Dog behaviour: Growling and guarding

ready300Some dogs like to guard stuff.

We know this is natural.

In fact for generations, we expected our dogs to guard stuff.  Our stuff.

Nowadays dogs are usually kept as companions, rather than guards. Obviously we don’t want our dogs growling at us and guarding stuff from us

So how do we make sure that natural ‘guarding instinct’ is never used against family, friends, and visitors?  How do we stop dogs guarding food, toys, and even furniture, in and around the home?

Show him who is boss?

At one time, it was thought that a dog could be prevented from guarding by showing him who is boss.

Dog behaviour - growling and guardingSo if the dog growled at you, you’d be encourage to intimidate or dominate him to show him that you are in charge and that he is beneath you in rank.

Unfortunately this strategy was based on a serious misunderstanding about what causes resource guarding.

And it was very bad news for dogs.

Did domination techniques work?

Domination techniques did have an effect.  They didn’t necessarily stop the dog growling at everyone.  They did however, sometimes stop the dog growling at the person doing the intimidating.

The first problem with these techniques are that they didn’t take away the cause of the growling, in fact they often made it worse.

The second problem lay in removing the growling without remove the cause.   And this is very important. Because growling serves a purpose. As we shall see.

Let’s first take a look at why dogs guard stuff in the first place.

What causes resource guarding?

Guarding behaviour in dogs is not about status or domination.  Dogs don’t guard their bed because they want to be top dog.

They don’t guard their food because they want you to be beneath them. They guard these things because they are afraid of losing them.

We have learnt quite a lot about dogs in the last twenty years or so, and we now know for sure, that most aggression in dogs is caused by fear.

Usually fear of loss, or fear of attack.    Status really doesn’t come into it.

Fear of loss

Resource guarding is actually about fear and insecurity.  Specifically fear of losing something valuable (to the dog). It’s about guarding resources that are scarce and that the dog might need.

The dog who growls whilst he is  eating is afraid you will take his food.  The dog who growls on his owner’s bed, is afraid of losing his favourite sleeping place.

The more fearful the dog is of loss, and the more he needs the resource, the more likely he is to guard it.

The importance of growling

Growling is a wonderful thing!  Really.

It is a healthy expression of fear.   Never be angry with your dog for growling, he is alerting you to a very real problem.  He is telling you that he is afraid.

Growling is a healthy dog’s warning system.  The dog who is growling on the bed is saying  “I am scared that you are going to take my sleeping place.  Don’t come any closer or I may be forced to defend it.”

Of course, we don’t want our dog to growl, but the answer lies in removing the fear, not in removing the growl itself.

Don’t create more fear

Domination or status reduction techniques work, or appear to work, by suppressing the dog’s expression of his fear.   They do this by generating more fear.

The dog becomes afraid to growl, because the consequences of growling are more fearful than the threat of losing his dinner, or his bed.

I think you can begin to see the problem here.  We are treating a problem generated by fear,  by creating more fear.   Does that strike you as odd?

Not only is it an ‘about face’ kind of solution, it is actually potentially very dangerous

Almost all healthy dogs will growl when really afraid unless punished for doing so.   If growling is suppressed then the healthy dog may become a dangerous dog.

Dangerous dogs may not growl at all you may not get any warning at all

Why growl suppression is dangerous

Suppressing a behaviour does not get rid of it permanently, because the cause of the behaviour remains untreated.

Suppressing growling in your dog may mean that he doesn’t ever growl at you again.  But it doesn’t mean his fear has been removed.  In fact he may be even more fearful than before.  Especially if you have included some other techniques like repeatedly taking his food away to teach him that it belongs to you.

So you know have a fearful dog that is afraid to growl.   And therein lies the danger.

You now have a very frightened dog with no warning system.

Your early warning system

Growling is a dog’s way of warning you that he is struggling with his feelings.  Growling tells us “I really, really don’t want to bite you so please stop touching my food”  It is our ‘early warning’ signal.  And it is a very important one.

Remove the dog’s right to growl, and he may well bite one day without any warning.  That would mean a painful injury for you and probably euthanasia for him.

Making your dog safe for everyone

Another problem with punishment is that it tends to be specific to the punisher.   Even if your dog is too scared of you to get into a conflict over his favourite resources, it does not mean that he will apply this rule to other people.

If you don’t resolve the root cause of your dog’s fear of losing his resources, a passing child could easily find themselves on the receiving end of his expression of that fear.

So our job is not just to manage the way our dog behaves towards us, it is also to make that dog safe company for anyone that might come into contact with him.

Dealing with resource guarding

The solution to guarding is to remove the dog’s fear of loss.  During the adjustment period, we also need to manage the situation so that the dog is not a risk to those around him.

This may mean denying the dog access to things he guards (like your bed) and denying access to the dog by people who aren’t able to understand or co-operate with any rehabilitation steps that are required.  For example, this may include keeping children away from the dog whilst he is eating.

The most common form of resource guarding is food guarding.  You can find a structured programme for resolving a simple food guarding problem in a puppy or young dog on The Labrador Site.

Getting help

Treating an established food guarding problem, or a complex resource guarding behaviours is best attempted with the help of a modern, educated, behaviourist.

Sadly, there are still some behaviourists around using outdated rank reduction techniques.  These are usually easily identified by their frequent referrals to ‘pack leadership’, being ‘in charge’, getting ‘respect’ from the dog and so on.

Your vet should be able to recommend a good behaviourist, and it’s always a good idea to have a growling dog checked over by a vet, as sometimes health problems can make a previously good natured dog grumpy.

So don’t delay. If your dog has started growling at family and friends, make an appointment to see your vet today.

This website is brought to you by Pippa Mattinson

Pippa's book Total Recall is a complete recall training programme for puppies and adult dogs, and her Happy Puppy Handbook is a definitive guide to puppy care and early training

by Pippa Mattinson on October 26, 2014

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachael October 28, 2014 at 11:58 am

Hi, I have a 16 month old retriever who is a fantastic working gun dog and companion. We also go to obedience class and she has always been a happy sociable bitch. A couple of months ago a Staffie cross charged at her and tried to attack her when her owner wasn’t paying attention. Since then she has been showing nervous aggression whenever other dogs get too close to her. It’s only when she is on her lead and in a confined space and I am working to improve this. Any help and advice would be welcome.

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Pippa Mattinson October 28, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Hi Rachael, in this situation, it is best to get someone to observe your dog first hand – so I recommend you arrange a consultation with a behaviourist. you might also find Grisha Stewart’s book helpful

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