The Educated Dog
Training and Behavior Modification
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Resource Guarding - Hierarchies
Educate yourself and your dog!
Desensitization and counterconditioning (D&C) exercises depend on ensuring that your dog remains under-threshold at each step in the hierarchy. To do this, you must understand your dog's body language - including his most subtle signs such as a yawn, a twitch of an ear, or a change in his body orientation. A good place to start is by observing your own dog in various settings, noting only his behavior rather than his thoughts or emotions. For example, while greeting a neighbor on a walk, note that 'his tail lowered and ears went flat back' - rather than 'he was scared’. See Deep Dive for references on the topic.
Although D&C is the mainstay of resource guarding training, it helps to have other tools in your toolbox such as those described in foundational behaviors. These behaviors are based on operant conditioning, behaviors that your dog offers because they have a history of reinforcement. In other words, he got lots of treats, attention, or other goodies as a consequence of these behaviors. Utilizing these behaviors helps to facilitate the training, as demonstrated in the location guarding hierarchy - provided below. In general, it is always preferred to ask your dog for a behavior, rather than resort to lures or physical intervention, such as nudging or picking him up to get off the couch.
Do your homework!
Choose the right equipment: The right equipment is essential to facilitate the training and keep everyone safe. Common choices include tethers, gates, exercise pens, protective gloves, and muzzles. If using a muzzle, ensure that you choose the right type and desensitize your dog to the muzzle prior to its use.
Prepare the treats: The value of the treats matters. We are forming a new association (yay, my human is coming!) from a previously threatening association (grrrrrr, don't take my resource!). This means we want the new association to be very strong. Approaching your dog while he is enjoying his favorite chew toy or resting in his coveted location and then giving him kibble won't do it! Steak, chicken or cheese, on then other hand, just might. Better yet, prepare super high-valued treats that are reserved exclusively for these exercises. Your dog is the ultimate judge of what that is; but whatever his preferences, ensure they can be doled out quickly, not too messy, and easy for your dog to eat quickly.
Use a treat pouch: Treats should be kept in a treat pouch or similar. This allows you to keep the treats out of sight and easily accessible. Always remember to keep your hands out of the pouch until delivery.
Create the hierarchy: Start with identifying the variables that will be altered. For example, if a dog guards his toys, the closer you are to the dog before taking it away, the less likely he is to guard it. Think of when you play tug of war - your dog will typically allow you to take it and give it back without incident. But if you approach your dog from a distance, he is much more likely to guard. So, in this case, distance is a critical variable. Once the variables are identified, create steps such that each variable is gradually increased in difficulty. The golden rule of adding a new variable, or increasing its difficulty, is to decrease the difficulty of the other variables - this is illustrated in the sample hierarchies below.
Time to train!
All the hard work is done! You have a rock solid management plan in place, figured out what if any equipment is needed, created the hierarchy, and have all the yummy treats prepared. Now it's time to implement the hierarchy, and follow the rules below.
1. Aim for the YAY! Do not move to the next step in the hierarchy until the dog is showing no signs of guarding, this means the absence of even the most subtle signs. Better yet, aim not only for the absence of guarding, but the welcoming of your approach.
2. Switch it up! Dogs are great at learning patterns, so counter this by varying the time intervals between trials including some long pauses, and the manner in which you approach (different angles, etc.)
3. Remember the golden rule: when adding a new or increasing the difficulty of a variable, relax the others.
4. Don't wing it! When you are working your way through the steps, it will no doubt need modified - whether to add new variables, create intermediate steps, or even remove steps. But don't wing it! This often results in execution errors that impede progress. It is just too easy to get greedy and push too fast.
5. Honor your contract: View each step as a contract between you and your dog. It defines the exact criteria in which the step will be carried out, and will continue to be carried out until he remains consistently under-threshold. At any one moment in the training session, you should be able to state the exact terms of this agreement; and your answer should be immediate and succinct, e.g. "I will approach your bowl from 7' away, reach down, and touch it for 10 seconds."
6. Learning is not linear: Your dog may fly through some steps, plateau with others, or even regress - this is to be expected. If at anytime you are unable to progress, resolve this with the help of a trainer.
7. Practice cold trials: Once you have made significant progress, practice cold trials. These are one-trial exercises meant to mimic real life scenarios. This means no warm up steps, and no clues that you are about to do this - such as putting on your treat pouch (consider hiding the treats near the location beforehand). When doing cold trials, you will want to take a few steps back in order to set your dog up for success.
8. Generalize to other people and scenarios: These exercises need to include a representative set of items, people, and locations that will be encountered in real life scenarios. With each new scenario, start at or near the beginning of the hierarchy.
9. Celebrate progress: Success is not all or nothing, celebrate the progress you have made together, and prioritize what is most important. You may find that you will not generalize the exercises to include children, but rather put a bullet proof management plan in place instead.
10. Always end on a high note: Continue the session as long as both you and your dog are having fun. If your dog is stressed, it is likely you are moving too fast, so scale back then take a break. And if you are stressed, do a few more easy steps, then go out for walk together.