Puppy lessons in parenting – resource guarding

It’s been a while since I updated you about our little chew monster (aka kea-puppy, shark mouth, demon dog, and Zulu) so here’s a puppy post.

We had a “clueless parents faced with a defiant toddler” moment this week. Zulu is, on the whole, a sweet and friendly dog. He adores people and when we walk him he looks up at the passerbys, wagging his little tail, clearly curious as to why they’re not stopping to shower him with affection and attention. He takes himself off to the toilet outside. He doesn’t chew on the furniture, our shoes, or destroy our trash can. We must admit that he is, overall, an excellent puppy.


Two things, really. First, he doesn’t chew on the furniture, but he still loves chewing on us. The minute we sit on the floor he’ll climb (or, more frequently, leap) into our laps then immediately start chomping on our hands and arms. As he is now significantly bigger and stronger than he was when we bought him home this can really hurt. We’ve tried all sorts of things, but so far nothing’s worked except coming to love-fests armed with a chew toy to substitute for our more delicate fingers.

Incidentally, the vet we found here suggested we cut off or file down his canines to render this puppy biting less painful – apparently that’s standard practice here. Puppy lovers never fear, that’s one practice we won’t be adopting.

The second issue is potentially more serious.

On Saturday our neighbor bought over a treat for him – a big, meaty, raw, bone.

How did Zulu show his thanks for this unexpected bounty? By jumping up, ripping the gift out of her hands (plastic bag that it was still wrapped in and all) then scurrying off with his prize.

When Mike went to unwrap it for him he was rewarded with a growl. A serious, “I’m not messing around here” growl. And it was when I heard this and said we should take the bone away for a little while to show him who was boss that the trouble really started. When we went near him with his new bone our sweet, lovable, affectionate puppy was transformed into a snarling, growling, hellion who did his best to bite us – really bite us – and twice succeeded.

I did some research online while Mike engaged in a battle of wills with Zulu over the bone and was deluged with contradictory advice regarding how to deal with this behaviour.

Some sites said that a puppy who growls over his bone is confused about his place in the pack and is trying to dominate us. We should, these sites said, pin him to the floor, smack him for being aggressive with us, and take away his treat.

Some sites said that he wasn’t trying to dominate us at all, merely instinctively guarding something he thought was very valuable. Punishing him harshly for resource guarding, these sites said, was only likely to make him guard more fiercely and earlier in the future as he’ll have learned that we (unpredictable owners that we are) tend to swoop in and take away his treats with no warning. Instead of punishing him this time we should work on gradually teaching him to let us give and take away at will less valuable items – toys, smaller treats, etc – and work up to things like raw bones.

“What do you think?” Mike asked me, washing the blood off his hands – the fruit of his latest “I can take your bone away because I am your pack master” foray.

“I don’t know,” I sighed, watching our recalcitrant puppy, who was crouched under the stairs keeping surly eyes on us even while he chewed away furiously.

“I guess this is like parenting,” Mike said. “People tell you different things and sometimes they conflict and in the end you just have to trust your instincts.”

“What do your instincts say?” I asked.

“Smack him,” Mike said. “Smack him hard for trying to bite us, and keep taking it away until he learns.”

“I don’t know,” I said doubtfully. “I was that puppy that smacking never did any good for. It never made me sorry that I’d done something, it just made me sorry that I got caught. And it made me angry.”

“Yeah.” This time Mike sighed. “I bet you were that puppy.”

So, puppy lovers out there, any thoughts on this? I think we have a strategy in place we both feel good about now but I’m curious about your experiences with your dogs guarding their food. Oh, and any advice on how to stop Zulu from chasing chickens that are unwise enough to wander onto this property also welcome.

Until next time, here’s a look at Zulu in action the other day…

12 responses to “Puppy lessons in parenting – resource guarding

  1. Hi,
    I can totally relate! Our puppy is coming up to his first birthday…and we’ve experienced many of the same issues you are (though cats not chickens!).

    The last straw for us was our adorable puppy deciding that joining us for coffee at our BBQ table was a great idea. We called in a “mobile dog trainer” who uses the Dog Whisperer method. This training technique worked for our dog, and more importantly, for us his owners! But regardless of whatever method you go with, ‘Dog Whisperer’ said to be consistent so the dog knows what to expect.

