Karen B. London
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A natural developmental stage in dogs.
November 3 2016
I was walking Rosie, a happy, well-socialized 9-month old Chocolate Lab through my neighborhood when she uncharacteristically barked and stiffened. I could tell that something had spooked her even before I looked up to see a man with a big hat and huge sunglasses working on his mountain bike in his front yard. Luckily, he was unfazed by her reaction, and even more luckily, he was dog savvy and kind. He immediately removed his hat and glasses, knelt down and said to Rosie, “Hey, there, I’m not really that scary am I?” in a calm, cheerful voice. She responded by wagging enthusiastically from the shoulders back and greeting him in her usual, friendly way.
It was the second time in two days that Rosie had been startled by someone who previously would not have bothered her, so I knew that she was entering a new developmental period that is common as puppies approach a year of age. Many young dogs become more fearful of new people and new things than they were as puppies. My mentor, Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D. half-jokingly called it “Juvenile Onset Shyness” because so many sociable dogs become a little nervous as they emerge from puppyhood and enter adolescence.
If your adolescent dog suddenly seems a little skittish, but has previously been more confident, it is likely that your dog is just entering a normal developmental period during which new things (and even not-so-new things) seem scary even though they didn’t used to. It’s so useful for guardians to know that this stage is temporary and that it is completely normal. Within a few months, your dog is likely to be just as social and happy about whatever the world brings his way as he was when he was a puppy. (If your puppy always found the world to be a scary place, he will most likely continue to be cautious or fearful as an adult, but he may be even more so in adolescence.)
Most dogs move past this stage without any special care on the part of guardians. However, your behavior can make a difference in how this period affects them, and there are ways to help your dog as he is going through it. When your dog is spooked by something, follow these general guidelines.
I immediately came home from the walk during which Rosie was unnerved by a man in sunglasses and hats and worked on associating both items with treats. Several times, I put on my sunglasses and gave her a treat, and did the same thing with hats. I want her to have good associations with those items, which make many dogs nervous. I also asked several men in my neighborhood to give her treats and to play fetch with her.
How have you handled dogs while they were experiencing “Juvenile Onset Shyness”?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
November 1 2016
The saying, “Love me, love my dog” implies that your dog is a problem—something negative in the whole package of You. Could anything be more ridiculous? While it’s easy to assume that our dogs make us more lovable and even more desirable (I mean, really, how could it be otherwise?), is there any evidence for this point of view?
The answer is yes! Multiple scientific studies—extensions of research into dogs’ many social effects—have concluded that dogs enhance human attractiveness. Scientists have known for some time that people are more attentive to and socially engaged with those accompanied by a dog than those who are not. We also know that bystanders are more helpful toward people with dogs. Other studies have extended our understanding of the canine influence on human social activity by investigating more personal, intimate types of behavior in the areas of courtship, dating and romance.
In one study, having a dog with him enhanced a man’s success when he asked women out. In this experiment, the man asked 240 women for their phone number— 120 times while accompanied by a dog and 120 times without one. He followed the exact same script whether the dog was with him or not.
The difference the dog made in his success rate was astounding. When he gave his pitch without a dog, 11 out of 120 women (9.2 percent) were sufficiently charmed to give him their number. When he was with a dog, 34 out of 120 (28.3 percent) complied with his request. With a dog, his success rate was three times as high. Never mind a wingman— if you want to meet someone, you need a wing-dog!
Studies have shown that people’s helpfulness and social interactions are prompted most strongly by light-colored dogs and puppies. An adult black dog was part of this experiment; researchers speculated that if the man had asked women for their phone numbers while accompanied by a light-colored puppy, his success might have been even higher. (Guéguen and Ciccotti 2008)
Why do dogs (of any kind) increase our appeal? To most dog lovers, explaining how dogs can make someone more attractive is pretty straightforward: people are more attractive if they have dogs because they have dogs! Quite simple —also quite circular. As it happens, there are a number of other, more satisfactory explanations.
