Learning how to prevent resource guarding or possessive behaviour may be one of the most misunderstood areas of raising puppies and sadly, one of most common causes of preventable aggression I see in older dogs.
Teaching pups to share with humans is a critical early lesson. Failing to do so can at best result in some frustrating and embarrassing moments (think of the dog who steals someone’s mitten in the park and proceeds to play Keep-Away). At worst, it can result in someone getting bitten and dogs needing to be rehomed (or worse).
Many of the clients I meet understand the importance of this but misconceptions and misguided approaches are all too common. Here are the top mistakes and what you can do instead to prevent problems:
- Taking stuff away from their pup to show that they can. Let’s say you love ice cream. Now if every time you are enjoying your favourite flavour I come and take it away from you, you are probably going to start to feel a little anxious whenever you see me approach you and your cone. You might start trying to avoid me but if I persist you will be forced to speak up and if I still persist you might even get physical. Your pup is the same. Teach him to look forward to your approach. It’s easy to do – approach him while he is eating and drop tasty tidbits into his dish before walking away. Offer him something yummy while you take his ball then return the item to him when he’s done chewing. Many pups just learn to spit things out in anticipation at the mere sight of a human approaching.
- Starting to work on it AFTER your dog has started to growl at you. Teaching your pup to share prevents problems. By the time your dog is growling at you, you need a certified professional. And PLEASE don’t punish the growl. By doing so you are taking away his warning system and he may be forced to proceed right to biting. It’s like tasking the batteries out of your smoke alarm. Warnings help keep us safe!
- Using kibble as rewards. Don’t let his fondness for toilet-bowl-water fool you into thinking he doesn’t have any tastebuds! Make sure what you’re offering Rover is better than kibble. Just because they eat it, doesn’t mean they will work hard for it or give up a prized possession for it. Try cheese, hot dogs, liver snaps, dried herring, chicken breast. Find out what your pup finds delicious. Even the most undiscerning labs I know have clear preferences.
- Using intimidating tones and death-ray stares. This is meant to be a friendly exercise. Remember that you are teaching them to want to share with you. You don’t need to intimidate or scare a puppy to get cooperation, use playful body language and tones – crouch down, pat your legs to invite him over, smile and praise him for finding your slipper. Then trade it for a toy or treat. Then give him back the slipper and repeat (or put your slipper away). Life is one big game for puppies – we can easily harness that to teach them to want to bring us stuff.
- Punishing Rover for not sharing with other dogs. Even if your dog is happy to share with humans, he may not be keen on sharing with other dogs. It’s perfectly OK for Rover to give another dog a ‘Get-Your-Own-Bone’ growl. It is not OK however, for Rover to continue to bully a dog who has already backed down. Learn what is acceptable communication between dogs and when intervention is warranted.