship is so, SO hard to fix. SO HARD. Down right impossible sometimes. Use barriers, tethers, crates - whatever you need to be sure your dogs are kept safe from each other.

Of course, we live in the Real World where Sometimes Shit Happens. We can't all be perfect all the time - not even me. The best piece of advice I ever received about living with multiple dogs was that, "If you have more than one dog, always expect that there will be fights." Disagreements are a normal part of social living, whether that group is human or canine or feline or psittacine. So don't beat yourself up too much when a fight happens; however, there are activities we can do to lessen the severity and impact of disagreements when they invariably happen.

I want to start by saying that there is no 100% safe and effective way to break up a fight. Making a loud noise, throwing a blanket over the dogs, or dumping water on them doesn't always work. And there's a good chance that if you wade into a fight to break it up, you will get bitten. They dogs almost certainly won't mean to do it on purpose, and it doesn't mean that they don't still love you. But when the hair and fur and skin is flying, it's hard to keep track of where your teeth are going. All fights stop eventually. (For more information on breaking up dog fights, check out Sara's blog post over here.)

Once you have the dogs separated, check everyone over for injuries, and address any wounds. If everyone is physically okay, don't rush to reintroduce them. Stress does all kinds of nasty things to a body, and I want to give everyone flush out those nasty hormones before I try to bring them together. In my house, after an actual fight (not just a noisy disagreement that stops on it's own after a second or so), dogs are separated for a minimum of one hour. I increase time apart based on how bad the fight was and the individual dogs involved. If it was a bad fight where blood was drawn, or the most recent of several scuffles over a few days, I will keep them apart for longer. Similarly, if the dogs involved are known for having a hard time recovering from stress, or one of the dogs is new to the household, I'll also keep them apart for longer - sometimes even several days. In particularly bad cases, I'll go all the way back to a full Two Week Staycation. I always want to error on the side of a slow reintroduction. You risk a lifetime of hatred by rushing things; you risk nothing by going slowly.

Of course, stress doesn't just affect your dogs. Most of the time when my dogs fight, I get really frustrated and angry, too; I don't even want to look at those little monsters! That's okay - go pour yourself a stiff drink, buy yourself something nice on Etsy, or do some other friendly self-care activity to celebrate that you are at least motivated enough to do something about this situation. Sometimes, the fact that we are all still standing at the end of the day is reason enough to celebrate.

Sometimes, you just need some booze.

After you've given yourself some time and distance from the fight, try to think uncritically about how the fight could have been prevented. Don't beat yourself up about the fight. It happened, it's over, and some fights are unavoidable. But try to think about what happen to cause the fight so that you can stack the deck in your favor in the future. How did triggers line up so that a fight broke out? What triggers can you change? What triggers can you manage?

Good management can go along way toward creating a peaceful home for everyone, but if you're interested in improving your dog's resource guarding, there are a lot of activities you can do! Stay tunes for Part Two, where I'll pass along some harmony-promoting exercises, and Part Three, where I'll walk you through Rubi's resource guarding issues and how we improved them.


  1. A really great post, I've shared on FB and Twitter!

  2. This is a great post! Thanks for your thoroughness. I read it eagerly, and I'm looking forward to reading your follow-up posts. We recently adopted a second dog, and they've had a few disagreements over resources (mostly food, sometimes a coveted bone). No full-blown fights, but I want to do my best to help manage tension and prevent issues. Looking forward to continuing to read your posts!

  3. Thanks so much for a great post (as usual) Laura. One of my dogs is a resource guarder (with other dogs) and has never had an issue with my first dog until about 2 years into them being together (incident free). Accidentally left a high value bone on the ground after a holiday, the next morning when the dogs ventured downstairs, sans humans, it was on. No more bones allowed for either of them (low value nyla bones) included and haven't had an issue between the two of them since. But I'll never make that mistake again, it was a bad one. ;(

  4. Great post and such good advice. I'm fortunate that I don't have any resource guarders, but am starting to think about fostering I know it might develop as an issue.