So many times, dog owners proudly proclaim that they “showed the dog who was boss” by taking an item away from the dog when the dog growled at them for coming too close. Knowing how dogs actually think, one would clearly see that this is a very dangerous approach! Dogs instinctively protect what they deem to be theirs, especially something of high value (bones, certain toys, something they should not have, such as tissues, etc..). Dogs come into this world with a survival instinct. They feel the need to guard and protect their food, young, etc.. It is the job of the owner to show them that having something taken away is a wonderful thing!
The scenario usually breaks down like this. A dog will be enjoying a bone, toy, or perhaps a stolen pencil and is thoroughly engaged in it. Owner approaches and the dog starts to lower himself, freezes, growls, and looks out of the corner of the eye (“whale eye or half-moon eye”). At this point, the owner will either walk away in which case, the dog has learned that growling works and will continue to do it or the owner grabs the item, takes it away while the dog is growling, snapping, or exhibiting other defensive behaviors. With the latter, the dog learns that next time, he will protect even more because his guarding didn’t work this time as the item was still taken away from him. So, both scenarios have not remedied the problem in any way. They have just served to aggravate the problem.
So, why is growling good? Growling is a warning and dogs that don’t growl at you, will simply bite you with no warning whatsoever. When a dog growls, he is, in so many words, stating, “I am very uncomfortable with what is happening right now. Back off.” This is not dominance. This is a dog that was never shown that having something removed is fun. Removing the item or ignoring the growling will not work, so what can be done? Well, to start, the dog must be shown that an approaching person reaching down to remove something means the treats start flowing. Next time, your dog is enjoying something that he enjoys, but doesn’t tend to protect, walk up, pick up the item, give him a piece of very high value food (chicken, cheese, etc..), then give him the item back. Repeat frequently. What the dog will start to see is that a person approaching and reaching down not only means that food flows, but he ALSO gets his toy back. What could be better?? Over time, the dog starts to learn that protecting his bone isn’t necessary because he wins twice-once with the food AND also getting his bone returned to him. This produces what is called a very positive CER (conditioned emotional response) or a “yippee!!!” to having something removed. Also, when the dog is eating, owners should walk up to the bowl and not remove it, but add something even better to it. Again, teaching a dog to fear something being taken away is counter-productive. Teaching them that an approach and reach makes their life better is what owners should be shooting for. Making sure a dog has a very strong “drop it” cue is also very important.
Owners should make sure that they never get into a struggle or conflict with their dog. The dog has much bigger teeth and will win. If the dog happens to get hold of something before they have made progress, get some high value food from an "emergency stash" and throw it in the opposite direction of the dog. In most cases, the dog will run to get the food and the owner can quickly remove the item without the dog even noticing. Practice as much as possible with items that your dog doesn't care to guard or protect so they can slowly build up the happy CER to the approach and removal of the item. This is very important to not rush through and not expect to be removing T-bone steak bones within a week of starting.
This process will serve to calm a dog on approaches and reaches and make them excited for what they could possibly be getting this time, instead of feeling they must protect what they have before it’s taken away. Show a dog that people touching their “stuff” is fun for them and they will be thrilled with this and it will make their life and the owner’s life much more relaxed!