Many people report that those with dogs seem safer, friendlier and more approachable; by being a conversation starter, the dog may also ease social awkwardness.
Interacting with companion animals can result in changes in our oxytocin and other hormone levels, and that may affect the opinion others have of us as well. Those who feel a rush of oxytocin in the presence of a dog may transfer the warm, fuzzy feelings to the person with the dog. So, dogs may make people attractive by prompting emotions that are extended to them by association.
This may not be good for our ego, but it can still be good for our love life!
Does This Dog Make Me Look Cute?
Another study surveyed 1,210 people on Match.com who owned pets—both cats and dogs—to learn if and how pets influenced their views about potential dates. One of the main findings was that dogs had a greater positive impact on the perceived level of attractiveness than did cats. (Gray et al. 2015)
Interestingly enough, there was also a gender component. The study concluded that dogs make men attractive to women to a greater degree than they make women attractive to men. Women were more likely to find someone attractive because they had a dog, and were also more likely to find a photo of a dog in an online dating profile a turn-on. Not surprisingly, more men than women ’fessed up to using a pet to attract a potential date. (I know of no studies investigating how dogs affect attractiveness between members of the same sex, but it would be intriguing to see what patterns emerge once that area has been explored.)
Compelling biological forces suggest the reasons for this gender difference, and there’s a large body of work on the subject. The basic theory is that, because women must commit a large amount of energy and effort to produce offspring (pregnancy and often greater caretaking responsibilities for the children), they need to be more selective about who they choose as a mate. Men, biologically speaking, are capable of producing lots of offspring with a minimum of, um, effort, so they can afford to be less discerning in their choices.
Of course, there are many exceptions, and in today’s world, the division of child-care responsibilities is often more equitable than in the past, but our evolutionary heritage still influences our behavior. Women are often attracted to men who have something to offer to potential offspring.
Having a pet may be a plus for several reasons. The expense of a pet may be a variation on finding a man in an expensive car attractive. If it demonstrates wealth, it could be appealing, since a lot of evolutionary research suggests that females prefer males with substantial resources to devote to offspring. The social skills observed when a man interacts with his dog may also add to his allure. Just like men with resources to share, those capable of emotional commitment and those with strong parenting skills are more likely to contribute to the successful raising of children. Dogs can enhance perceptions of all of these qualities.
Although the effects of having a dog were different for the two groups, the majority of men and women surveyed said that finding out that a date had adopted a pet made that person seem more attractive. (Cat guardians were less likely to feel this way than dog guardians.) As everyone in this study was a pet guardian, the increased attractiveness of someone with a pet may simply reflect our natural inclination to like people with whom we have things in common.
The youngest people in the survey— those in their 20s—were more likely than members of any other age group to express an attraction to someone because of a pet. They were also more likely to judge a date based on that person’s reactions to their own pet than were members of other age groups. Perhaps being a pet guardian makes these younger men and women seem more grown-up, mature or responsible, which could be a plus for younger people.
Another explanation for this strong age effect is the growing trend toward considering dogs to be members of the family. An increasing number of people describe their dogs (and cats) this way, and it’s possible that dogs influence mate choice by revealing a person’s emphasis on family. Compared with older people, who may be new to the concept or may never have fully embraced it, the youngest people in this study may have always placed this level of importance on their pets.
As it happens, Bark readers of all ages seem to be more likely than the general population to consider dogs as family members. In reply to a blog post asking about this, two-thirds of the answers used words that implied familial relationships: dogs were their babies, or they were their dogs’ moms and dads.
Dad or Cad?
Another study warns women to be aware of how dogs influence their views. Men can be attractive because they seem romantic, caring and interested in long-term attachments; in other words, they would make good dads. Another type of man is more of a cad—dangerous, exciting and into chasing women. Women are often attracted to cads for short-term relationships and to dads as long-term partners, but dogs can interfere with that classification.
Women taking part in this study were provided with descriptions of both cadlike and dad-like men. They said that overall, they preferred to marry the dads, but many expressed an interest in shortterm affairs with the cads. These same characters were then described to women with only one detail changed—they were now all dog guardians. Dogs made both dads and cads more attractive, but the difference was greater for the cads. In fact, if cads had dogs, they were even more appealing than dads with dogs.
