• Kim Wegel

Stop Taking Stuff From Your Dog.

I have this conversation with well-meaning clients several times a week. I’m paraphrasing slightly, but here it is: Client: I want to stop my dog’s aggressive behavior. KLW: Can you tell me more about what’s happening and when? Client: Well, like when he has a bone and I go to take it from him at bedtime, he growls at me, and sometimes he bites. KLW: HAVE YOU CONSIDERED NOT TAKING YOUR DOG’S STUFF?

Dogs, by nature, are not aggressive creatures. Much like humans, they respond to triggers in their environment. Their responses may range by type and in intensity, depending upon the nature of the trigger, and the extent of the offense. Dogs, much like humans, also learn, over time and repeated trials, to respond to a trigger with the intensity that it takes to make an impact (i.e., to effect a change in the environment from negative to positive — this from the dog’s point-of-view, of course). Consider the following example:

You’re having lunch with your friends. You ordered a side of fries; the friend seated next to you ordered a salad. After she finishes her own meal, you notice her sneak a fry off your plate. Maybe you flash her a side-eye (I saw you do that, but I’m letting it slide). She thinks she’s more or less gotten away with it, so she does it again. This time, you pointedly say: “Maybe you should have ordered fries if you wanted them.” She laughs it off and says she’s trying to choose healthier options for herself. The third time, though, that’s it. No more nice-friend. “Stop eating my food,” you say, sternly and definitively, as you pull your plate away. Everyone is uncomfortable now. But your friend probably won’t steal your food the next time you go out.

We learn these lessons about food and property-ownership as children from the story of “Goldilocks and The Three Bears.” Why do the rules go out the window as soon as we’re talking about our dogs?

Though science has offered us a lot of evidence-based reasons to change our ways, there unfortunately prevails an underlying assumption that, within the household structure, our dogs should find themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy. So much happened in that sentence — let me help you break it down:

“[…] within the household structure…” : we think of our families as stable, with members holding similarly-stable, correspondent roles. “[…] our dogs should find themselves at the bottom…” : we think of our dogs as the least of these members, as less-than-human subordinates. “[…] of the hierarchy.” : the members of our family unit hold stable, correspondent roles that have relative value in a stable system.

Put it all back together, this time, translated:

“The members within a family unit all have established roles that hold correspondent and relative value, based upon the roles of other members; our dogs, as non-human members, should necessarily assume subordinate status below the human members of the family.”Remember “Goldilocks and The Three Bears?” Where the bears, upon arriving home, found that their home had been invaded and their stuff used, and their feelings about that disruption were (gasp!) valid? When the bears returned home and found Goldilocks sleeping in a bed upstairs, Goldilocks didn’t stand up and attempt to claim the house — she recognized her offense and retreated. We don’t question the wisdom of this story just because the property owners are animals. Why do we treat our dogs differently?

At this point, my clients usually wonder aloud: “But I thought I had to be the Alpha.”

I won’t dissect the entire Alpha-myth (that’s a blog post for another time), but suffice it to say: there are a lot of problems with the concept of “The Alpha,” and with relating our domestic dogs to wolves in the wild in the first place. For now, let’s imagine that what we are attempting to establish by claiming “alpha” status is our dog’s unwavering trust and respect. We might reimagine the dog’s role vs. ours in the family structure in terms of a child-parent relationship: the dog, unable to provide directly for himself and all of his needs, looks to us for support; in turn, we expect a certain modicum of respect. Recent research on the wolf-pack unit indicates that what we previously understood to be true about a pack’s hierarchical structure and any sort of struggle for dominance within the hierarchy was largely a misunderstanding of how wolf packs form in the wild. Early researchers were basing theories of pack structure, dominance, and subordinance on wolves held in captivity — random assemblies of wolves gathered from various locations and brought together. Modern research on naturally-occurring wild wolf packs reveals a very different story: that wolf-packs are actually more likely to be made up of multiple generations of a single family. Members naturally establish relationships based upon relative age. If we are committed to the notion of labeling the “Alpha,” this role would necessarily go to the breeding pair (mother and father of all); there is no struggle to maintain this role within the family unit.

I don’t want to digress into a blog post on parenting, but suffice it to say, good parents are providers for their children. They are certainly there also to set rules and limits, and to establish boundaries. They are guides, who, in an ideal world, lead their children by setting a positive example. In an ideal world, parents do not engage in certain behaviors against their children “just to prove a point.”

If we accept the premise: dogs are pseudo-children in the pack-unit… why, then, do we think that we have to constantly prove our superiority to our dogs?

“But he growls and sometimes bites when I take stuff from him.”

You reacted to a similar offense committed by your friend at lunch in a similar way, but no one questioned your behavior. Why do we expect anything else from our dogs?

