How I Whoopsied and What I’ve Learned

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I need to be honest.  We hit the rescue roulette jackpot when Opie came into our lives.  Don’t get me wrong, he was a 1-year old adolescent, and we still have the gnawed baseboards to prove it… but he’s lively, playful, a clear communicator, and cute to boot. He tells us when he’s uncomfortable and he brings us toys that he wants to destroy when we leave them out.  He’s a great pup with predictable behavior and predictable emotions and predictable values.


Or so we thought he was completely predictable.

Opie loves to unwrap presents.  He’s got the fervor of a toddler at a birthday party with the artistry of a ribbon dancer during his big number. It’s fun to watch and thus we have certainly reinforced the behavior with our praise of enjoyment.  It’s a behavior that we don’t mind seeing and have put cues on when he’s allowed to dig in and when he needs to leave it alone.  He knows to leave the presents alone under the tree and he gets invited to partake in the celebration of discovery when the time is right.

Until last Christmas.  Looking back, it’s completely clear and was 100% predictable, but in the moment it seemed like it happened out of nowhere–completely unexpected.  My family celebrates Christmas.  My immediate family (and their 2 small pups) were over at our house and we were sitting around opening presents in the front room. Opie was enjoying his job of shredding the opened wrapping and tissue paper near my adult brother while alternating with trying to help my brother take out the next sheet of tissue.  My mom’s younger pup was sniffing around and nosing into the presents as well and then the thingThe split freeze. My stomach flip. The not well-timed recall. The growl-whale eye-air snap combo… and ding ding ding, everyone to their corners, please.  

I felt terrible.  I felt guilt. I felt my heart pounding.  We did not expect the wrapping paper to be such a high value for Opie.  We did not expect there to be any issues between the two dogs because they have always gotten along before. We had never seen Opie resource guard anything. The whole scenario was a bit shocking for us.  Luckily, nothing serious happened, Opie had a well-placed air snap and Chloe heard the message loud and clear; however, it gave me the opportunity to reflect and evaluate what we could change to help our animals find success.

Environment factors that may have affected the behavior:

  • Masked people over at our house
  • 2 small dogs at the house who Opie needs to practice self control with
  • Less rest during the day
  • Exciting unwrapping game
  • More exciting unwrapping
  • More exciting unwrapping without a cue
  • Some exciting shredding prompts so he stops unwrapping the things he shouldn’t
  • More exciting shredding without a cue
  • EVERYONE IS UNWRAPPING THINGS [email protected]#[email protected]$#@#$%#@$%

When you list out the triggers that could have contributed to his eustress/distress it’s painfully obvious that he was hitting threshold long before the resource guarding; we should have sent our Opie Dog to his calming location with a delicious peanut butter-green bean-shredded cheese frozen project… but now we know better. We’ve seen more.  We’ve forgiven ourselves for missing the signs and we’ve created a plan for this year that combines management, relaxation, and prevention.  

Dogs are wonderful and they tell us a lot of things, but sometimes it can feel unexpected.  It can feel overwhelming and alarming for us, but usually, a little reflection from the dog’s perspective can help you see solutions for the future.

Oh, Opie Dog, don’t you worry, you’ll get your chance to wow us with your skills sans opposable thumbs… but just not when you’re turned up to 11.


Now what?

  • If your pup presents unexpected behavior, wonderful, you have a dog.
  • Think about all of the other things that happened over that day that may have contributed to that behavior.
  • Take note of what happened and brainstorm with your team how we can help the dog be successful in the future.

Happy Training,


5 Common Mistakes in Households with Multi-Pet Guarding

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If you’ve read our blogs this month, you already know how I’m likely to start this one. Guarding is normal, but it can also be maladaptive, or just disruptive. Living in a multi-pet household, you are already juggling the needs of multiple creatures. No one needs the additional stress of conflict over resources. 

If you’ve experienced multi-pet guarding, you may have turned to the good ol’ google machine to do a quick search on what to do. There is a ton of information out there, some of which can make your situation worse. Let’s talk about 5 common mistakes when it comes to multi-pet resource guarding, and what to do instead.


Mistake #1 – Punishing the growl 

We’ve written more than once about how we love a dog that growls. A growl is a warning. I’ll take a warning over a bite any day. Now, I don’t like that my dog feels the NEED to growl, but that’s a different topic for a different day. This is about keeping the growl. Keeping that very, very polite warning that I am crossing a line. 