Dogs appear to supply cads with the perfect combination of traits; attractive, exciting cads seem to have had their bad qualities erased by having a dog. The potential for manipulation is obvious: a man exploiting the shortterm cad-like strategy can block negative perceptions of his style by having a dog. As the authors of the research study write, “Thus, a cad with a dog is especially attractive to women, as they may believe they are getting the best of both worlds.” (Tifferet et al. 2013)
It’s wonderful to know that dogs can make men, and, to a lesser extent, women, more attractive. Now, if only scientists could find evidence that dog hair has the same powerful effect!
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Does playing after training sessions make a difference?
October 29 2016
Many people know that going to sleep after studying helps consolidate the information and commit it to long term memory. (It works out beautifully if the subject was putting you to sleep anyway!) For dogs, a different approach may be worthwhile. Researchers conducted a study in dogs called “Playful activity post-learning improves training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)” and concluded that physiological arousal—in the form of play—following training has a positive effect on learning in dogs.
The subjects of the study were all Labrador Retrievers, which allowed the researchers to make sure that differences between breeds did not influence their results. The dogs were trained in a choice task between two objects that looked and smelled differently. Training took place in sessions of 10 trials with short breaks to walk around outside or rest in a waiting area in between each session. Dogs were considered successful at the choice task when they chose the right object eight or more times in two consecutive trials of 1O.
Once dogs reached this level of success, they either rested for 30 minutes in the presence of their guardian and one of the researchers, or they were active for 30 minutes. Specifically, that activity consisted of 10 minutes of walking on leash, then 10 minutes of off leash play (fetch with a ball or with a disc or tug, depending on the dog’s preference), then 10 more minutes of walking on leash. The dogs in each group (rest or activity) were monitored for salivary cortisol levels and heart rate to confirm that their states of physiological arousal were different. (They were.)
The following day, all of the dogs were tested again to see how many trials it took them to relearn the task. The difference between the two groups was remarkable. The dogs who walked and played after training took an average of 26 trials to relearn the task. The dogs who rested after training needed an average of 43 trials to reach that same level of success. The differences could be a result of chemical changes in the brain.
The brain is affected by chemicals that influence memory, whether those chemicals are naturally produced by the body or given as a drug. Various studies have shown that hormones and drugs that induce high arousal can have positive effects on memory if the brain is exposed to them after training.
The results of this study provide further evidence that arousal following training can be beneficial, since dogs in the active group were more highly physiologically aroused than dogs in the rest group. However, I’m not convinced that the data show that play itself is the key factor that caused the difference between the two groups in the study. Perhaps the walking part of the post-training activity played a role, and it may be that any form of exercise could be beneficial following training.
I hope researchers conduct studies in the future to investigate whether it is truly the play itself that improves learning in dogs. I would love to know if playing during training (as opposed to after) enhances dogs’ learning, whether because of physiological arousal, or simply because it might be easier to learn when having fun.
Whether play is the cause of the difference between the two groups or not, I’m definitely in favor of playing with dogs after training sessions. It provides a mental break for dogs after the hard work of training. Most dogs love training, and the fun of play prevents a negative feeling about the end of a session. Both training and play can strengthen relationships between people and dogs and doing them back-to-back may be especially powerful. I often play with dogs after a training session, and if that enhances their training because of positive effects on memory, that’s another bonus.
Do you play with your dog after training sessions?
News: Guest Posts
There’s something special (and valuable!) about it
October 25 2016
Having two dogs can be more than twice as much work as having one, and having three can require way more than three times as much effort. That pattern continues as the number of dogs increases. There’s no doubt that having a multi-dog household is a big undertaking, and yet many people can barely imagine having just one dog in their heart and home at the same time. They would miss scenes like the one to the left of an adorable dog pile.
