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Building Trust & Giving Space

by Bailey Coldwell

We’ve talked about puppy excitement, leading to puppy biting. This is when puppies want our attention, but they don’t quite know how to properly go about it. Sometimes, however, dogs will bite and growl because they don’t want our attention. Instead, they want us to get away from them. They need space. How do we handle this?

There have been different viewpoints on this throughout the years. There have been beliefs that dogs are trying to be dominant towards us and that we need to show them that we are the alpha dog. As we broaden our education relating to dogs, we have found that this is actually the opposite of what we want to do when managing these situations. Instead of thinking that these dogs are trying to be dominant or aggressive, we want to switch our perspective to see that they are acting out of fear and uncertainty. These dogs have low confidence and we want to help them feel safer.

We often see snapping behaviors when dogs are resource guarding items. This is when they become protective of high value rewards like bully sticks, meals, and forbidden items like socks and shoes. Our dogs find these items valuable and are scared that us approaching them will result in their special item being taken from them.

When you think about it, we as humans also will resource guard or be protective of our belongings. If someone is trying to take your money, your phone, or your late grandmother’s wedding ring, you are likely going to have a reaction. You won’t let someone just take these items from you. The more that someone tries to steal something from you, the more you are going to be uncomfortable and have more of an intense reaction.

It was long thought that the best way to prevent resource guarding was to practice activities like playing with our dog’s food bowl and taking their belongings from them. We tend to see that these techniques actually increase resource guarding. If we are always taking our dog’s items, they see us approach and start to expect us to take something. They might learn to tolerate this with lower value items. But what happens when the dog has an item that they find valuable? An item that they really love? An item they don’t want to give away? They are more likely to react negatively, out of fear that the item is going to be taken from them. The dog could potentially learn to tolerate YOU taking the item. But if someone they don’t know approaches them (like a guest or child) they will start to assume that this new person is also going to take their items from them. This can lead to an increased likelihood of snapping at other people.

So what should we do instead? We should help them learn that us approaching is an amazing thing. When our dogs are eating, chewing on toys, or even just relaxing, work on rewarding them. Toss them yummy things, talk to them happily, give toys to them. Ask them for a “drop it” (sometimes) when they have their toys, give them a reward, then welcome them to keep playing with their toy again. They are now learning that dropping items is great.

When we bring a dog home, we often assume that they always want to be hugged, touched, and picked up. Us as people don’t always want contact with others, dogs can be the same way. Therefore, we want to learn to listen to our dogs when it comes to contact. I like to have a “5 second rule”, especially with kids, when it comes to touching dogs. If we are making contact with our dogs, do so for no more than 5 seconds and then stop. See if the puppy is actively telling us that they want to continue being pet. Does the puppy happily move towards our hand again? Is the puppy wiggly and trying to seek attention? If the puppy isn’t making it clear that they want continued contact, it is best to keep our hand removed from the puppy until they are ready to be pet again.

We also want to pay attention to where our dogs like to be pet. For example, my dog is okay with her head being pet. But she would MUCH rather be scratched on the chest or the back. So when I am using touch as a form of reward or bonding with my dog, I don’t tend to go for her head. I pet her in places that I know she loves.

There are, of course, occasions where it is important for our dog’s mouths to be touched. The veterinarian will have to examine their teeth, the groomer will have to groom the fur on their face, and we might need to touch their mouths if our dog has something dangerous. For more information on how to make this positive, check out our Cooperative Care Course:

We also want to make sure and be aware of subtle dog body language. All too often, we only notice when a dog growls or bites. Remember, dogs speak a different language than us. We often don’t notice their subtle signs that they are uncomfortable. Dogs then feel they need “to yell” after not being understood when they “whisper”. “Yelling” tends to be growling and biting. “Whispering” behaviors can include increased chewing pace, side-eying, stiff body language, avoiding eye contact, and simply not acting happy to see us. If we listen to our dogs, we can acknowledge and give space when they politely tell us they need it, before it leads to snapping.

Be mindful of the fact that dogs might bite or growl because part of their bodies are in pain. For example, maybe we are hiking and our dog breaks their leg. They are going to be in a lot of pain and might bite us if we are attempting to help them. Or they might get quilled by a porcupine and then snap as we are trying to remove the quills. These are examples of why it is useful to positively muzzle train our dogs. All dogs have the potential to bite. Training a positive association to the muzzle, and carrying it with us, can be beneficial in preventing dog bites. Muzzled dogs are not bad dogs. Muzzled dogs are signs of a thoughtful owner who is trying to keep everyone safe. For more information on muzzle training, check out our Intermediate Training Program, Lesson 3.8, Resource Guarding and Growling.

Overall, we want our dogs to trust us. We want them to learn that being near us is filled with good experiences and that they don’t need to be scared or bite for us to respond to them. If you are currently experiencing biting due to dogs needing space, we would love to chat with you via a one on one call or video session:

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Thanks - this is really helpful!

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