Multi-dog household conflicts and resource guarding

Jamie Flanders CDBC

When you live with more than one dog there is always a possibility of conflicts arising. More often than not the conflict is over resources. Resources such as, toys, space, attention from you, access to furniture, food, bones and access to important areas like the dog door. Much of the time dogs can work these conflicts out without harming each other by using body language to communicate their feelings.

Resource guarding is not something that you can get rid of, it is a hard-wired behavior in living things. Protecting valued resources is necessary for survival.

When trying to solve conflicts over resources the goal is not to teach your dogs that they don’t have to guard the things they value, your goal is to build skills to control the movement of your group of dogs and condition your guarders to feel less threatened when other dogs (or other animals including humans) come near.

For example, you will never not feel the need to lock your doors, but you have learned that you do not need to panic and pull out a rifle for every person that approaches your home.

Your dogs may always feel the need to guard the things they value, but they will learn that they do not need to pull out their teeth and fight everyone that approaches.

This only works if your other dogs truly are not threatening, so building skills to control the movements of all your dogs and focusing on the group, not just the guarder, is very important.


The skills you need to build in yourself:


·       Become aware of body language – A lot of the communication dogs use to guard will go unnoticed by us because it’s subtle such as, becoming still, hard staring, blocking entry ways, or a slight lift of the lip to expose the canine teeth. It’s the escalation of these signals that catches our eye, the snarling, growling, air snapping, and fighting. You will need to notice the subtle signals and intervene at that time, you do not want to wait until the dogs begin to escalate. Once there is escalation the situation becomes harder to control.   


·       Resist the urge to try to establish an artificial pecking order – Resource guarding is the one area in living with a dog where the term dominance is used correctly. Dominance is a relationship. Who ever has priority access to the resource at that time is dominant over the others regarding that resource. Dominance is fluid, that same dog who dominated the food bowl may not care at all about the couch and will allow the other dogs to get on it without issue. This is not something you can solve by trying to control whose top dog and who isn’t. It doesn’t matter what your status is in life, King or peasant, you value what you value.


·       Resist the urge to punish – Seeing your pets fight is an emotional event. Getting angry and punishing is not going to solve the problem and may aid in making it worse. There is a fundamental relationship issue at play, if you try punishment you run the risk of making your other dog the predictor of punishment to your guarder. You do not want to make any of the dogs more threatening to each other than they already are.


·       Embrace management solutions – Any good behavior modification plan will include management solutions. Management helps to avoid allowing your dogs to rehearse the unwanted behaviors while you’re working on the training plan. Management solutions come in many forms like physical barriers, rearranging routines, crating and rotating, or even boarding one of your dogs while you build the necessary skills in the guarder. Sometimes the management solutions are permanent, sometimes they are temporary, and most of the time they are inconvenient.


Every time your dog rehearses the unwanted behavior it becomes more and more ingrained and harder and harder to solve. No matter how hard you work on your behavior modification and training you will not make any progress if you haven’t made it impossible for your dogs to rehearse the unwanted behavior.  


The skills you need to build in your dog: Keep in mind that once your dog is over-threshold all trained behavior breaks down. Emotional behavior trumps learned behavior! This is why counter-conditioning is a very important piece of behavior modification. Counter-conditioning addresses the emotions.


·       Name recognition – Name recognition is one way in which you can get your dog’s attention on you. After you have your dog’s attention you need to provide more communication by choosing any of the other skills discussed below. Each of your dogs should respond to their own name and not respond to each other’s name. You would use name recognition to interrupt your dogs at the moment you see the subtle guarding body language.


·       Eye contact – Eye contact is another way in which you can get your dog’s attention. It differs from name recognition in that it can be trained to be sustained eye contact around distractions. You would use it to interrupt your dogs at the moment you see the subtle guarding body language.


·       Recall – The goal with a strong recall is to be able to bring your dog close to you. When you see the subtle guarding body language you can either call the guarder to you or call the other dog away from the guarder. Once you have the dog with you you should redirect them to go somewhere else or focus on something of their own.


·       Stay at a station– The goal of stationing is to direct your dog to a specific spot such as a crate or a mat and have them stay there until released. For example, If your dogs get into conflicts over food you can station each of them on their own mats or in their own crates where they will wait to be fed. Another example could be If you notice your guarder is getting agitated as your other dog approaches you can send the other dog away from the guarder to a specific station.


·       Muzzle acceptance -  If your dogs have a bite history it will be important to keep everyone including yourself safe while you are working on the training plan.


·       Confinement acceptance – Keeping the dogs apart from each other is a critical management tool in resolving multi-dog household conflicts. You can not be watching them at all times, you can not always work with all of them at the same time, and depending on your situation if they are not safe to be alone together they will need to tolerate being confined alone. You will want to work on confinement behind gates, pens, in other rooms, and outside if applicable.


So are you ready to learn how to implement all of this and get to work solving your own multi-dog household conflict? Contact me to set up your first consult!

Jamie Flanders