A lot of people love dogs… But not very many are actually experts on dog behavior. Our personal experiences are seen through a lens, which could be made clearer with education or cloudier with imagination and misinformation. It really doesn’t help when media and other news sources are misinterpreting dog behavior too. Take for example the article posted yesterday on The Dodo and picked up today by The Huffington Post’s Facebook page.
In the photos and video, a dog is shown protecting a live lobster. The article’s author describes the dog as protecting “Her Little Lobster Friend” and HuffPo writes that “She’s serious about mothering…” That would indeed make for a very cute story, if either of those things were true. However, as a professional dog trainer, I see something entirely different.
Dogs can absolutely be maternal, especially to other baby mammals when they’ve recently had puppies of their own. And they can have very strong bonds with their friends, dogs or otherwise. But that’s not what’s happening here. Dogs can also be protective, this one certainly is, but her motives may be much less compassionate than we’re being lead to believe…
Resource-guarding is a term used to describe the behavior of a dog protecting something of value. The something and its value are determined by the dog doing the protecting or guarding. For some resource-guarding dogs it’s food or bones, for others it might be a toy or even a person. If they feel threatened, they protect their valuable something just like you or I might defend our purse or wallet, or even dessert. If I order the fancy chocolate pie at a restaurant and my significant other dares pick up a fork, I shoot a quick, stone-faced glare across the table without even thinking about it. That’s something I want and I don’t want to share. Then rational thought kicks in and I know that a.) I’m not going to starve to death if I share and b.) I don’t need to hurt anyone over pie. Well, dogs don’t really do “rational thought”.
This dog’s body language is saying she’d like the keep this item to herself, thanks. This may be the best treat she’s ever been given, and she may not understand that there’s always a bag of kibble in the cupboard. Her “sad” look is saying “please, don’t take this from me,” and she even bares her teeth towards the other dog in the home. Notice how the other dog turns away when she does that – respecting her wishes. Sticking around and reaching for it would be rude and could provoke a bite, but that’s just what her humans do. (They’re lucky this time.)
Dogs can be taught to share, of course, just like children in preschool learn to ask permission instead of grabbing, take turns with toys and playmates, and leave any high-prized possessions at home. If your dog might snap at other dogs over special treats or toys, you probably want to work on that (with a professional) and in the meantime you shouldn’t bring those items to the dog park. If you have multiple dogs at home, feeding them separately (not right next to one another), giving them each their own bones (maybe in their own crates or in separate rooms), and supervising playtime with toys can ensure that no one feels the need to protect anything. Teach your dogs a “leave it” cue to mean ‘You’ll get something way better if you ignore that over there.” If your dog gets ahold of something they shouldn’t have, call them away or carefully switch it out for something else the dog likes. This is a time you totally can bribe your dog with treats!
Unlike the folks in the video, you DO NOT want to reach for coveted items (and risk being bitten), shout “No!” or otherwise scold the dog (that doesn’t teach them anything and it may make matters worse long-term), or “hit her in the face with it to make her hate it” as they recommend towards the end. Remember that there’s lots of misinformation on dog training and behavior – if it sounds like it’s scary or painful (or just plain rude), it’s poor advice. Take advice only from the real experts!
One of my favorite experts, Jean Donalsdon PhD wrote a little book about resource-guarding called “Mine!”, which can be purchased via Tawzerdog or Amazon.com
ASPCA also has free information online from Emily Weiss, Phd, CAAB. Check out these videos showing how shelters have come a long way in treating resource-guarding over the years. (Dogs used to be put to sleep for it.)
Our dogs are still cute and we still love them, even if they have room for improvement. Resource-guarding is a serious issue that can be really stressful for them and potentially dangerous to us and/or other dogs. It is best handled with help from a qualified, positive, professional dog trainer or behavior consultant. This blog post is only intended to educate on what the issue is and to enlighten dog owners that training is an option. Feel free to comment if you have any questions!
And I’ll leave you with this adorable tv commercial, a series of clips of animal friends! Because that’s what we like to see, right? For real, animal friends. Not a misinterpretation of a dog and her dinner. ;p
Note to news sources and media outlets: consult with a trainer or behaviorist on dog training and behavior, please and thank you!
*Update* 6/10/2015 The Huffington Post updated the story with the help of a trainer! Now hopefully people can learn a little bit about resource-guarding, avoid issues, and/or help their dogs live healthier, happier lives!