I’m always looking for good topics to research, particularly ones that are specific to Reggie. I’ve discussed before Reggie’s issue with tennis balls, which in training world is called “resource guarding.” Reggie came to us that way. Imagine the surprise with the obscene amount of toys that a new dog (much like a new child!) has, with no problems, that the one day when an average tennis ball enters the house and all hell breaks loose.
Reggie learned “drop” to drop whatever he may have picked up in his mouth. He is remarkably trainable. I will attribute that to his breed and temperament not to my skill! Because of his allergies, he is very good around food and won’t even pick food up off the floor or jump on the counter. A little side story: when friends were dog sitting Reggie, he decided to test his boundaries. Reggie is very comfortable around these friends, their house, their cats. My friend was making a sandwich and turned away for a moment and Reggie jumped up on the counter and took the sandwich! Needless to say, these friends are well aware of his allergies- as well as good dog behavior- and Reggie got wrestled to the ground and did not have the sandwich for long.
So, I love that one of my favorite animal behaviorists has a recent post about this topic. I will paraphrase some of her key points here.
What is resource guarding? Also called “possession aggression” it is a behavior that would discourage another from taking an object or area deemed of value. Most often this is food, toys, or a sleeping area. However, Ms. McConnell points out that some dogs guard their humans as if they were “the best bone in the house.” The behavior is often displayed as a low growl, stiffening body posture, head turn, a charge, to an actual bite.
Normal to Not Normal
In normal play, dogs have conversations to tell each other (and you if you are paying attention) that they want to play, they are done playing, that toy is mine, I’m the boss here, don’t play so rough, be more gentle with the Beagle, etc. When I watch Reggie play, I see him head butt other dogs which means “play with me.” I also see him turn around and nip the muzzle of dogs when he gets head butt-ed and is tired and doesn’t want to play anymore. This is normal conversation. I have also seen Reggie go rigid, give low growls, and curl a lip when I come near him when he has a tennis ball in his mouth. I have also seen him do these same things when a dog gets close to him, and if the dog gets too close to him, he will lunge. This is not a normal conversation.
Ms. McConnell’s recommendation? Between dogs don’t allow it to go beyond a head turn or a low growl. If it escalates beyond that point, you have a problem. Between dog and human, the dog always needs to relinquish whatever is in its mouth to the human. Not only do you need to establish trust between you and your dog, you want your dog to listen to you, every time. This is for safety too. Reggie has allergies. He has- several times- snatched something off the ground during a walk that has perhaps fallen out of a trash can that he can’t have. Hamburger buns, apple cores, a popsicle stick, chicken wing….twice….I have pried his mouth open on the sidewalk with people staring at me half a dozen times (my neighborhood sounds like a pig sty). If he swallowed the popsicle stick or the chicken bones, I would have been at the vet. When he has had those items in his mouth he will stiffen, growl, and be generally threatening. Knowing they could hurt him I guess I generally don’t care and we’re back to the wrestling.
Prevention and Correction
So let’s say you want to make sure that you don’t have a resource guarding problem. The concept is simple. Make it fun for your dog to give you whatever the prized object is. Of course, duh! Reggie was trained this way unknowingly with so many things. He doesn’t have any issues with food. Maybe that’s because we used to run around and have him chase us when he was little like it was a game to get the food, and then he has to sit before he gets his bowl. Maybe it’s because he gets a treat when he finishes the whole bowl. Maybe with toys as soon as he drops them, I say “good boy” and give it right back, or throw it again. Turns out this is the right way to go about it. You are rewarding the relinquishing behavior by giving praise and then giving the prized possession right back.
I started doing this with the tennis balls a number of years back and very rarely does he ever get possessive with me over a tennis ball anymore. It really works. Rather than struggling to get the ball away, surrendering, or correcting the situation, I just walk away. He’d rather play with me- and the ball- than fight over it.
Dog-dog interactions are another story. I’ll be honest- I avoid them. I ask friends to clear the yard of balls and toys before we come over and I make sure that problem toys are cleared from my house before anyone comes over. Reggie is kind of OCD and once he gets tennis ball on the brain there’s no getting out of it unless we physically leave the location. It doesn’t make playtime at someone’s house fun if he’s obsessing over a ball and then attacking their dog.
Ms. McConnell cites recent studies that are being done suggesting a genetic predisposition to resource guarding. These is some evidence to suggest that with litters of pups the biggest and strongest, and thus those that get to the nipple first and “win”, show resource guarding tendencies later in life. It is a competition of sorts and there is a nature and nurture component.
My friends and I often joke that with all Reggie’s medical problems there is no way he would survive in the wild. That being said, I find it hard to believe that he would have been one of the biggest and strongest pups in his litter. The fact that he has mostly overcome the guarding with humans is a good sign- it gives me hope that one day he can be around other dogs and a tennis ball at the same time. I’ll keep looking and keep breathing and figure out how to fight the tennis ball!