I understand that a growl can be scary, and that sometimes our reactions are out of fear as well. I understand that hearing a growl will put us on the defensive. But, trying to suppress or stop the behavior of a growl won’t change the dog’s feeling that they NEED to growl. It will remove a very clear warning from their communication system. You may have a dog that goes from: 

Growling —> lip curling —> air snapping, and/or biting 


Lip curl —> air snapping, and/or biting 

I have off days. I have days where I’m distracted. I may not catch every lip curl, but I likely will catch every growl. 


What you should do instead: 

Listen to the growl. The growl needs to work for your pup. If your dog growls, give them space. Back up. Leave them be. I know this may feel counterintuitive, but remember, in the moment, we are working to diffuse the conflict, not add to it. If it’s toward another member of the household, help that member back up. Remember, we want the growl to stay intact. If you’d like a more in-depth example, check out this blog on pets who growl when you move them


Mistake #2 – Taking Stuff Away 

It’s common internet advice to take from one and give to the other to “show them” they “don’t own things”. There are a couple of problems with this idea. One, taking stuff away just because you “can”, frequently exacerbates resource guarding. Two, if you really safely can’t, you are putting yourself in harm’s way, and bringing more conflict into your relationship with your pup. Three, if you have inter-household resource guarding, taking items will increase conflict AND then put the pups in proximity to be uncomfortable over said resource. 

Imagine you’re browsing on your phone and someone is lurking over your shoulder. You may turn the screen away or put your body between you and the person. Then, someone comes over, snatches the phone out of your hand and gives it to the lurker because “you can’t share nicely”. I don’t know about you, but I’d be furious. 


What should you do instead: 

Give each pet a place where they can enjoy the item in peace. Provide full separation, and if possible, maybe even remove all visual access. Let them have their thing until they leave the item on their own. Being able to eat, play, rest, and meet other needs in peace is really important. 


Mistake #3 – Letting them “work it out”

So, here’s the thing, dogs who have the skills to “work it out”, don’t need to “work it out”. This phrase usually pops up when there are already high levels of conflict within a relationship, such as fighting. If we think of our relationships as a bank account, all it can take is one bad incident to completely bankrupt the account. Rebuilding that account from broke is a whole lot harder.


What you should do instead: 

Get really, really good at reading body language so that you can intervene and address things early. Noticing the smallest change in your dog’s body language can help you catch situations where they may be feeling discomfort much earlier than if you wait for the growl. Help your pets out and get them both separated from each other. Provide them the opportunity to do things in peace. Put a management system in place to keep situations of conflict low and prevent situations where you might use the phrase “let them work it out”. 


Mistake # 4 – Chalking it up to a one time fluke 

It can be easy to say, “oh, that’s just a one off”. The problem is, we may not notice the pattern until it’s been happening for days, weeks, or months. Remember our bank account? Freezing the account after one withdrawal instead of 5, 10 or 15 can be really helpful. 


What to do instead: 

Again, study up on your dog’s body language. Being able to notice changes and patterns quickly will make a huge difference in your journey. When my dog’s stomach is upset (loose stools), we have bigger feelings about kibble than on a regular day. I’ll see faster eating, more whale eye, and more vigilance than days when her fecals are normal. I can adjust our household routine to make sure she’s getting the peace she needs when she isn’t feeling 100%.


Mistake # 5 – Trying to DIY

I’m all for DIYing on a ton of training. There are incredible trainers and behavior consultants out there providing wonderful free resources for people. I frequently look up instructional videos for training a myriad of things. Finding a fun behavior on YouTube and giving it a go with your pup can be a great way to have fun, get some mental enrichment in, and bolster your relationship. The time to DIY is not when anyone’s safety and quality of life is on the line. 


What to do instead: 

If you already have conflict in your home and safety and quality of life are concerned, it’s time to find a qualified professional. Find help early, so that your behavior professional can help you avoid common mistakes from the start. Think back to that bank account. Minimize withdrawals as soon as possible. With the guidance of a qualified behavior professional, you can start safely and productively making deposits again. 


Now What?

  • Look at your current set up and see where you can make any of the changes I suggested above. Start with one change, and go from there!
  • If any of this resonated with you, come join our Free Resource Guarding Workshop happening 4/5/2021-4/9/2021. We will be talking more about Resource Guarding and all things related. 
  • If you are living with a pet that resource guards and you’ve identified you’d like professional guidance, I highly recommend our upcoming Resource Guarding Immersive Digital Course. You can learn more here

Happy training! 





5 Tips for Living with a Resource Guarder

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Last week I talked about normal vs. abnormal guarding, and that resource guarding in general is a pretty normal behavior. Humans are masters at it! Just because something is considered normal, though, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take steps to avoid it or treat it accordingly. So for this week I thought the logical next step would be talking about tips for living with a guarder. Check them out below. 

