Dog Training – Positive Strategies For Curbing Guarding Problem

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Note: I have a new pet behavior blog at http://www.SoMuchPETential.com/blog.

Thank you so much to trainer Therese McClain for letting me publish this article she wrote in 2000 about working on object aggression in dogs. You’ll see that she does not use any type of force, but rather worked from the perspective of…How can I set my dog up for success?

By Theresa McClain
I have a now 5 year old golden, who I adopted as a almost 2 year old. She had a serious guarding problem which we have overcome.

This is what I did.

When she would be laying on the floor chewing a bone, I would walk up to her, stop, smile and speak cheerfully and then drop a treat and move on. I tried to do this several times a day.

It didn’t take too long, before she stopped growling when I came near. She began to actually look forward to me coming near her and even got to the point of letting go of the bone to look up and smile in return..( she is a golden)

I then started stooping, speaking cheerfully and placing the treat on the floor, getting up and moving on.

After that, I would stoop, touch her rear (I wasn’t stupid), smile, speak cheerfully and place a treat on the floor.

It wasn’t long before I could stop, stoop, smile, pet her head, and place the treat on the floor.

I knew I was home free then. I then proceed to touch the bone, place the treat etc.

And finally, take the bone, give her a treat and then give back the bone.

She is a sweetheart and I can trust her with my grandchild now.

Now my question would be, how did you proof and escalate that to include someone swooping down and grabbing an item away from the dog? (setting up ability for people to reach down — including child or acquaintance — and take item away from dog safely?)

I think the last step I mentioned in my post was…taking the bone, giving a treat and giving back the bone.

After that I did a lot of trading, bone for treat, bone for another bone, bone for a a highly valued toy. etc.. ( always something of the same or better value in the dogs eyes) I always spoke to her first, smiled and petted her head before any trade.

This speaking, smiling and petting actually became a signal (in a way) that I would be trading.

At first, she was very reliable with me, but not trustworthy with others. I gradually added other people she knew and liked. They had to follow the rules of course. They had to trade and they had to speak, smile and pet her head first.

She, of course was highly reinforced for this….lots and lots of praise and sometimes a jackpot of treats instead of just one.

This just took time…that’s all. She was better with some people than others at first. For instance, she was wonderful with my 9 year old grandson right off the bat, but gave his father (my son) a warning growl at first. When this happened, I took the bone, gave her a treat and praise, (for giving up the bone to me), gave the bone to my son to return to her and then he petted her.

One thing, I did not move from one step to another until she was comfortable relaxed and happy at that step. My criteria was not just that she was accepting of the step, but that she would look up at me in anticipation and smile. (Oh here comes mom and she’s got something good.)

I do not have to trade or treat now (it’s been three years), but did so for at least a year. She does not guard her bones now from anyone and anyone can take an object from her.

I never corrected her or used an NRM. I set her up to be successful and broke the whole thing down into very small steps…reinforcing the good stuff.

What precautions did you take when introducing additional people (did you talk to them in advance, give them direction on approaching dog, etc.)? How did you manage the environment so that dog was not faced with inappropriate grabs of objects too soon?

Yes, yes, yes. I decided who I would introduce and yes I did talk to them in advance and gave them specific instructions. I would even set it up by doing a trade first and then having the other person do a trade.

I did not do this when my home was busy and full of people etc. I did it when the house was calm and everyone was relaxed and in a good mood…dog included..

When my house was busy and full of visiting relatives, I simply warned everyone to “Don’t bother Kayla when she’s chewing a bone, she might bite!” and believe me the moms and dads and I made sure the kids didn’t bother her.

I have always supervised my dogs and set rules for my visiting nieces and nephews as to what they can and cannot do with the dogs. Even the best of dogs need a break from the chaos.

It probably would have been a good idea to put bones up when I had company but I never did. We have a whole basketful of them, and she would immediately run and get a bone when company came…. and just lay there smiling and chewing..

I also want to add that I (and eventually others) would sometimes just pet her when she had a bone and then move on. We didn’t always trade..sometimes just a kind word and a pet. I didn’t want her to become tense or anxious every time I approached her and she had an object. (bones were the major source of contention…rawhide was not allowed)

And so a lot of times, I would just have people pet her with me right there and then I would give her a treat for being such a good dog.

I should also mention that Kayla is very people friendly and simply loves people and children. She just had this serious guarding problem LOL.

The home she came from, she was loved, but handled very roughly. She was used to being yelled at and hit and having things thrown at her. She did not know how to play with people or retrieve.

I also took the time to teach her a food induced retrieve. I believe that this helped too. It helped with the concept of giving up an object and getting a treat in return. (of course, the dumb bell did not have the value of her chewing bones)

I used absolutely no correction with Kayla. I helped her get things right and then I reinforced those things.

If someone made a comment about her guarding problem, I simply told them “We were working on it”.

I believe the major turn around though was in the beginning steps. The rest just took time.

But it is getting to be a problem, so much so that I sometimes cannot even remove the empty bowl from her crate after she is finished to wash it or wipe down the crate floor.

I helped a friend with a dog that guarded her food bowl.

The first thing I would do is walk over to her bowl while she was eating and dropped a really yummy treat into it (or as near as possible if her head was in the bowl.) Remember to be pleasant and smile and talk sweetly.

You want to continue to do this at feeding times until you see her back up from her bowl to let you drop the yummy treat in.

We want her to realize that you don’t take, that you add and only good things happen when you approach her eating.

When she is backing up for you to add the yummy treat and seems happy at your approach, you can then stoop down and add the yummy treat….or…. better yet… add more of her food. In fact, you can give her only 1/3 and then add the other two thirds a third at a time.

I bet she will love for you to come over to her bowl then.

When all is going well, you can touch the bowl and add the food and eventually pick up the bowl, add the food and put it back down.

As for digging up her buried bones in the yard, I would do a little managing with that for awhile and make sure she is not around. We don’t want do undo all the work you will be doing with her bowl.

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