Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dog/Dog Resource Guarding, Part Three: Rubi's Case Study

Shortly after we got him, Cannon kicked Rubi's ass. He was patiently waiting to be allowed back into his crate to retrieve a chew toy, and Rubi sauntered over. B saw the chewie, and I saw her body stiffen and heard her growl softly. Before I could intervene, Cannon whirled on her in Hulk-Smash! mode. Horrified, Rubi fled, and Cannon chased her all the way into her crate before I could tackle the little monster and save my pit bull. Poor Rubi!

When I got her, Rubi would literally try to take the face off any dog that dared to so much as walk by her when she had a prized chewie or toy. Resource guarding is a normal, natural canine behavior. After all, if you give away all your food to whoever is pushy enough to take it, pretty soon you'll starve to death. Even with the best behavior program, it's highly unlikely that all resource guarding behavior will be eliminated. On the other hand, trying to murder other dogs for walking by when you have a nylabone is not acceptable behavior in my house full of pit bulls and small dogs.

"Personal space? What's that?"

The first step in Rubi's resource guarding plan was management (Are you sensing a theme yet? management is all the important.). All the tasty nylabones and chewies and toys were put away when Rubi was around. Often, just management of valuable resources is enough, but in Rubi's case, hiding all the chew toys would have made life extremely difficult. Most of my dogs are heavy chewers, and without an appropriate outlet, they turn to chewing on, well, everything ever. So management was only a temporary solution to keep Rubi from practicing her extreme resource guarding behaviors.

With our management program in place, Rubi and I started working on our nonverbal "leave it." We started this as soon as I brought her into the house, during her Two Week Staycation. Nonverbal "leave its" are a foundation behavior for living at my house, and all the fosters that come through my house are able to do it. Not only is this activity beneficial for life with other dogs, but it's also a great impulse control activity. Over the first months that I had her, Rubi eventually progressed to the point where I could throw handfuls of treats at her chest, and she wouldn't even look at them because she was staring so hard at me. But we started with cookie-in-the-fist, just like everyone else.

We practiced this game a lot.

Once we had a solid non verbal "leave it," we started doing group training session. Rubi was pretty good with me when working - as long as there wasn't a pile of cookies up for grabs to whoever could eat it fastest, she wasn't likely to resource guard from the other dogs, so counter conditioning her to other dogs getting food when pretty smoothly. In addition to structured group training session, we practiced "mom suddenly and randomly drops a treat, and the dog who looks at her the hardest gets the treat handed to them." We especially practiced this in the kitchen, since that's where most random, accidental food drops occur. In case you were wondering, dropping a treat and having four dogs suddenly lock on you face with lazer-like focus instead of bum-rushing each other to go grab the cookie is a bit of an ego boost. Lastly, we worked group relaxation protocol sessions to help her relax around dogs when food was present.

I was looking for a new "group RP" picture.
I couldn't find one, so you get "dogs on a bench" instead. Sorry.

My eventual goal for Rubi, though, was to be able to bring out my low value chew bones for everyone to enjoy. Before we started working on this aspect of Rubi's resource guarding, I wanted to know two things. First, I wanted to be certain that she wouldn't resource guard from me. If I'm putting myself in a tense situation where there may be a dog fight, I want to know that I won't make things worse. If Rubi did have issues resource guarding from people, I would have worked on those before tackling resource guarding toward other dogs. Luckily for me, Rubi doesn't care if I approach her or take away any resource of hers. Second, I wanted to know was what Rubi's were cues that she was uncomfortable. Typical resource guarding "go away" cues include whale eye, pinned ears, growling, showing teeth, getting stiff, and moving the resource away from the other dog - but many dogs do not display all of these behaviors. I suspect Rubi had been punished in the past for exhibiting resource guarding behaviors, because her cues were severely muted; she seemed to go from ignoring the other dog to attacking them in the space of about half a second. However, I was able to detect a very subtle body stiffening, ear tightening, and lip lift about two seconds before she would fly off the handle. I needed to know these cues before we started to work with another dog so that I could keep everyone safe.

Now that I knew Rubi's cues, I had a place to start. I gave Rubi her least valuable resource (a nylabone, I'm pretty sure), and once she had settled in for a good chew, I brought Piper into the room. At this point, I had a pretty good idea of how close Rubi would let another dog get before losing her cool. If I had any doubt, I would have worked with a barrier between the girls, or had Rubi tethered. (The care and comfort of my personal decoy dogs is always my highest priority - after all, they didn't sign on for this). Piper would wander over to Rubi to see what she had, and when I saw that tell-tale tenseness from Rubi, I would call Piper back to me. We kept the sessions short - only two or three approaches per session - to keep Rubi from getting to stressed about the situation.