  1. Learn their body language. For those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while, I probably sound like a broken record when it comes to the first step. When it comes to resource guarding, there are signs before the growl, air snap, or bite. Learning these signs allows you to intervene before there’s a problem and before your pet has to use those warning signals to keep someone at bay. 
  2. Make a list of all the things they guard and share it with everyone in their life. If your pet only guards, say, raw bones, you probably don’t need to write this down. You can simply let anyone who would give your pet that item know that it’s a guarded item. However, if you have a pet who guards a lot of things from various individuals, a written list can be incredibly helpful for people like dog walkers, pet sitters, and longer-term visitors. 
  3. Create a management plan and share it with everyone in your pet’s life. Now that you know what they guard, we can look at those situations and determine how we can prevent guarding. This could be something like simply not giving your pet items they guard or picking up all the toys when the neighbor dog comes over to play. Food and item guarding is usually quite easy to manage. Space and people guarding is more challenging, and often requires a professional because it’s not as easy to manage.
  4. Don’t test your pet. There are so many things that I don’t know if Oso guards because I’ve never bothered him when he has them. If it’s a high enough value I assume it will be guarded and I leave him alone and manage as I would if I knew it were true. There’s really no reason to test instead of manage. This also goes for feeding your pets together. There’s really no need to test this when you can simply feed them in separate rooms. Management is easier and cheaper than a bite.
  5. Don’t take things from your pet. It’s fairly easy to create a resource guarder. How do you create one? Take things from them. Teach them that someone is routinely going to take their valued possessions away from them or bother them while they’re eating. More info on that here. If your pet has an item they shouldn’t have and it’s not dangerous or valuable, ignore them. Let them have it. If it is dangerous or valuable, trade them for it with treats. 


Now what?

  • If you’re living with a resource guarder (and we all likely are, to some extent!), go through the list and determine what your first action should be. Do you need to learn more about what body language signals to look for? Or talk with the rest of the household about your management strategy? 
  • Start in on your first action item! When that feels comfortable and sustainable, choose another action item.
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed with where to start or how much it feels like there is to do, check out our Beginning Behavior Modification: Learn the Skills You Need to Successfully Address Your Pet’s Aggression, Anxiety, Reactivity, or Fear. It walks you through learning your pet’s body language, setting up a management plan, and more. Check it out here
  • Check out our free Resource Guarding Workshop to learn more about resource guarding specifically and some of the RG-specific foundation skills. 


Happy training!


What’s Ab/Normal with Resource Guarding?

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Resource guarding can be scary. Seeing your sweet pet suddenly turn into a snarling mess over a chewy or their food dish is concerning. But while it’s concerning, one of the questions that I hear more with this behavior than with others is:

Is that normal?


Most people would call leash reactivity abnormal. Or light chasing or excessive tail chasing are usually thought of as abnormal (and they are). The behaviors that the average person labels as abnormal are usually the ones that they don’t see as frequently, whereas the average person would likely say it’s normal for dogs to bark at the mailman or to be afraid of thunderstorms. Normal and desirable are not always one in the same. 

The answer to this question when it comes to resource guarding is a favorite answer in the animal training community: it depends. Guarding in and of itself is normal, however, there are ways that it can present which are abnormal. As with most things in behavior, it’s not so black and white. 


Guarding is normal

We all guard or protect things we find valuable. Human examples can include something like hiding the chocolate from the rest of your household or locking your door. Humans are incredible at guarding their stuff; we have billion dollar industries devoted to helping us resource guard better. When it comes to our children and pets, though, we often expect them to relinquish their valuables much more so than we would do ourselves. But I digress. That’s a whole ‘nother topic. 

In short, guarding is a normal, natural behavior. It’s how our ancestors survived and it’s unrealistic to expect an individual to never guard something in any circumstance ever. That said, there are healthy guarding interactions and unhealthy guarding interactions. I think this may be more what people are after when they ask about resource guarding being normal: is this particular situation abnormal vs. the entirety of the behavior. Let’s take a look at some healthy and unhealthy examples. 


Healthy examples of resource guarding

Two criteria that I’m looking at when I’m looking at how concerning a resource guarding scenario is are:

  • The guarder’s communication (i.e. body language, like growling) is reasonable for the threat level
  • The other individual reacts appropriately by deferring to the guarder

What this can look like:

Fido has a bully stick and is happily munching away. Rover comes over and starts sniffing the bully stick that Fido is munching on. Fido shows his teeth and growls. Rover walks away. 