These are the three dogs—from two different households—that my family recently hosted for a couple of days, and it was a good experience for all of us. (They live on the same street and their guardians are friends, so they know each other. Luckily, they all get along.) The companionship they gave one another during their stay with us made me happy, and not just because it took some pressure off of me to make sure that they were having fun. When I observed them together, there was a comfort in the company they provided one another that was lovely to see. I’m not saying it is better or worse than the social benefits to dogs of being around people, but it’s different.
Despite the extra work for the people, I kept thinking about the benefits for the dogs of being in a group, beyond just how nice it was for them to have a couple of buddies of the same species around. There are obviously drawbacks to having more than one dog, but some of those can be channeled positively. Having multiple dogs can provide training challenges, but it also offers opportunities to help dogs learn to attend to a person despite big distractions. While these dogs were visiting us, I made a point of doing some training sessions with the added difficulty of having other dogs around. Here is a photo of Marley and Saylor successfully holding their “stay” while Rosie (out of view) played with a toy nearby.
Performing any skill in a distracting environment is a challenge, and the presence of other dogs is often particularly hard for social dogs. With three dogs in the house, it was easy to set up situations where one dog worked on a skill while one or both other dogs were there. Rosie worked on her “spin” trick a lot during her visit. In the first video below, she practices it while the other dogs are not around. That work was to lay the groundwork for the success you can see in the second video, in which she spins when the other two dogs are present.
Walking three (or more) dogs at the same time is not always easy, but it offers opportunities, too. Each time one dog stops to sniff or for a potty break, the other dogs need to exercise patience.
It’s hard standing around when you want to keep going, but being required to do so brings benefits. Handling frustration and exhibiting self-control in such situations is beneficial to dogs. Similarly, waiting your turn when it comes to treats or dinnertime also gives dogs practice with emotional self-control, and that is an important part of maturing into a pleasant adult.
My main concern before the shared visit was making sure that Marley, who is 10 years old, had some peace and quiet from both his regular housemate Saylor, who is about a year old, and from his neighbor Rosie, who is about eight months old. Marley likes both dogs and often plays with them, but he needs more rest and snoozy time than the young pups. He opted out of some play sessions, as many older dogs often do. He would take a rest, hang out with us or chew on something while the other two played.
We also helped Marley get away if he wanted to by letting him up on our couch, but not allowing the younger dogs to bother him when he was there.
The only reason it ever felt overwhelming to have three dogs was a result of bad luck in the form of the weather. It rained all day in the middle of the visit, which meant that every time the dogs came inside, we had a dozen wet, muddy paws to deal with. I’m not going to lie—that was a big hassle. Other than that, we had a glorious time while these three little angels were visiting us.
What advantages do you appreciate about having multiple dogs?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
New research explores how kids respond
October 22 2016
The dogs of childhood are important beyond imagination. Kids describe them as their best friends and as their siblings. Many children view themselves as the primary recipient of their pets’ affections. Often, young people see little difference between the close connections they have with the human members of their family and those they share with the non-human ones. Because of most animals’ shorter lifespans, though, many kids must face the death of a dog, cat, or other pet. Their emotional response to the loss of a pet and what they say about the experience is the subject of the dissertation research and further study by Joshua J. Russell, PhD.
According to Russell’s research, children’s responses to the death of a pet are predictable in some ways. Kids had a much easier time dealing with the death of a pet if the animal reached an age where death was expected. Early deaths, especially unexpected ones, made it much harder for children to come to terms with the loss. Russell points out that kids have a strong sense of fairness related to whether their animals lives as long as they were “supposed to” or whether they died before that. Acceptance was easier for kids whose pets lived far into the normal lifespan for the species. Generally, kids understood that hamsters and fish don’t live very long, but many struggled to understand that our dogs, cats and rabbits will often die before we do. When a death happened because of an accident, it was especially difficult for kids to cope.
Many children who Russell interviewed felt that euthanasia was the right thing to do if a pet was suffering. Kids were split in their views about getting another pet after the death of another. Some felt that it was disloyal to the previous pets and their relationships with them. Others felt certain that they would feel better if they got a new pet and that the new relationship didn’t have anything to do with the old one.
