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Sunday, September 21, 2014

One teachable skill can avoid resource guarding in dogs, but it can be tweaked for other situations

There is one scenario that presents itself regularly in my daily adventures with dogs, and it can vary anywhere between being benign, disgusting or downright dangerous: I need to retrieve an item from the animals's possession — their mouth, more precisely — and typically in fast order.

I could be on a walk with a charge and they discover a dead animal, a prescription pill enveloped in a yummy treat could inadvertently drops on the floor as I am preparing to dole it out to another pet in the family, or I might to need to get a prized chew toy away from a furry pal before they devour it whole.

Ideally, a pet has been taught to "leave it" — one of the most valuable skills that a dog can have in their repertoire in my opinion —but quite honestly, the item that they have in their mouth might be of really high value to them, they might not be as reliable as we would like in giving it up (especially if there is another dog close by).

In any case, grabbing the item might prove to be too gross or as it is most often, unsafe.

Instead, I make a "trade" with the dog: one high-value thing for another, usually a yummy edible treat, though it could be a coveted toy that they don't get often.

It goes without saying that every dog has their favorite edibles, so taking that into consideration and having them handy before proceeding is helpful. Is it a crunchy dog biscuit? A soft, meaty treat? A nibble of dried liver? A piece of cheese? Maybe it's a chunk of apple.

This teachable skill, which can also stave off the problem of resource guarding, can be practiced giving your pooch a toy or other object that she likes to play with. With the toy in her mouth, offer up a high-value treat and as she drops the toy to take the treat, use verbal marker, like “yes!” and feed her the treat. Then give her back the toy.

If she's on the fence about complying, use something that's higher in value and try that or you might consider scattering several treats on the floor.

As with any other new skill, practice often but make it fun.

Quite honestly most of my charges are not good at this skill, but I still employ this process in a modified form to get the job done. Does it teach the dog anything? No. But that's not my aim. It's just a Plan B and one that is geared to keep everyone safe. In fact, my Lab, Bruiser, was impossible to teach "trade" to and resource guarding was one issue that could never be successfully resolved with him, but this modified tactic worked well with him.

Sometimes you have to pick your battles.

That said, with my ever-present pocket-full of high value treats, I'm always ready to handle a scenario that might avail itself and quickly so.

I stand in front of the dog, get their attention with a quick call of their name, show them the treat/treats (making sure they get a whiff of them as well) by waving them gently about while calmly but enthusiastically asking, "Would you like a treat?". At this point my furry friend will either stand still with said object in their mouth, pondering the decision. They might drop the item, at which point I feed them a couple of treats to keep their mouth busy, offering a verbal "good job!" as a distraction, both of which give me time to pick it up safely or allow us to move away from the dead something if we're on a walk.

If all else fails, tossing a couple of treats on the floor but away from their body can be convincing and with some dogs, a safer choice.

I often use the latter technique to distract overly-enthusiastic dogs who simply can't self-regulate when playing a game of fetch. Getting head-butted, clocked in the face accidentally or having my fingers nipped by a large breed dog is something I'd like to avoid, so getting them to drop the toy and moving away from me so that I can grab it will keep the fun going.

Though canines can be taught a multitude of skills in order to live harmoniously with their human counterparts and to keep them safe, we can at times use a process behind the skill to achieve a favorable outcome as well.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a regular contributor for The Ann Arbor News -- and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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