I generally have a few toys out – if I haven’t, Game will turn my shoes into toys.
Resource guarding incident #1: toys
On day #1 or #2 of the Puzzle week, I observed a resource guarding moment in Puzzle: she was guarding a toy from Game. In such a young puppy (supposedly 8 weeks; maybe a little bit younger), this is a red flag behavior for me. I happened to catch it on video. Let’s look:
… and analyze! Btw, I’m pretty sure what’s running in the background is a recording of Jennifer Summerfield‘s excellent webinar on behavioral medication for dogs.
01:02 Puzzle, who hasn’t played with toys before, shows interest in the Hucker as soon as Game leaves it alone to go for the red ball on a rope. Okay – nothing wrong with this. (Stimulus enhancement causes her interest.)
01:17 Now Puzzle has the Hucker, but Game and I are interacting with the other toy, which makes that one more enticing.
01:37 Game has dropped the ball, and Puzzle comes over to take a closer look at it. (Stimulus enhancement!)
01:44 “Okay,” says Game, “Let’s see what you’re up to, little puppy!”
01:48 Game likes tugging with other dogs, so when Puzzle takes the rope, she picks up the ball …
01:49/50 It’s not entirely clear what is happening from this angle. Puzzle certainly stiffens and stares at Game, and Game lets go of the ball. (Is it because of Puzzle’s stiffening/stare, or was she going to do it anyways? We can’t know for sure.)
01:51 Game decides to get the Hucker instead – it’s currently not being used by Puzzle, so why not pick it up (and maybe bring it over to me)?
01:51/52 The moment Puzzle realizes Game is going for the Hucker, she lunges at her.
01:55/56 Game is unsure of how to handle the situation – she’s a puppy, after all. In her world, puppies have more leeway than adult dogs. You can see her do a lip lick (my interpretation: dilemma/self-consciousness/self-soothing).
02:01 Game stays calm and relaxed and gives Puzzle time to calm down as well.
02:03/04 Another lip lick. Puzzle is still feeling a bit guardy.
02:20 Game yawns … she’s not entirely sure how to handle the situation. Yawns can be like looking at your cellphone in order to let someone else in an elevator know that you’re neither creepy nor particularly interested in standing close to them.
Game is not afraid of Puzzle. If Puzzle were an adult, she would not put up with resource guarding – but she’s a puppy, and in Game’s world, that is different.
Because I know Game and can read her well, I keep filming rather than intervening. I knew nothing bad would happen despite their size difference. (This post is NOT a recommendation of how to handle resource guarding among the dogs in your own household!)
02:24 Enough time has passed, and Puzzle is now on the other side of the crate door. Game picks up the Hucker again to go about her day. (Good girl, Game! You’re awesome.)
Let’s pull out one detail I find particularly interesting in this video: Puzzle’s mixed feelings about the situation she’s getting herself into. Puzzle is experimenting with the resource guarding behavior rather than doing it out of habit. Let’s watch a stretch in slow motion:
Watch the slow-motion video a second time, and then go back to the first (real time) video. Can you make out all the body language details from the slow-mo video in real time?
How do behaviors like resource guarding develop?
We know that most behaviors have heritable components – heritability being the differences of a trait within the individuals of a population that depends on genetics. So we have both a genetic component and an environmental component that will determine the final behavioral phenotype (the individual’s observable behavior).
Let’s assume (for argument’s sake, not because this is necessarily the case) that Puzzle has never tried resource guarding before. But she’s got a combination of genes that inspire her to give it a try – even though she doesn’t exactly know what she’s doing. There’s an environmental trigger (Game wanting the Hucker Puzzle had before) that pushes Puzzle into the behavior.
Several things can happen at this point, depending on the other dog’s reaction:
- If the other dog gives up the toy, the guarding behavior will be reinforced (that’s the operant, environmental part of the equation: behaviors that are being reinforced will happen more frequently in the future).
- If the behavior doesn’t work (it has no meaningful consequences), it may be tried again in the future – maybe slightly differently, maybe in somewhat different circumstances.
- Or it may not be tried again in the future; maybe it was just a haphazard one-time attempt: the behavior extinguishes.
- If the behavior is punished by the other dog (if Game reprimanded Puzzle), it should decrease or disappear in the future.