It’s always difficult to deal with the grief of losing dogs, and it hurts my heart (a lot) to consider the pain that it causes children. It’s no fun to think about the way it feels for children to lose a pet because we can empathize all too well, no matter how old we are.
What do you remember about what is was like when a dog from your childhood died?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Does your dog untangle himself from a leash?
October 20 2016
I was walking two dogs this week and noticed that they react very differently when they step over the leash or get tangled in it. Marley has a “let it be” approach to having the leash drop under or go around a leg, but Saylor consistently steps back over a leash that is not as it should be.
Some dogs never learn to untangle themselves when the leash goes under one or more legs, even with efforts to teach them how to do this. Other dogs step out of what my son refers to as “Leash Twister” without any instruction whatsoever. I’ve often wondered what it is about dogs that divides them into these two categories. Obviously, intelligence in the problem-solving area can play a role in which path a dog takes. (Saylor is obviously smart, so her ability to deal with a messed-up leash is no surprise. It’s harder to judge Marley’s intelligence. He’s easy to train, but there’s a charming simplicity in his take-it-as-it-comes, easy going approach to everything in life.) I’m convinced it’s far more complex than a simple question of brain power, with other factors being important, too.
One big predictor of which dogs learn to extricate themselves when the leash has gone between their legs or wrapped around them is whether it makes them uncomfortable to have the leash there. Some dogs don’t seem to care if the leash is partially wrapped around a leg or if it touches their belly, so a twisted leash does not represent a problem. If it’s not a problem to a dog to have the leash out of place, then there is nothing to be solved. So, even if those dog have great problem solving skills, you won’t see evidence of those abilities.
Some dogs are too interested in other things to focus on a tangled leash. If they are attending to the smells or sights on a walk, any issues with the leash may not be top priority. Paying attention to other things may account for the dogs who sometimes choose to step over a leash purposefully and sometimes don’t bother; it depends on how exciting the walk is at the moment. Other dogs are always too intent on the sensory experiences during the walk to fuss over where the leash is.
There are two reasons that I care whether a dog is helpful about keeping the leash properly organized during a walk or leaves that task entirely to me. Though I’m interested in what it might tell me about the dog (emotionally and cognitively), safety is the main cause for concern. It can be dangerous if the leash wraps completely around a leg, and a leash that is out of place can cause a dog to be off balance. I like to keep dogs free of leash issues during a walk, and it’s convenient if the dog can help. However, for dogs who need assistance extracting themselves from a tangled leash, I’m happy to do it for them.
Does your dog untangle himself from a leash that he has stepped over or gotten twisted in? If not, why do you think that is?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
How to approach future research
October 15 2016
“Yes, that’s just how it is with my dog, too!”
“Everybody knew that before reading about it.”
“I figured I wasn’t the only one who felt that way about my dog.”
These are common responses to stories about the many research papers investigating the relationship between people and dogs. Most of us read the latest scientific findings with a great sense of happiness and validation. Our relationship with dogs is very much like our relationship with our children? Yep. Our dogs consider their guardians to be extra special and emotionally important? Whew, thought so. Our attachment to our dogs provides us with many benefits? Duh. Being a helicopter parent does not cause the damage to fur kids that it can to human kids? Yay! Gazing into our dog’s eyes can enhance the feelings of true love between us? Awww.
It’s exciting that there has now been enough research into attachment between people and dogs and the bonds they have for one another to prompt a review paper to suggest where to go from here. The recently published “Measuring dog-owner relationships: Crossing boundaries between animal behaviour and human psychology ” summarizes what we know and discusses what should be studied next as well as how. That means we can all happily anticipate more revelations that will further confirm the many details about what we know: Humans and dogs are close in wonderful ways that benefit us both. In the introduction to the paper, the authors say, “In this review, we propose that the next step in anthrozoology [study of interactions between humans and other animals] research is to use all the potential information within attachment theory, to reveal whether or not different types of relationship styles exist among different dog-owner dyads and how they might be identified. Furthermore, we give suggestions for which factors may contribute to the development of different attachment styles in dogs, hence deserving more attention in future studies of the dog- human relationship.” What this means is that there is a wealth of information about relationships between humans and the styles of connection that people have with one another that can be used to inform future research on the ways that dogs and people forms bonds to one another.
