Five Things to Know about Dog Resource Guarding


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Many dogs hide, cower, freeze, stare, snarl, growl, snap or bite when they are guarding something. For the purposes of this blog post we will call that resource guarding, dogs who claim possession and guard a prized object, place, food related item, or food itself.

Resource guarding is normal dog behaviorThis fact surprises a lot of people. We have a romanticized view of dogs including the idea that some are good and some are evil. Ascribing this kind of moral code is a disservice to them and to ourselves. They are animals, as are we. Animals protect valuable resources, as do we. Wanting to keep our stuff is hardwired into us. Yes, we can share. But, you might also have a few things to say to a random dude at a restaurant who pops one of your french fries in his mouth and walks off.

Normal does not mean acceptable. Some dogs do take it too far. I agree. Who among us really wants our dog’s scrap of stinky frayed fabric that used to be a stuffed toy? It doesn’t make sense that he bit Aunt Sally when she reached to pet him while he rested his head on that disgusting thing. Some dogs (and humans) can get weird about their prized places and things. It seems a bit out-of-context, a bit too much.

It can be dangerous. Dogs who guard a lot of things, including random stuff they find, can be hard to predict. Is he guarding that leaf, that remote control, his poop? It can get especially dangerous if the dog bites to protect his vast and changing collection of valued things. One mistake can turn bloody.

Dominance and conflict-based training can make it worse. From the dog’s point of view resource guarding is about a perceived conflict. He’s already gearing up for a fight. Training methods focused on dominance are conflict-based. This outdated training approach frames every interaction with our dog as a competition with a winner and a loser. We end up proving to our dog that his already-inflated sense of danger is in fact justified. That sock is very valuable. This is a challenge. Violence is possible if not inevitable. Every time we approach resource guarding from this skewed  perspective we risk the dog escalating his response. We actually make the resource guarding and the intensity of our dog’s behavior worse.

There is hope. We humans have already won the evolutionary race. We have nothing to prove to our dogs other than this: I can help you. This is good news for dogs and for humans. We now have smart, simple, and effective aggressive dog training techniques for quelling resource guarding in dogs. These reinforcement-based methods work and (I promise) do not jeopardize our position as the dominant species on the planet. You can reach out to me or a similarly credentialed dog behavior consultant for help. Or, contact a veterinary behaviorist.

Bottom line: Resource guarding is normal but it is not okay. There is hope.  You can have a long and enjoyable relationship with your dog.

Michael Baugh specializes in aggressive dog training in Houston TX.

Can You Teach a Dog to be Afraid?


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA 

It turns out people rarely ask. Instead, they just assume that if we comfort a fearful dog that we must be reinforcing fear. They grow even more concerned if we use food. The answer to the unasked question is layered and a bit technical. I usually don’t go into detail. I just reassure my fearful client that we are not, in fact, reinforcing or rewarding their dog’s fear.

The truth is we can teach fear, but not in the way most people are worried about. The process is called associative learning, sometimes called classical conditioning or (more commonly) Pavlovian conditioning. Don’t go to sleep. It’s pretty interesting stuff. When I was much younger I taught my dog to stay out of the basement. When she was a puppy, the first time she peered down the basement steps I dropped a book and it made a loud bang on the hardwood floor. She startled and ran away from the door, never to return again. Ever. Seriously, she never went into the basement. I associated the open basement door with a loud and startling noise. The open door was forever frightening enough that she never approached it again. I taught her to be afraid of it.

Some trainers teach dogs to fear the beep on a shock collar. The dog only has to get shocked once after the beep for it to work. It’s a learned fear. Even a minor car crash can teach dogs to be afraid of the car forever. Car sickness can do that too. I once worked with a dog who was terrified of the garbage truck. At first she learned to fear the sound of the truck in the distance. Before too long she had learned to fear Wednesday mornings (garbage day). Benign things, a beep, a car ride, or a day of the week, become frightening because of the terror they once predicted predict.

John Watson became both renown and notorious when, building on Pavlov’s findings, he conducted the infamous Little Albert experiment. He taught a 9-month old baby to fear soft furry animals by associating them with a loud startling noise. The child ended up having a phobia of rats, bunnies, even dogs. Ethical restrictions would prohibit this type of research today. Still, governments used this part of behavior science to elicit extreme fear responses associated with otherwise unremarkable words, gestures, or environmental triggers. They did this by associating those things with torture including beatings, shock, sleep deprivation, drugs, and hypnosis.  It’s a dark and not-so-distant part of our history and an interesting revelation of how emotions work.

Yes, fear can be learned. Lot’s of dogs have learned to be afraid of people, places, and situations. But, using food never taught a dog to be afraid. The function of fearful behavior is to escape something scary. It’s not to earn a bit of cheese. Maybe this example will help.

What if I gave my dog some cheese for looking at a man she was afraid of. This guy is cool; he’s just sitting there. But, what if my hypothetical dog has had a hard time with men in the past? What if now they are all pretty much suspect? So, she looks at this guy with her ears back and tail tucked (obviously afraid). Is offering the cheese going to make her more fearful of men in the future (because that is the definition of reinforcement). The short answer is no. Let’s break this down.

