Recently, I was called to work with a large, four-year-old dog who has developed severe resource guarding issues. This girl started out protecting her food, and moved on to protecting her toys and bones, her space on the couch and various parts of her body. The issues began when the dog was a year old, and grew worse over time. A couple of weeks ago, three years after the behavior started, I was called in when the dog attacked another pet and sent him to the vet. While rehabilitation is possible, it won’t be easy or inexpensive, as it will involve hours of behavior modification.
As a dog trainer, I often see situations like this. Sometimes, the issues are so severe that I am unable or unwilling to help. One couple came to me with their adult dog who had been growling at people since he was a puppy. Initially, they ignored the problem, holding the puppy when he growled at guests, or shutting him up in another room. The week before they came to see me, the dog had bitten a friend who had dropped in unexpectedly. When they brought the dog to me, I was confronted with an 80-pound-dog intent on biting me and owners who had no control of him. As they were unwilling to condition the dog to a muzzle, I was unable to help them.
It is critical that, as your dog’s owner, advocate and friend, you observe his behavior and respond quickly and appropriately to warning signs of behavioral issues. There are several red flags you can be aware of. Once a dog reaches social maturity, typically between one to three years of age, these problems are likely to worsen significantly, potentially progressing to aggression, and can be difficult to change.
Avoidance or hiding from people, animals, or objects is an indicator of a fear that may progress to aggression. If you have a puppy, he should be interested in interacting with people and other animals. Mild hesitation in approaching unfamiliar environments, noise, people, or objects is expected and appropriate, but profound fear may indicate the start of a serious problem. A dog or puppy who takes more than one to two seconds to recover from mild hesitation, who makes repeated escape attempts to remove himself from an interaction, or who refuses yummy treats in these situations is showing signs of fear. It’s important to establish positive emotional responses as soon as you see the issue developing. If your dog displays alarm barking, lunges or hackles up when he sees other people or animals, you have a problem that can quickly develop into a serious form of aggression.
If you have a dog that is reluctant to sit down when you ask him to do so you may be tempted to label him as stubborn or hyper. Some dogs are hesitant to assume these positions because of anxiety or because they don’t respect your leadership. At other times, pain due to orthopedic issues may be to blame. Rather than ignoring the problem, it is wise to consult a trainer.
Excessive mouthing during physical handling, such as a dog that resists hugging, lifting or veterinary exams, or when you take a toy away from him, is something to be wary of, especially if it is associated with growling, stiffening of the body or snarling while showing teeth. This type of behavior usually indicates fear or pain. If it’s not medically related, it can turn into a severe behavioral issue.
If your dog barks continuously when confined to a crate or left home alone, can’t settle down in his crate, soils his crate repeatedly or refuses to eat in your absence, he may be displaying signs of separation anxiety. This type of fear can grow into a major problem as your dog ages. The longer the anxiety exists, the harder it is to modify, so it needs to be addressed early.
It’s important to remember that if your dog displays these, or other warning signs, he is not necessarily a “bad dog.” He may have health issues that impact his behavior, or may not respect your leadership. Ignoring the warning signs, though, can result in serious problems developing. Consult with a qualified dog trainer when you first see the issues. The trainer can assess the behavior, give you advice on how to handle it, send you to a veterinarian or recommend additional training. Remember, ignoring bad behavior won’t make it go away.
Karlene Turkington, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, is a lifelong animal lover who has been training dogs for over 20 years. Readers are welcome to send their questions to: info@TrainMyK-9.com. Information provided here is a basic overview of issues. Specific health or behavioral concerns should be discussed with your veterinarian or qualified animal trainer or behaviorist.