In that situation Fido’s communication was reasonable in that he warned Rover to leave his bully stick alone when Rover stuck his nose into the situation (literally). Rover deferred and listened to Fido’s communication by walking away. Neither dog escalated the situation. No harm no foul in this scenario.

While this may seem concerning because Fido is growling, remember that growling is simply a form of communication. It is also natural, normal, and healthy in appropriate situations. For example, no one would likely have an issue with their dog growling at an intruder. It’s not an inherently “bad” thing. We have a whole blog post here about why growling is okay and what to do about it.  

One note: “appropriate” and “reasonable” are in the eye of the beholder. There’s not necessarily a hard and fast rule when it comes to what is reasonable in a situation and there are several factors to consider. 


Unhealthy examples of resource guarding

It should come as no surprise that the criteria for unhealthy guarding is just the opposite of that for healthy (plus one more):

  • The guarder’s communication (i.e. body language, behavior) is unreasonable for the threat level
  • The other individual continues pestering the guarder or escalates the situation
  • There are a lot of guarded things

Let’s look at a few examples of unhealthy guarding behavior: 

Fido is happily munching on his bully stick again. Lola comes over and starts sniffing the bully stick that Fido is munching on. Fido shows his teeth and growls. Lola attacks him. 

Hoo boy, not a good situation here. Fido is again showing appropriate warning signs for this particular threat, but Lola is having none of that and instead of deferring, ends up escalating the situation. 

Let’s look at another example, which is similar but not as severe:

Fido is once again happily munching on his bully stick. Petey comes over and starts sniffing the bully stick that Fido is munching on. Fido shows his teeth and growls. Petey backs up a few inches, then immediately resumes sniffing the bully stick. Fido once again shows his teeth and growls. Petey continues backing up and immediately resuming sniffing the stick. 

This is not as severe as the situation with Lola, of course, but poor Fido can’t eat his bully stick in peace! Petey is being pretty rude by not respecting Fido’s request for space. Let’s give Fido a rest and we’ll look at another example. 

Helga is happily munching on a bully stick. Rover walks past her, about 4’ away, on his way to the water bowl. Helga lunges forward and bites him. 

In this example, Helga’s reaction is not in line with the threat level. Rover is pretty far away and presumably ignoring her and the item while he’s on his way to the water bowl. 

Let’s look at one more scenario. Peggy and Billy were told that Colonel Sanders was a resource guarder when they adopted him, but didn’t expect it to be anything like this! He growls if someone approaches his food or water dish, a chewy he’s working on, his bed and crate, and now Peggy whenever Billy approaches. Peggy and Billy are doing their best to avoid these scenarios, but it’s proving to be very difficult and they’re now worried about what else will set him off. 

In the above scenario, Colonel Sanders is guarding a lot of things: food, water, high-value items, space, and people. While guarding in and of itself is normal, this poor kiddo is likely stressed quite a lot of the time because of how many different things he guards. And, some of those things are not as manageable as others, like people guarding. Though he’s sticking with just warning signs and Peggy and Billy are doing their best to respect his request for space, we would still label this as unhealthy if only because of how stressed everyone is in this situation. Usually when I see pets like Colonel Sanders they often have other anxiety issues as well.

One last note while looking at abnormal and normal guarding scenarios: while I used pets in almost all examples, you could easily trade out a pet for a human in each of them. Humans often escalate guarding situations, like Petey or even Lola. We often also exacerbate resource guarding by trying to prevent it. More info about that here


Now what?

  • If you’ve seen resource guarding with your pet, think back to one of those situations. Do NOT illicit resource guarding for the sake of observation. Was your pet’s response reasonable for the threat? Did the threat (which may be you) respond appropriately? Which above scenario fits most closely with the situation you’re thinking about? Now you may be able to answer for yourself if your pet’s guarding seems normal or abnormal. 
  • If your pet is displaying guarding behavior, manage the situations so as to not illicit the behavior. This can be as simple as picking up toys that your pets fight over or feeding pets in separate rooms and picking up the bowls when they’re done. Item guarding is often quite easy to manage. 
  • Learn your pet’s body language. There are more subtle signs of guarding going on before the growl; we just need to know what to look for. 
  • If you need help with learning your pet’s body language or thinking through a management plan, our Beginning Behavior Modification Course is here to help. It goes through all of the foundation skills you need to be successful in a behavior modification plan. This is perfect for folks who have a pet displaying normal guarding behaviors but who want to make sure everyone stays safe and help keep the behavior from escalating.
  • If you have a pet displaying abnormal guarding behavior, check out our free Resource Guarding workshop happening next month. 


Happy training!