Puppy Behavior Emergency - Resource Guarding

Who me

Think the puppy I’ve been posting pictures of in this series looks sweet and innocent?  You should have seen him with the very fresh raw deer leg that a friend gave us last Thursday.  I’d been feeding Chaos from Kongs and handling him while he ate, but I wasn’t doing a lot of hand feeding outside of training sessions like I should have been.  That all changed when the deer leg turned him into a snarling little demon-pup.  I promised to write about mistakes in doing this blog and there will be some today. 

We gave each of our dogs a large meaty deer bone and sat on the floor to ensure that they kept the mess on the towels we had put down.  Chaos began to grumble a little as he ate, so I began to pet him to see how he would react.  The growling intensified.  In order to assess what I was dealing, I kept petting him.  He continued to growl.  I removed my hand for a bit and he stopped.  I replaced it, and he started back up.  He soon aimed a warning bite up at my wrist.  It was completely without pressure, but it surprised me.  I jerked my hand away.  That’s always a mistake.      

I placed my hand back on Chaos’ shoulders and his snarling intensified.  He soon began to direct another bite my way.  Perhaps due to embarrassment over flinching away from a tiny puppy, I overreacted a bit.  I pushed on his shoulders to prevent a bite, and then lifted him away from the deer by the loose skin on his scruff and his back.  This was not the “scuff shake” that often passes for training.  In doing handling exercises, I’d been pulling at this loose skin and had already lifted him by it for treats several times.  Still, it was probably too harsh a reaction on my point.  I could easily have removed him in a way that wouldn’t have confirmed his suspicion that me near his precious deer leg meant trouble, but I didn’t.

Obviously, we had a behavior emergency on our hands.   Young puppies seldom show this level of aggression.  Unaddressed, this sort of thing can get really scary in a hurry.  I started working on it immediately.  I put Chaos on a sit, kept him there until he settled down and focused on me rather than the leg.  I then picked it up (yuck!) and handed it to him, but this time I didn’t let go.  I held one end while he chewed the other.  He still grumbled a bit, so I started taking big chunks of meat off my half, calling his name, and giving him the tastier meat if he looked.  Within 2 minutes, we became partners in stripping the bone rather than adversaries competing for it.  His body language was quite relaxed.  That was a good but tiny first step.   

The next day, I stuffed him a kong and held it for him while he ate.  We had a bit of grumbling, but it stopped quickly.  I had him doing sits and letting me take his kong in exchange for an even tastier treat in no time.  We did this several times before the kong was empty, with Chaos relaxed and responsive. 

Since then, I’ve been doing true hand feeding.  I fill a bowl with yummy raw food and ask him to sit.  I slowly lower the bowl to the floor, lifting it back over my head if he breaks his sit.  Once the bowl is on the floor, I sit there and hand Chaos its contents piece by piece, throwing in some obedience.  The difference in attitude between working for the food and having it to himself is phenomenal.  When he has the food to himself, he eats quickly and is very tense.  When working for me, he is relaxed and happy.    

I’m also working on letting him settle in with a bowl of kibble (because it’s low value) and then calling him away from it, whereupon I give him some even tastier meat.  This is going a bit more slowly, but we’re definitely progressing.  We’ve also been giving him bones or other chewies and teaching him to bring them to us for a treat, after which we return them.  My wife and I are both doing these exercises and we’re also conscripting every visitor to help out.  I’ve only heard one grumble since Friday, and that was when our other dog Maggie approached Chaos’ bowl when I left the room to set up a cold trial. 

We have a long way to go.  Chaos still eats quickly and looks a little tense when he has a bowl to himself.  We need to get him happily looking up from his bowl whenever we call him or approach it.  We need to do lots of cold trials.  We need to keep working on object exchanges until he’ll bring us things and drop them on command.  The key to this kind of work is lots of repetition and lots of patience.  We can’t settle for him tolerating people approaching or asking him to give something up.  He must learn to actually like it…preferably a lot.  Most importantly, we need to make sure that his welcoming attitude generalizes to include all humans.      

In my experience, resource guarding is forever.  If you don’t continue doing simple exercises to maintain the positive association between people approaching the dog with good stuff and Good Stuff for Dogs, then the behavior tends to return.  These maintenance exercises will always be a part of Chaos’ life.  His quick response to our efforts so far drives home just how important it is to start training and socializing puppies right from the start.  This is a serious problem, but an eminently manageable one right now. Too many owners would let it go on for weeks, months, or even years before seeking help.  That’s a disaster.  Nobody wants a problem like this, but if you get it the time to identify and address it always right now.

I’ll be posting more about our progress.    

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