The difference largely boils down to a failure to communicate at the earlier stages of the conversation. Remember the warning-shots that you gave to your friend? First, you gave her “the eye.” When that didn’t work, you said something lighthearted. When that didn’t work, you got serious. We tend to think of our dog’s reactions as appearing spontaneously, “out of the blue,” though this is never actually the case. Much like humans, dogs have many ways to communicate discomfort and displeasure without growling or biting, though they will resort to these methods if their lesser attempts fail to provoke a response. (Remember what I said about learned behavior/needing to inspire an environmental shift from negative to positive?)

Before we get here, we need to set a few things straight:

1. Your dog has a right to comfort and stability; 2. Your dog has a right to have stuff that is his; 3. Your dog has a right to safety and security in the dog-human relationship.

People struggle to put all of these things together harmoniously because they are simultaneously led to believe that, in order to maintain safety, security, comfort, and stability, they must control their dog’s access to “stuff” by relying upon misconceptions of “Alpha-Wolf” behavior. A good Alpha- mother or -father wolf is a wolf who shares willingly with its offspring in order to ensure their survival. Why do humans think that sharing means taking-by-force?

I’ve heard trainers recommend to clients with dogs who resource-guard that, when their dog exhibits guarding behaviors (snarling, growling, lunging, biting) they should refuse to back down; instead, they should continue to put pressure on their dog until he relinquishes control. Not only is this advice dangerous, it’s also terribly misguided. Continuing to pressure your dog is not going to solve a problem that was likely created by force, intimidation, and coercion in the first place.

It begins innocently enough, when our dogs are puppies:

Puppies “take” things, like socks. We respond by launching an effort to regain control of the sock. The puppy thinks this is a fun game, and may initiate a game of keep-away, and, once caught, tug. The more frequently this occurs, the more annoyed we become by the behavior, and the more frustrated we become in our pursuits. On a daily basis, new puppy owners confess to forcibly removing toys and chews from their dogs’ mouths, on the pretense that they simply had to recover the item, for safety — to relate this back to your friend and the French fries: this is now the friend who dives right into every plate you order. You would likely learn to sit on the other end of the table if you were going out with this friend; your dog learns to clamp down harder, and run faster.

But he learns much more than that, and this is important: Your dog learns that you are the person who takes things away. He learns to anticipate this from you, and scales his behavior accordingly.

Dogs who have learned to anticipate the disappearance of good things become resource-guarders. Characterized by the frequent and habitual protection of objects (beds, toys, bones, socks, sticks — anything your dog loves — even people), resource-guarders learn to match a perceived threat with whatever level of intensity is necessary to make you back down.

There are many “levels” of response that your dog will go through in an attempt to communicate with you. Dogs will hunker over objects, offer hard stares, raise their hackles, move the object away/try to hide it, growl, bark/lunge, offer warning bites (air-snaps and nips that do not touch or break the skin), and, as a last resort, bites with penetration. If you consistently fail to respond respectfully to low-level requests for space, your dog will escalate his behavior accordingly. Dogs never begin at biting: dogs who bite are dogs who have learned that all other attempts at communication will be ignored and disrespected.

Luckily, there are many ways to prevent our dogs from ever making it to the top of the communication escalation chain, and it begins with establishing yourself as a force for good in your dog’s everyday life. If you have a new puppy or dog in your life, here are some tips to get started:

Tips for Preventing Resource-Guarding.

1. Teach your dog “drop-it” and “leave-it” cues. At some point in your dog’s life, he will pick up something that he shouldn’t have, and you will need a way to request that he relinquish this object without resorting to the use of force. Regular practice with “drop-it” makes it much more likely that your dog will respond to this cue when it matters most. Similarly, “leave-it” anticipates your dog’s tendency to go for certain objects in his environment with a request to please not do that. Teach your dog that “leave-it” applies to all sorts of things (food, acorns, pen caps, other dogs, cars, people). For help teaching either of these cues, reach out to a positive reinforcement trainer. 2. Teach your dog that you are The Bringer of Good Things. Instead of your appearance signaling the disappearance of beloved objects, teach him that you bring food, toys, and affection. You may practice this by adding a few kibbles by hand to your dog’s food bowl at meal time, and dropping treats near your dog when he is playing with a favorite toy or chewing a bone. Play with your dog — regularly engaging in games of tug and fetch with approved toys teaches your dog that objects are also for sharing and interacting. You should use these interactions as opportunities to reinforce the “drop-it” cue! 3. Teach object-exchanges. At some point in your dog’s life, there will come a time when it is necessary to get something out of his mouth. Rather than prying it out of his clenched jaws, offer him something better: a favorite toy, or an exceptionally tasty treat in exchange for what he has.

Regular practice with all three of these skills makes it significantly more likely that, in the case of a real object-emergency, your dog will give up an object without the use of force.

Kimberly L. Wegel, CDBC, CBCC-KA

Written 31 May 2019; Edited 14 July 2021.

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