Pushing Rubi's threshold like this had two benefits. First, it helped Rubi understand that if she told another dog not to come any closer, the other dog would back off without Rubi needing to start a fight. Second, it helped Piper see what Rubi's cues were when Rubi wanted to be left alone with her nylabone. Neither dog wanted to get into a fight. And as Rubi learned that she could cue Piper to leave whenever she wanted, she became more comfortable with Piper coming closer. This is the same theory that underlies BAT training - when the dog provides appropriate cues indicating discomfort, the situation is changed so that it becomes more comfortable for the dog. As the dog learns that they have control over the situation, they become more comfortable in general, and their thresholds increase. When Rubi learned that she was in control of the situation, she discovered that she did not need to bite when a simple growl would do. My goal was not to eliminate her resource guarding because resource guarding is a natural behavior. Instead, I wanted to teach Rubi how to resource guard appropriately.

Piper is still the dog I trust most with Rubi.

Once I was happy with the signals Rubi was giving Piper, we practiced this set up with the other dogs in the house. Training with each additional dog went faster than the last, and it wasn't long before I was able to bring all the nylabones out for everyone to enjoy once again. Rubi has never been prone to stealing other dog's resources, so I didn't need to worry about her trying to take a bone from one of the other dogs and starting a fight. If she had, we would have reverse our pseudo-BAT protocol and rewarded Rubi for moving away from the other dogs when they cued her that they were uncomfortable.

Today, Rubi is able to live with six other dogs and ten to fifteen low value bones in reasonable harmony. She has a long, protracted growl she uses when she wants the other dogs to go away, but it's pretty rare that we hear it. She'll let other dog walk past and even touch her while she's chewing, as long as they don't try to take her bone (except for Jai - she lets Jai get away with murder. I have no idea how this happened). In spite of Rubi's much increased bite threshold, we still do a great deal of management, though. High value resources like filled kongs or rawhides cannot be left lying around, and Rubi knows to "go to your place" when I'm doling out medications at the end of the day. But we've found a happy balance between training and management. Most of what I've written over the past few weeks has come from personal experience, and Rubi has been - once again -  one of my greatest teachers.


  1. These have been such great, informative posts! I've read this whole series with much eager interest. We recently adopted our second dog, and the girls have had a few issues with resource guarding from each other, but reading these posts has helped reiterate the policies and training that we need to put into place. And our house has since been a lot calmer. Thanks again!

  2. We really enjoy reading your blog and love the way you use all positive training methods. It's really interesting to see how it requires the dogs to make the right decision and trains them to think more. We are trying to rehabilitate our reactive dog and are open to all sorts of training methods as we are fairly inexperienced. We have been taking a special class with a professional and we feel that we've come a long way and we really trust our trainer's methods have made a huge difference already. Her approach involves reward as well as discipline. This is the only reactive dog class offered in our area and we have no regrets about integrating the well-timed corrections into our training right now. We'd like to continue our training and try some of the all positive reinforcement methods you outline. If you don't mind, we're curious if you'd recommend any books to continue our training?
    Thanks for any incites. You've done such a great job with your dogs, and they're all gorgeous too!

    1. Hello! Click to Calm by Emma Parsons was a life-saver for me when I adopted my first reactive dog. The "Control Unleashed" puppy edition and Grisha Stewart's book on Behavioral Adjustment Training were also really useful. And then I think Turid Rugaas's "On Talking Terms with Dogs" should be required reading for anyone who thinks they want to own a dog. Good luck!

  3. Hello Laura! I ran across your blog a while ago, probably from the Notes from a Dog Walker blog and Crystal's blog, and was reminded of it again a few days ago. What a surprise for me to realize that you're here in the Cities, and that I know Tania and Elo from classes at The Canine Coach.

    And I so wish I had found this blog 3 years ago when we got Jetta. She's reactive in different ways from most of your dogs, but a lot of your blog posts resonate with me, either in ways we've been successful with Jetta, or in ways we could have been more successful earlier, or in ways that we can work on starting tonight.

    Well, except that Jetta's sacked out on the sofa next to me, and for this supremely anxious and constantly-moving dog to be sacked out next to me is like being given a million dolars... so maybe we'll start with the relaxation protocol tomorrow.

    I spent most of my free time in the last 2 days reading through your blog from start to finish, and I'm glad I took the time. Thank you so much for sharing so much.

  4. Just discovered your page, and I love it!!

    My Fiance' and I have now been fostering for about 2 years. We work primarily with undersized puppies, weaned too quickly. The reason for this is my shepherd/lab mix, Mika. Mika is a wonderful, motherly presence for these puppies and for my other dog, Hatch who she adopted when he was a puppy. However Mika has intense aggression to other large, adult dogs which I have had no luck managing. This did not present itself until she was around 3 years old, which was extremely confusing. Before that she was not only a friendly dog, but extremely social. It's like a switch turned inside of her. We have tried many tactics, but nothing has seemed to work.

    Do you have any advice for managing this problem with Mika? I'm not expecting her reclaim her status as a social butterfly. I just want her to be able to feel stable and non-threatened when we walk near another dog.

    Any strategies you could give me would be highly appreciated.

  5. Just found your blog a few days ago and have read from the start until now.

    I have a (dog) reactive dog myself and thought I was the only one with a wailing banshee of a dog. Your posts are so inspiring and motivating. I'm starting the relaxation protocol on my pup tomorrow (after I get higher value treats) and I'm so excited to work with him. He's a neurotic, little mess, but he's MY neurotic, little mess.