Reggie as a big brother

Reggie’s dad had a houseguest recently, which included a one year old male Chihuahua, George (names have been changed to protect the innocent). This was a great opportunity for Reggie to test out being a big brother!

Well.

You know how they say there is that window around 4-6 years of age that is the “perfect” time to get a second dog? Reggie is almost 8 years old and past that window, and this trial period with George proved that theory. He was a grumpy old man.

George is small, only 6 pounds, and very submissive. He and Reggie play together just fine. George has been at Reggie’s dad’s house several times before the weekend in question, without incident.

This is good. Very few dogs have ever been on Reggie’s “turf.” He mostly visits his doggie friends. The few close friends that have been in his house(s) are dogs that he is very comfortable with. And then the tides turned…

George being the curious little pup that he is, ventured over to Reggie’s toy box (bad move George). Reggie snapped and lunged at George (bad move Reggie). Reggie’s dad properly resolved the situation and gave Reggie that “I’m so disappointed in you” look. It doesn’t work on dogs by the way.

Lamb Chop

Lamb Chop

One of Reggie’s favorite toys is Lamb Chop. You remember Lamb Chop? It comes in a dog toy version, both large and small. George came over with his own Lamb Chop- a mini George-sized version. Reggie has a Reggie-sized version.

George thought he would investigate the awesome looking giant Lamb Chop (again, bad move George). Reggie lunged at George (oh Reggie…) and Reggie’s dad had to de-Lamb Chop the area.

The next day, after some solid, healthy play, Reggie and George were napping in the house. Reggie got up, casually walked into the living room and picked up the mini-Lamb Chop and walked back to his sleeping spot and laid down with mini-Lamb Chop. Reggie’s dad watched this with amazement; the casualness with which Reggie absconded with George’s Lamb Chop while everyone was napping.

Manipulative isn’t he? After the shock wore off, Reggie’s dad of course took the mini-Lamb Chop away. It’s a little disconcerting because as he gets older the resource guarding is growing from tennis balls, to balls in general, to all his toys. He is not making a case for being a good big brother. He has been an only child for too long.

I don’t want to disregard that perhaps Reggie and George just weren’t the right personality mix either. Not every pair of dogs can be. Reggie plays with other dogs just fine. He has other doggie friends that come into his house and touch his toys and he will growl but with minor correction he backs down. Could be a gender issue, a personality issue, or something else entirely. It’s probably safe to say though that Reggie will not be a big brother any time soon!

Predatory vs. aggressive behavior in dogs

I read two wonderful discussions recently, one regarding predatory versus aggressive behavior from IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants- Dog Group, I can’t link the discussion as it’s a membership site), and one regarding resource guarding from Patricia McConnell, PhD, CAAB. The topic was as follows: what is the difference between predatory behavior and aggressive behavior, or when does one cross the line into the other? And from Dr. McConnell’s blog, is resource guarding a predatory behavior or an aggressive behavior?

Well this piqued my science mind. Not to mention, ahem, Reggie has a bit of a resource guarding problem with tennis balls. So back to predation versus aggression. Let’s break it down.

Predation

Reggie stalking ...something

Reggie stalking …something

Predation is rather cut and dry. The function, at a base level, is to get your prey. The sequence of events is: eye, stalk, chase, grab/bite, kill/bite, dissect, consume. The intent, and desire, is to get your prey. Read a general discussion by the ASPCA about it here. Most dogs will play with the bodies (think shaking the squeaky toys). It’s not the best mental picture of your adorable Fido- a fierce hunter stalking the backyard wildlife. But, that’s nature. Greyhounds are expert chasers. Staffordshires are expert kill/biters. Terriers are expert stalkers. Fortunately, evolution and selective breeding has de-volved this tendency in domestic dogs to a certain extent and the urge towards genuine predatory behavior like a National Geographic special is not so common, actually rare, in today’s dog.

Aggression

Reggie giving a warning

Reggie giving a warning

The function of aggression is to remove a threat, whether perceived or genuine. This is seen in fear responses, anxiety, resource guarding, leash aggression, to name a few. These are all the dog’s conditioned (learned) responses to a perceived threat. In the case of, say, a dog fight or attack where your dog is the victim, an aggression response would be the removal of a real threat. The removal of a threat is not precluded by a stalking behavior; think of predation as premeditated and aggression as relatively instant.

Cross-Over?

It is reasonable to think that one behavior crosses over into another. For instance, Reggie’s cousin Stewie has trouble with “dog conversation.” He’s still a young dog and he’s learning. But it gets him trouble. Stewie loves to play, and play and play. When his play partners are tired or done playing they sit down or walk away like most dogs do. Stewie will poke and pester them to keep playing. The other dogs will growl or nip Stewie to give the signal to “back off.” Stewie does not understand this and keeps going back for more (“play with me!”). What started as social predatory behavior quickly escalates to an aggression situation when Stewie can’t read the signals and the other dog feels it needs to remove the threat (pestering dog).

Resource guarding can also be aggression behavior in a certain context. Reggie guards tennis balls from other dogs BAD (not humans). He perceives dogs as a threat to his ball. Why? Who knows. But this is an aggression response not a social predatory response. He goes stiff, low growl, lip curled- all signs of an impending lunge and/or bite. There is no stalk, no chase. No time- you want his ball!

All fun aside, it’s important to note the difference and know the difference in general, in social contexts, and in your dog. Reggie is much different than his cousin Stewie, but no dog is perfect and they both have issues- but much different ones. Now that I know, perhaps I can work a little harder, a little better, at Reggie’s tennis ball issues 🙂

Resource guarding

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.

Basics

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!