Some suggestions that these authors have are to focus on both dogs and people simultaneously rather than just one side of the relationship. They also recommend investigating physiological as well as behavioral responses to situations (such as separation and reunions) that are often the focus of attachment studies. They encourage addressing both the attachment style of individual dogs and the caregiving style of individual people to help pairs avoid any conflicts that have plagued them in the past and to help them form the best, most positive relationships in the future.
What are you most interested in knowing about the science of your relationship with your dog?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
A study investigating this question is problematic
October 13 2016
Dogs are inclined to follow our lead in many ways, but they don’t go overboard if it does not serve their interests, say the authors of a new study. If people give dogs bad advice, they figure out that it is worth ignoring, according to a new study in the journal Developmental Science. Let’s look into how they arrived at this claim, which I don’t think is supported by the data.
The researchers were investigating whether dogs (and dingoes) would imitate the way people showed them how to get food out of a puzzle box even when there was an easier way to do it. Only one step was required to reach the food, and that was lifting the lid to a box. As part of the experiment, humans added an extra, unnecessary action to the process by pulling a lever that did nothing, and then lifting the lid of the box.
Both the dogs and the dingoes quickly learned to skip the step with the useless lever and just open the box to get to the treat inside. In other words, it looked like they ignored the useless instructions from the humans. This behavior differs from human children, who tend to perform all the steps they have been shown even when some of them are unnecessary. That behavior is called “overimitation” and the uncritical copying of the behavior they observe may allow kids to minimize the amount of trial-and-error learning they must do.
The dogs and the dingoes observed humans opening the box, and were then repeatedly given the opportunity to open the puzzle box. Over time, as they gained experience with it, they were less likely to use the lever. The experimenters consider this evidence that both species learned that pulling the lever was an unnecessary step for opening the box, even though they saw humans doing it. I agree that the data support the idea that they learned that the lever is irrelevant. I just don’t think that observing the humans pull the lever made any difference, and that’s because this study does not find any evidence that dogs imitated the humans at all.
In addition to the experiment in which subjects observed humans pulling the irrelevant lever, there were also a series of trials (with a different set of dogs and dingoes) in which they were presented with the puzzle box without any opportunity to observe a human opening it. In that experiment, the dogs and dingoes were solving the puzzle without having seen anyone else open it, so they were doing it completely on their own. The authors write that, “dogs were equally likely to use the irrelevant lever, regardless of whether they witnessed a demonstration (in Experiment 1) or not (in Experiment 2).
They point out that there was no evidence that dogs were more likely to copy the humans’ actions than the dingoes were, but what’s just as important is that there was no evidence that the dogs were copying humans at all. Therefore, I don’t think that their conclusions about dogs and overimitation hold water. They would first need to show that dogs copy any human behavior, which they do not do, in order to then test whether dogs copy irrelevant human behavior.
There was one interesting conclusion from this study, though it has nothing to do with imitation, social learning, or human influence on dogs’ actions. Evidence from this study, as well as previous research, indicate that dingoes solve problems more quickly and with greater success than dogs. In Experiment 3 in this research paper, a different puzzle box was used. Pulling the lever was an essential step in opening this particular puzzle box. In this experiment, both dogs and dingoes did pull the lever in order to access the treat inside. When compared to the rates of pulling the lever when it was pointless, dingoes showed a greater change in their behavior. That is, they were more likely than dogs to pull the lever only when it was relevant, unlike dogs, who pulled it quite often even when it was not an essential part of the box-opening task.
Questions about the possibility of overimitation in dogs are extremely interesting, and I want very much to know more about this behavior, which I don’t think was adequately addressed by this study.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog resource guarding is a common— and fixable—behavior.