    On another note, a random man on the dog beach told us his method for stopping his dogs chasing chickens…put the puppy and a chicken in a sack and swing it around a bit. The puppy thinks its been beaten up by the chicken and leaves them alone…don’t know that I’d be willing to try it, but thought it was hilarious to imagine!

    Good luck with Zulu…
    Julie Moore

    • I am still laughing out loud at the image of Zulu and some of these neighborhood chickens in a sack. I actually don’t think the chickens would come out the worst for it – I really don’t know what he’d do if he caught one – I think he just wants to play with them. He’s fascinated by cats, but when we let him (on a leash) stop and sniff a cat that was unwise enough to face him down the other day (I did it thinking he’d get scratched and that would teach him to leave them alone) he just sniffed it gently, wagging his tail all the while. The cat stood there like a statue until we dragged him away.

      On a less amusing note – your puppy is eight months older than ours, which, sigh, means we have quite a ways to go before we’re officially out of puppy zone.

  2. Former trainer and writer about dogs here.

    In the pack, possession is 9/10 of the law. Guarding is *normal* dog behavior; it just isn’t acceptable with humans. Dogs don’t know that though.

    You can teach your dog to trade. Start with low-value things. Give him higher value things in return. As often as possible, also give back the thing you took. Gradually work up to trading for higher value things. You have to teach him that this weird, unnatural sharing behavior is Good For Dogs. There’s an excellent booklet called “Mine!” by Jean Donalson which breaks the process out into tiny steps.

    In the meantime, you have two choices with bones — which should be raw, by the way, not cooked/smoked. Either give them to him in a place where he can feel secure that you won’t take them so he can’t practice guarding OR make them so plentiful that there’s no reason to guard them. I am willing to leave bones that have been chewed “dry” down in large numbers, but not the gooey raw ones.

    • Ah, Melissa, I hoped you’d chime in. You’d input pretty much lines up with what we’ve decided to do, so that’s super helpful. Thanks for the resource recommendations too. Your dogs, by the way, look adorable playing in the snow!!!

  3. I have trained my dogs to not to this instinctual behaviour the following way and offer it for consideration:

    As pups I put them on the lead before I put down any food and teach them to ‘leave it’, simply controlling them with the lead until they learn they must wait till I say ‘take it’. When I do say ‘take it’ my other hand stays on either the bowl or bone so they become used to the fact and even when I say take it I keep the lead taut to slow their grab instinct. I also would slowly move my hand from bone to pat their head as they eat so they learn I’m no threat to their food.

    It takes a couple of weeks for them to totally get that they have to wait then you can ask them to do it without the necessity of the lead. And I continue thereafter to let my hand linger with our dogs when I feed them so they don’t go back to instinct.
    Its always worked for me so hope its of help

    • Thank you Leesa! Zulu let me touch him the other night while he was eating (normal puppy kibble, not the doggy bonanza of bones) without growling, so we’re making progress. I’ll keep leave it and take it in mind.

  4. I don’t know anything about puppies but it seems to me that if Zulu chases the chickens enough, word will spread within the chicken community and they’ll stop coming in the yard 🙂

    • Yes, well, we do hope so! In a fit of insanity (and temporarily forgetting about our puppy) I suggested that we get some chickens of our own the other day. Mike just looked at me.

  5. Yikes! Puppies and taking away food is risky business….. So is taking your 8 month-old-eating-machine’s graham cracker from him. Not to be tried without appropriate ear protection! :). Oh and is that a pool/jacuzzi in the courtyard?!? I swear you must not be roughing it! :p jk

    • Ha ha, babies and graham crackers. At least they can’t bite you! And, no, in some ways we are not roughing it at all in our three bedroom house, I must admit. That IS a little pool in the courtyard – it belongs to the guesthouse in front of our house (the building Zulu’s pictured against). They fill it when they’re in town – which is about three months of the year – the cold months, unfortunately! I’m wearing socks and a sweater today, I can’t get over this weather, and how hot I know it’ll be again soon!

  6. Dozer thinks any silly chicken who strays into the yard deserves to be chased! I sent an email regarding some ideas for the other issues. 🙂 I love puppy posts! Zulu is a cutie!

    • Thanks for the letter! Wow, Mike and I have some work to do. I can vouch that it worked for Dozer though so we’ll give it a go. Mike would still trade Zulu for Dozer, he said so the other day :).

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