Guarded Prognosis

In favor of a case-by-case policy.


Pat Miller and I were discussing her article “On Guard” and laughing about the very expressive photos I have of my Chihuahua-mix, Tito, who used to resource-guard everything with the ferocity of a starving hyena. That’s him in the photo on page 20, snarling (and though you can’t hear it, crazily growling) to beat the band. The photo was taken a week after he came to live with me, four or so years ago. Today, Tito guards only meaty bones or canned food with that sort of intensity (so he doesn’t get them very often, and only when he’s safely isolated from other dogs and people). He’s a well-managed dog whose behavior had been successfully modified with the techniques Pat describes in her article, so we can laugh now at how demented the actually jolly little guy appeared.

I’m well aware that if Tito were a ward in almost many shelters today, he’d be dead in short order. That’s because many shelters use canned food when they assess whether a dog is a resource-guarder; this is a common and integral part of most shelter’s behavior evaluations, which will determine which dogs are “adoptable” and which dogs will be euthanized as “unadoptable.” If you give Tito a bowl full of canned food, and go poking at him with a fake hand, as if you were going to take it away before he’s done with it, Tito is going to come off as the canine equivalent of an axe murderer. Boom! Goodbye, Tito!

But Tito has a lot of other things going for him: Again, he’s a well-managed dog who doesn’t get careless access to canned food. He doesn’t live with children. He’s a small dog with great bite inhibition; even if he were to bite someone (and he’s bitten me before, when I was pulling a tick off of him), it doesn’t hurt.

It’s true that his expressions and behavior are dramatic – but it’s important to understand that his communication is not evil or driven by malice! It’s a normal, natural canine behavior to use dramatic expressions and sounds to guard things that are valuable to them, such as food, chewies, toys, and beds. Humans typically find these expressions and sounds objectionable and even threatening (even if, as in Tito’s case, there is no real danger), and will go to any lengths to dissuade most dogs from making them. It’s a shame, because in many cases (as in Tito’s case, again), many perfectly nice dogs are not given a chance to be placed in homes where the behavior can be managed and modified.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not for a second saying that all dogs who exhibit resource-guarding behavior should be given a chance to live in homes. I very recently witnessed the behavior assessment of a friendly, funny, gorgeous Rottweiler-mix at my local shelter, whose aggression over food and toys was chilling and potentially quite dangerous, due to her size and the intensity of the behavior. Because I had liked the dog so much before I got a chance to see her guard toys (with fast-increasing stiffness and volume) and then canned food (with truly chilling ferocity), I was disturbed for weeks by witnessing her guarding behavior and understanding it meant she was going to be euthanized. But neither would I want her placed in anyone‘s home; she was truly dangerous. Taking this behavior on a case-by-case basis is important.