October 13 2016
Does your dog growl and show his teeth if you come near him while he’s chewing on a bone? Does he stiffen if you try to take a toy from him? If you walk near him while he’s eating, does he eat faster? Would you be nervous if a child approached while he had a rawhide? If you can answer no to all of these questions, take a moment to appreciate your good fortune: you have what most dog people want. If you answered any in the affirmative, your dog is exhibiting behavior that canine professionals call “resource guarding.”
Resource guarding refers to any behavior that a dog displays to convince others to stay away from something he considers valuable. Among these behaviors are the growling, tooth displaying, stiffening and frantic eating already mentioned. To that list, add glaring, snapping, barking, leaning over the resource to shield it and biting. Dogs commonly guard food, toys, treats, bones, rawhide, beds and even another dog or a person.
In most cases, resource guarding is subtle. A dog with a pig’s ear, for example, may turn his body to shield his precious treasure from anyone approaching, or he may pick it up and carry it to another room. He might put his paw on it or even give you a look that means something along the lines of “Don’t even think about it,” or “Please don’t take it away. I want it.” Few people are troubled by such mild forms of resource guarding.
Even though resource guarding can become far more serious, it’s one of my favorite behavioral problems, for several reasons. One, there are ways to prevent it in most dogs. Two, behavior-modification plans are easy to implement, clients usually buy into them and they are effective at improving the dog’s behavior. Three, many people choose to simply live with it, managing it as best they can. That may not sound very inspiring, but I consider any solution that keeps a dog at home and people safe while allowing a loving relationship between the two to flourish and grow to be a success.
Prevent Resource Guarding
Dogs are often nervous about losing what they value. With that in mind, a key aspect of preventing resource guarding, including its most common form—food bowl aggression—is to teach dogs to be happy when someone approaches or reaches for their treasure, or for the bowl while they’re eating. Dogs who are happy in a particular context are a whole lot less likely to act aggressively.
Creating this positive emotional reaction is simple: teach the dog to associate the approach of a person with treats. I advise people to walk toward their dog and toss a really good treat into the bowl or near their treasure. Once the dog is used to this, the next step is to walk over, pick up the bowl or the treasure, deliver a treat (in the bowl is fine) and then return the bowl or the treasure. It’s important to do this quickly—within a few seconds at most—so the dog doesn’t feel like he’s being teased.
I suggest doing this only once or twice per session; even though the dog receives a treat, the interruption can still be irritating. (I imagine dogs in that situation feel like I do when a restaurant server refills my water glass every time I take a sip: mildly harassed.)
Many people have been advised to put their hand in the dog’s food bowl, or to pick up the bowl and hold it. Unfortunately, this strategy is far more likely to lead to food-bowl aggression than to prevent it. Such actions are irksome, so it’s no surprise that many dogs will lose their temper eventually. While some dogs will never become resourceguarders, even when provoked, others can be taught to be aggressive around their food. Some of the worst resourceguarders I’ve ever seen were taught to be that way by their well-intentioned guardians.
People accidentally teach dogs to guard their resources in other ways as well. If a dog has a bone (or food or a shoe or the remote control) and it is taken from him, he learns that he loses treasures unless he takes action. To avoid that, instead of taking something from a dog, trade him for it. Hold a treat or other desirable object right by his nose, and if he drops the contraband, give him the offered item. This teaches him that he gets paid for letting go of things rather than that he will be mugged whenever he has something valuable.
It’s very important to help dogs feel happy about releasing items and to actively avoid making it a negative experience. Trading is far better than a battle, and is very effective, especially if he’s “trading up”—getting something better than what he surrenders.
Another strategy is to have the dog drop the object, give him a treat and then give him back the item. This helps him learn that it’s worthwhile to release things. I like to teach the cue “drop it” so that if a dog gets something he shouldn’t have, I can ask him to release it before he damages it, or damages himself.
