Resource guarding: Why you need to teach your dog to play swapsies

Resource guarding: Why you need to teach your dog to play swapsies

Dog resource guarding a chew
Sarah Ripley
Posted in Dog Behaviour

Following on from my last blog about counter surfing, a related problem is stealing things – and then guarding them! This isn’t just annoying, this can be downright dangerous.  A dog that steals, and then resource guards can be a real menace, especially if you have children.

Management to prevent stealing should be your first line of defence for stopping this behaviour in its tracks – if your dog can’t practice it they can’t get really good at it! However, management is rarely 100% and life happens, which leaves the question: “how do I get the contraband back?”

So, today I’m talking about swapping things with your dog. This can be a life saving skill. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to take potentially dangerous things off one of my dogs because they’ve found something on a walk.

 

Why not just take it off them?

Many dogs and puppies can be possessive when they have a valued toy or food item. This is perfectly normal and understandable – a dog’s motto is ‘what’s mine is mine – and I’m keeping it!’

Obviously, this is not a desirable state of mind for a pet dog. So how do we teach the idea that giving up valued items is a good thing to do? Basically, we teach our dogs to trust that if we take something from them they’ll either get it back (often better than before) or will get something better in return.  This means there’s no need to resource guard prizes as there’s no conflict between your intentions and you dog’s motivations.

 

Why reframing works

It’s a mistake to try to teach your dog that you ‘can take it because your the boss’.  Many people have created problems where none existed with this mindset.  The classic example is taking the dog’s food bowl away while they’re eating.  Well, I can tell you now, if someone repeatedly took my dinner off me – even if they gave it back – I’d get ‘guard-y’ real quick!!!

Instead, I like to think of it as “let me hold your prize for you while you eat this really scrummy treat I have”, rather than “I’m taking that thing you have; you can’t keep it”. A change of mindset on our end can make a huge difference to how our dogs perceive our approach, and hands, when they have things of value.

Once I’ve been through the following process I’ll maintain the behaviour (and trust) by practicing on stuffed food toys. I’ll ask the dog to give it up, re-stuff it with something very tasty and then give it back. If I have to take something I can’t give back (e.g. BBQ bones found on a walk) I’ll pay very heavily for it.

 

How to teach “Give”

Step 1 Pair the word with goodies

  • Decide on a word that will mean “give that to me now please”. “Give”, “mine”, “thank you”, “spit” all work well. For now, I’m going to go with “give”
  • Firstly, we introduce the word we want to use and teach that hearing that word means ‘great things are about to happen for you’. I like to start when my dog doesn’t have anything at all. They’re just minding their own business mooching around.
  • Load yourself with treats of scrummy food (the more special the better for this training) while your dog isn’t looking. This is IMPORTANT! You don’t want the sight of you loading up to mean ‘now’s a good time to pay attention’ otherwise your dog will only trust you if they’ve just seen you load your pockets. Oops.
  • Approach your dog (just walk up to them) and say “give”. Obviously, they won’t have clue what you mean! Don’t worry about that, just toss them a hunk of something very tasty. Say your word a few more times, offering a tasty goodie each time.

The sequence is: “GIVE” → (slight pause) → feed good stuff.

Repeat this quite a few times over a number of days. You’re looking for a very expectant happy expression whenever you say your word.

 

Step 2 using the word in the presence of an item

  • While your dog is playing with a boring toy or chewing something low value like a plastic bone, walk up to them, say “give” and THEN then give them the high value treat. Walk off again.

“GIVE” → (slight pause) → feed the good stuff.

Repeat step two lots of times over a number of days. Your dog should very happily abandon the chew/toy to eat the scrummy food treat when you say “give”.

 

Step 3 using the word and removing an item

  • While your dog is playing with the boring toy/chew, kneel or crouch down (don’t stand over her) at arms-length, say ‘give’ and present the good stuff in your half-closed fist.
  • As she goes for the good stuff, with the other hand take the boring item away AS you let her take the good food from you. She probably won’t even notice that you’ve taken it! Remember to give the original item back when she’s eaten the good stuff.

The sequence is like this: “GIVE” → (slight pause) → present good stuff in your hand → give good stuff/take item → give item back.

Practice this many, many times over a number of days.

 

Step 4 Change the order of events

  • We need the scrummy food to act as a reward, not a lure, for this training to really work. So, at this point we are going to change the order of the last two bits of the sequence. Instead of giving the food AS you take the item, you are going to withhold the food slightly and take the item first, THEN let her have the good stuff.

“GIVE” → (slight pause) → present good stuff (allow her to sniff but not eat) → take item → give good stuff → give item back.

Practice this sequence many times over a number of days.

 

Step 5 the final sequence

  • Now we’re almost there. We need to get rid of the food lure altogether. We’re going to change the order again; this time we’re going to present the food AFTER we’ve taken the item, not before or during:

“GIVE” → (slight pause) → take item → offer good stuff → give item back.

Practice this sequence many times over a number of days.

 

Step 6 building trust around valued items

  • Your dog should now understand what “give” means. Now you can move onto practicing with items that are more valuable to her. Start with the things that aren’t so important. GRADUALLY work up to swapping for things such as raw meaty bones and favourite toys. Take your time and don’t rush to high value items (emergencies aside of course!).

The list may look something like this:

  • Tennis ball (perceived value=4)
  • Squeaky toy (perceived value=5)
  • Stolen items such as tissues, socks and underwear (perceived value=7)
  • Pig’s ears (perceived value=9)
  • Raw meaty bone (perceived value=120!!!!)

 

Summary

Teach your dog to be trusting and comfortable with you taking things off them.  Don’t rush!! Build up slowly to the items higher up the list and remember, it has to be a fair swap in the eyes of the dog. The more valuable the item, the bigger the prize she receives for compliance. You may have to give her a large handful of roast beef for giving up a meaty bone – assuming you’d like her to do it again! Whenever possible, always give the original item back to your dog.

If you do this type of training consistently you’ll find that your dog will happily allow you to take things from them with the expectation that you’ll make the deal worth their while. make sure to ALWAYS offer something in return if you possibly can.  Trust takes time to build but can be shattered very easily.  Don’t take it for granted.

NOTE! IF AT ANY TIME YOUR DOG GIVES ANY OF THE FOLLOWING SIGNALS WHEN YOU APPROACH HER, RETREAT AND CONTACT AN EXPERIENCED POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT TRAINER:

  • Freezes or stiffens
  • Turns away from you and blocks your access to the item
  • Tries to gulp the item or chew it with fast, almost frantic bites
  • Stares at you hard (often while holding herself very still)
  • Shows the whites of her eyes
  • Growls
  • Shows teeth
  • Snaps towards you

These are all signs that your dog is VERY unhappy with you approaching her when she has a valued resource.  Don’t try to ‘fix’ this yourself – get an experienced positive reinforcement trainer to help you as you could easily make the problem worse.  The steps above are for PREVENTING resource guarding problems, not changing existing issues.

Happy training!

– Sarah and the Gang

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