Resource guarding. Territorial aggression. Stranger-directed aggression. Fear-based aggression. Separation anxiety. Reactivity.
These are classifications used to describe a specific behavior problem. Instead of saying a dog is aggressive, we might say that a dog is exhibiting stranger-directed aggression. This is much more specific and helps guide a professional toward the right questions needed to determine the right behavior modification plan.
While it can help dog owners narrow their search for helpful information, it can also lead to some dangerous assumptions. Take resource guarding, for example. Someone looking for help online might ask, "Does anyone have any tips for resource guarding?"
There will be no shortage of well-meaning people who jump in and share what worked with their dog, or provide generic training advice based on what they learned from a book or seminar.
However, resource guarding isn't a behavior. It is a classification. And it never looks the same in two dogs.
First, there's the resource. Food is a common resource for dogs to guard. After all, the animal in the wild that gives up its food too often is a dog that probably won't live long enough to make a contribution to the gene pool.
Okay, so, the dog guards food. But what food?
Is it any food, including dry kibble, or does it need to be higher-value, like a rawhide or a stolen slice of pizza? Or is it simply the empty bowl that promises future food?
Where is the food when the guarding starts? In his/her bowl? On the ground? Still in the bag?
Who does the dog guard from? Is it any person or animal? Is it only one person in the family? Is it only people outside the family? Is the person(s) or animal(s) capable of recognizing and reacting to subtle warning signs?
What is the behavior of the person or other animal when the guarding starts? Touching the food/bowl? Touching the dog? Walking past the food? Entering the room where the food is located?
Where is the location of the dog when the guarding begins? Is he/she in possession of the food/bowl? On the other side of the room?
What does the guarding behavior look like? Does the dog stiffen and growl? Does the dog growl then display their teeth? Does the dog stiffen and bite?
How much time elapses between the growl and bite?
How much damage does the bite do?
Does the dog have any condition or health issues that could be causing pain or affect their mobility?
What have you tried so far (which may have had a significant effect on his/her learning history)?
I could go on and on and on...
In working with resource guarding, I have seen countless combinations of these variables. And no dog gives the same level, type, or duration of warning. Some give no warning and go straight to bite. Some will grumble, growl, and snarl, and never escalate to biting.
So, you can see how problematic it would be if someone asking for advice listened to someone who said: "You need to stick your hand in his bowl so he gets used to it. That's what worked with my dog" (For the record, this is NEVER good advice and has backfired on many a dog owner).
The internet can be a wonderful research tool and I'm so glad for the opportunity it has given me to provide articles and webinars that help dog owners better understand their dogs' behavior and make informed choices about the methods and trainers they choose.
But when it comes to aggression, don't look for how-to advice. Because the people who are quick to offer it are unlikely to understand the complexities of behavior and could very easily steer you in the wrong direction.
Instead, ask for book, video and other recommendations that can help you work through questions like the ones above, which can then lead you to the right behavior plan for you and your dog.
There are no quick tips when it comes to problem behaviors, except to manage the dog's environment to prevent repeated practice of the behavior. Even then, what that management looks like will depend on your dog, the type and severity of the behavior, your home environment, and more.
Every dog is an individual. Twelve resource guarding dogs are twelve individual dogs exhibiting twelve different behavior problems.