Modify Resource Guarding Behavior
Giving extra treats when a dog has something of value is a useful technique for prevention of resource guarding, but it can also be used to stop an existing behavior. (If the dog has previously bitten or threatened anyone, I advise having a behaviorist supervise this interaction.)
Start by standing outside the dog’s reaction zone and tossing high-quality treats to him. The goal is to make him happy that a person is present when he has a treasure. This change in his emotional response is what will lead to a change in his behavior. The closer you get, the more intense the situation becomes. Intensity also goes up if the dog has a more highly valued item, or if you approach, reach for or pick up the resource.
Work at each level of intensity until the dog is comfortable, and only then progress to something harder. The highest-intensity context is to approach a dog and take something that he values highly. Success can only be achieved by gradually working toward that goal and requires many steps and many repetitions over a period of weeks and months.
Live with It
Despite the challenges of sharing a home with a dog who guards resources, it’s common for people to choose to live with it. People who have a dog with this predilection know when to expect the behavior, and they simply avoid going near their dog when he has a valued item. This predictability may account for the lack of concern many have about resource guarding. Of course, predictability varies depending on the household. A single person who rarely entertains is in a very different situation than a family with five small kids who have additional children over to play nearly every day.
Years ago, the standard view was that a dog shouldn’t be approached at mealtimes or when he was chewing a bone or playing with a favorite toy, and there’s a lot of good sense in that. If people don’t bother their dogs while they are eating, and they purposely avoid going near them when they have a bone or other treasure, trouble can be averted.
Life with a dog who allows absolutely anyone to take absolutely anything away from him is pretty easy, but that’s really a lot to ask of even the dearest, sweetest dog on the planet. There are, of course, dogs who are as unlikely to guard resources as they are to calculate Schrödinger’s wave equation. But we shouldn’t assume that dogs who are lovely but perhaps not so nonchalant about being mugged are bad.
With dogs who are at risk of causing injury, it’s obviously critical to have some way to make sure that everyone is safe. People can deal with this problem by preventing situations that trigger problem behavior (particularly aggression) and with behavior modification that alters how the dog behaves when he has something of value. How important it is to train dogs not to resource guard is an individual decision; many people are highly committed to changing their dog’s resource guarding behavior, while others, not so much.
Resource guarding is both common and absolutely normal canine behavior. I’m not excusing it or saying that it’s not a problem, but like barking and chewing, it is accepted by many people as part of living with a dog—although clearly, it’s nobody’s favorite part. As is true of other undesirable behavior, though it can be changed and improved with behavior modification, tons of people choose to accept it, figuring that life is too short to demand perfection of their best friends in all contexts.
News: Guest Posts
When people try to be helpful but aren’t
October 8 2016
Advice is wonderful (really it is!) but only when you want it and are ready for it. It’s certainly nothing close to wonderful when people are condescendingly presenting it to you like a gracious gift with the attitude that they are brilliant and you are ignorant. Dogs are well loved by so many people who are knowledgeable about them, which is a good thing. However, what is NOT a good thing is when that leads to unsolicited advice with the assumption that the receiver knows nothing about dogs.
Over the years, a great many people who don’t even know me have volunteered their opinion on what I should or shouldn’t do regarding the dog I am holding, walking, training or playing with. I’m not sure why it’s so common to feel confident that after observing a dog for 30 seconds, they have all the answers, but that’s often the case. I have been told I needed to be tougher with the dog and show him who’s boss more times than I can count. People have informed me that the breed of the dog I am with is dangerous or vicious. Some unsolicited advice has involved letting me know that the dog will never be properly trained if I use treats to teach him what to do.
Here are some other examples of unsolicited dog advice that has come my way:
I generally respond with a cheerful, “That’s certainly something to think about.” It usually gets the person to leave me alone and it is completely non-committal. Best of all, it leaves me free to think that the advice was unwelcome, unhelpful and wrong without having been dishonest. I know other trainers and behaviorists who refuse to respond to a person giving unsolicited advice or actually say, “Shut up!” but neither of those suit my style.
What unsolicited advice about your dog could you just as well have done without and how did you respond?
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