Puzzle is very young, so at the point that I took this video, I’d have predicted that she’d need several extinction or punishment experiences before the synapses necessary to keep the behavior in her repertoire would be pruned.
You can see how fast learning happens in real time in this very video: the first hard stare Puzzle gives Game at 01:49 (first, original speed video)/00:09 (second, slow-motion video) works: Puzzle’s hard stare is being negatively reinforced by means of Game moving away. Puzzle quickly tries the hard stare again at 01:59 (first video at original speed)/03:02 (second, slow-motion video)! When it doesn’t work, she escalates to snapping. (If this had been reinforced more than just once before before, we’d call it an extinction burst.)
Resource guarding incident #2: Chrissi
Apart from this moment with the toy, there was only one other resource guarding incident Puzzle displayed (which surprised me; after this one reaction, I expected her to be quite guardy in general). The second incident happened also on the first or second day Puzzle stayed with us. She was curled up on my lap while I was working on my laptop. Game came over to see what was up, and Puzzle snapped at her. Again, Game stayed perfectly calm. (“Eyeroll. Puppies.” Also, Game rocks!)
For me as a dog trainer who has seen owners struggle with resource guarding, both these behaviors are red flags when they show up in young puppies. I thought to myself, “Good thing I’m not going to keep Puzzle.” But – and here’s the really interesting thing! – after these two incidents, NO more resource guarding happened the entire time Puzzle stayed with us, or afterwards, when I had returned her to her family, but picked her up to let her spend a few hours at my place several times a week. I conclude that my initial assessment (resource guarding in young puppies is usually a bad sign for multi-dog households) was not the case for Puzzle.
If I were to anthropomorphize (okay, let’s stop kidding ourselves; this is me full-on anthropomorphizing): as soon as Puzzle learned that she could trust Game, she had no reason to guard resources from her – neither me nor toys nor food.
What a can of worms! How can we even operationalize “trust”?
Let’s start by operationalizing a behavior that is not trust-based (because that’s easier to define): Resource guarding is a behavior resulting from the belief that if you share something, you will lose something. (In the case of dogs, the thing they are unwilling to share is the same things they are expecting to lose. In humans, the thing they are unwilling to share could be a secret, and the thing they are afraid of losing could be a connection (a friendship, a marriage, a fight).
Trust, then, is the belief that sharing something will not result in its loss. Trusting behavior results from the belief that sharing something (a toy, food, a secret) will not result in a loss (of toys, food, or connections).
A dog who lets no one near their food is resource guarding. So is the human who leaves out the fact that they have kids or are divorced on their Tinder profile. Only once trust has been built (either systematically or organically) can the food or facts be shared.
To work or not to work on resource guarding
If I had planned to keep Puzzle, I would have prioritized resource guarding and systematically worked on it. Since I was not going to keep her, I didn’t worry about it, and worked on other behaviors I wanted to video instead. The fascinating thing: the resource guarding completely disappeared all by itself. Except for the two instances on days #1 or #2, there was no more guarding – ever. Puzzle’s confidence around and trust in Game grew (anthropomorphizing again, I know). In the video below – which is from the last full day she stayed with us – Game steals her tennis ball, and it’s all good anyways. (I’m not saying you shouldn’t work on resource guarding with your own puppy. You absolutely should! I’m just sharing the Puzzle Week story.) After a week with Game and I, Puzzle had become a relaxed house dog who was able to roll around the floor, mostly peed outside, slept through the night, and shared toys with Game.
Resource guarding in free-roaming dogs
Maybe a slight tendency to guard is a selective advantage for free-roaming dogs such as Puzzle and her parents. I’m saying this because I’ve seen it in several free-roamers-turned-pets-as-adults I’ve worked with as a trainer in Guatemala, and because I’ve seen it in free-roamers I’ve observed in the streets. Not in all of them – but definitely in a larger percentage than I’d expect to see in the pet dog population.
Here’s an example of an adolescent Husky mix displaying resource guarding behavior over food:
Wheee, that was a novel! Two more Puzzle posts to come (unless I think of more). Until then: happy training, y’all!
For more dog training tips and videos, join Chrissi’s April class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy: Out and About. Registration is open now, and class starts on April 1st. We’re sold out at the Gold level, but there are still Silver and Bronze spots available! Come join us – it’s going to be fun!