  • My dog refuses the food. This is a typical behavior when dogs are very afraid of something. The food does not register. In this case the food has no impact on future behavior or emotions. My dog remains roughly as afraid of the man as she was before.
  • My dog doesn’t get a chance to take food because the man gets up, talks to her, and reaches to pet her. In this case, her possible curiosity is met with the exact thing she feared the most. Her fear would be maintained or made worse.
  • My dog takes the food. Better yet, I present a conditioned marker (like a click or the word “yes”) when she looks. She then looks back at me and takes the food. I’ve just reinforced looking at the man and then looking away. I’ve also associated the sight of a man with food (not a startling or painful outcome). I now have the beginning of a new behavior pattern: See man; Look at him; Then look to me. I also have the beginning of some new associative learning (Seeing a man predicts food from me). In this case fear is actually reduced.

Plot twist. We need to get the order of events correct. If we present the food first and bribe the dog to approach the man, the dog may play along. She may even take the food. But if she gets too close and the man scares her our whole plan falls apart. Food + man + startle = Fear. Before long our dog will grow suspect of the food itself, and rightly so. Food in that context will elicit a fear response (likely retreat and avoidance). Dog guardians often mistake this as the dog not being interested in food or simply being stubborn. Not so. We accidentally taught her that food in this case is not a predictor of good things to come. It’s a trick.

Bottom line: Fear can be learned. In fact we remember fearful events for a very long time. Seemingly harmless triggers can get hooked into fear. Only unpleasant outcomes (think scary or painful) reinforce fear. Food can become one of those harmless triggers that get hooked into fear if we use it incorrectly (as a bribe or a lure). Food, though does not reinforce fear. It reinforces behavior. When used well food can help quell fear. So too can a kind voice, a gentle touch, a little space, and some time.

Michael Baugh is a dog behavior expert in Houston, TX. He specializes in fearful and aggressive dog training.

Positive Reinforcement and Aggressive Dog Training



Most folks just want their aggressive dog to stop. Stop barking. Stop lunging and charging at people. Stop biting. They want that most of all, for the biting to stop. I get it.

But, here’s the deal. When we think in terms of stopping a behavior our mind tends to shift into confrontation mode. We want to suppress and block our dog’s behavior. Worse yet, we get sucked into ideas of dominating our dog and devices to control our dog. At first we may feel like we’re making progress. Punishment tends to reinforce the punisher in the short-term. The trouble is punishment-based dog training and even balanced dog training almost always has side effects. (see Coercion and Its Fallout). In other words, it might feel good to us, but it’s not. Punishment training is flawed, deeply flawed.

Okay, then. How do we make aggressive behavior stop without confronting, suppressing, or dominating? Here’s what I do. Instead of focusing on behavior-stop, I suggest we focus on behavior-change. We set our dog up to succeed rather than lash out. We decide what we want our dogs to do instead of bark, lunge, and bite.  And, maybe most importantly, we help our dog feel differently about his world and the people (and other animals) in it. When we change our focus in this way, we naturally shift from confrontation to collaboration. We start working with our dog rather than working on him. That shift leads us away from punishment and squarely toward positive reinforcement dog training.

Set your dog up to succeed. Dogs who behave aggressively are under pressure. They are emotional. The barking, lunging, and biting is about making that person or other animal go away or stop. See the irony? They are using violence or the threat of violence to make something stop, and it’s not working long-term. It’s up to us to help our dogs in these situations by giving them a break. Make the scene a bit more suited for learning. Often this means training with the person or other animal farther away. Sometimes we start in a setting in which there are no stressors at all. Regardless, create an environment where your dog can get it right over and over. When it’s time we will raise the challenge level gradually, and put his new skills to the test.

Teach this instead of that. Here’s an example of how we train a new behavior to replace an old (aggressive) behavior pattern. Imagine a dog who barks at people who ring the doorbell. A lot of us can relate to this one. The doorbell is the cue that starts the whole thing. The dog charges the door, barks, and gets all worked up. We can actually change the meaning of the doorbell and make it a cue, let’s say, to run to another room where he can wait behind a baby gate. Positive reinforcement in this case would include happy talk from the human (praise) and food – probably a lot of food over time – the good stuff (think: chicken). We’d start easy, when no one is really at the door. Maybe we’d even start by just leading him to the room over and over. Then we’d add the doorbell or a doorbell sound effect on our smartphone. Over time we’d progress to the real deal, reinforcing the new behavior pattern generously every time.

Teach new emotions. Because we are using happy talk, food, and movement (going to the other room) we are actually influencing our dog’s emotions. Specifically, we are affecting a change in how he feels about the doorbell. Think about it. If the doorbell results in a happy human feeding chicken over and over and over again, then that doorbell is going to become pretty good news for the dog. He will know what to do: run to the room. And, he will also be happy about it. Imagine how your dog acts when you take out the leash. It’s the same thing. We trainers call this a conditioned emotional response.

(The flip side of this phenomenon is a nightmare. The dog hears the doorbell and gets a shock on his shock collar (for barking) over and over and over again. In a rather short time that dog’s behavior could actually devolve as the doorbell becomes a predictor of pain, an enemy).

Here’s the win-win of positive reinforcement dog training when it comes to aggressive behavior. The aggression does stop. That offensive behavior pattern gets replaced with one that is calmer and functionally better for the dog and the people involved. More importantly, we are addressing the underlying emotions that fuel the aggressive behavior. Our dog learns to relax a bit around the thing that was scaring him or making him angry. Over time this can lead to what we call behavioral flexibility, the ability to take on other experiences with less rigidity. We get a dog who can go with the flow a bit more.

I think that’s something we can all wish for, a bit more flexibility, not just for our dogs but for ourselves and each other.


Michael Baugh specializes in aggressive dog training. He lives in Houston, TX where he works daily on his own behavioral flexibility.