Updated: Oct 6, 2020
By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
Gilgamesh had an old friend over to the home for a playdate -- a 2 year old miniature Australian Shepherd. They have known each other since they were puppies, although it had been a while since they had seen each other. They played so nicely, responding to each other's body language for breaks and space at times. They snuggled on the sofa with my husband, Nic. His friend repeatedly climbed across Nic's lap and chest, and Gilgamesh appeared unconcerned. These pleasant interactions went on for hours, until I decided to sit on the outdoor patio sofa between them. His friend put a paw on my lap to lean forward and lick my face. Gilgamesh's lips curled upward. I noticed and immediately stood up and moved away, but Gilgamesh lunged forward and growled at his friend.
Resource guarding/owner-guarding behavior? This is nothing unusual for a Kooikerhondje, although it is something we work to eliminate. Our ten year old female Kooiker, Bones, has guarded me in a similar fashion (but not Nic) from approaching dogs in very very few instances over the years. While a rare behavior in her repertoire, it is something that we have worked on with her because any aggression like this is always concerning. Even with behavior modification, we keep this in mind whenever we meet other dogs in social situations because when we let our guard down the behavior may resurface.
Even knowing this, my heart still sank when this incident happened. It was a bit of a surprise to us since we had never seen this behavior from Gilgamesh toward non-household dogs. Given the pandemic, Gilgamesh has had fewer interactions with other dogs approaching me, he has spent significantly more time with me than pre-pandemic, and both of these are likely huge contributing factors. He used to be a pupil in my group training classes, which have been suspended for six months now due to COVID-19. His exposure to other dogs and me working with those dogs was very important to his socialization as a Kooikerhondje. He previously was excellent in the group class environment and with other dogs approaching me in the past. We now know what we have been lacking recently and have a plan for what we need to do to address this with behavior modification, more social opportunities, and management.
Has your dog been digging in the garden or on your sofa? Chasing cars? Barking at everyone walking by outside the home? One of the most important things you can do when beginning the process to select the right dog for your household is to research breeds of interest and their original purposes. This includes if you are looking at mixed-breed shelter dogs, who also carry breed specific motor patterns from any predominant breeds in their mix. Then, if going through a breeder, research the behavior of the parents and grandparents of any potential puppies, since behaviors can vary widely within a breed. You may find more of these behaviors in certain breed lines that are still used for work, and you may also find problematic temperaments that run in particular lines. Dogs in our homes today are frequently sourced from sporting, terrier, guarding, and herding breeds that were bred to perform behavior patterns that can clash with our lifestyles. These specific behavior patterns have been selected for and bred over generations, so it is no wonder that our dogs perform them today, despite being in very different environments. It is not the dog's fault!
But where is the line drawn? When do these behaviors become a behavior problem? And what do we do?
Kooikerhondjes were selectively bred to be highly territorial and predatory. Their job was to assist the owner by working in the eendenkoi (a canal) to lure ducks into traps, guard the home and property, alert to intruders, and kill vermin. They have strong resource-guarding tendencies as a result. Our three Kooikers do not generally resource guard from us or from eachother unless a new stressor is introduced. To Gilgamesh, this dog he had not seen in a while was climbing into my lap and that was a huge stressor. The guarding behavior extended to guarding me from particular dogs. This should not be too surprisingly since owners are generally the most valuable resource for their dogs. Kooikers tend to be wary of new dogs and strangers, and as such, they have very large personal bubbles. They may snark, lunge, or growl if that personal bubble is invaded, whereas a dog of another breed may be much more forgiving and easy-going when meeting a pushy dog. The Kooiker does not immediately trust because he was bred not to do so. They certainly are not Golden Retrievers, so we cannot expect the same behavior. Seeing the world through the lens of how/why they were bred can help to understand their behavior, and create better solutions.
We can frequently create solutions that allow them to practice these motor patterns in ways that are less complicating to our lifestyles. For example, our Kooikers were bred to patrol the property and alert to intruders. We allow them to bark for 2 seconds when they hear a noise or person outside the front door, and then they recall to me for praise and a reward. Refusing to allow them to bark is an unreasonable expectation given what they are bred to do. They can investigate and show interest in what is happening on the other side of the property wall, but then they are expected to look at me to check in with me if they are concerned. Non-stop barking is not allowed, but alerting to concerns absolutely is allowed. This is what they were bred to do, and working together as a team enhances our relationship. Like any dog behavior, we can get frustrated or annoyed at times when the behaviors are inconvenient. They are doing their job. If we do not like that job, we need to find a way to modify the job into one that works with those motor patterns and our lifestyle. We have to work with the dog that we have, and we cannot and should not attempt to change a dog into something he is not.
For me, the behavior becomes a problem when aggression is shown. We must find ways to help the dog find ways of handling situations without displaying aggression -- like what Gilgamesh did with his friend -- or avoid placing them in those situations. A behavior is also a problem if a dog is going to harm himself or others. It is a huge concern when dogs run into traffic chasing bicycles, attack people invited into the home, guard children from their playmates, or dogs who are so stressed barking at the fence line that they are redirecting aggression on anyone approaching them. These are examples of when a specifically bred behavior becomes problematic and a behavior consultation with a dog behavior consultant is in order. We can help you understand what is going on with your dog and find ways to modify behavior through training. This can also entail finding more desirable outlets for the unwanted behavior and managing situations while in the training process.
Whether or not your dog has behavior issues, stepping back to examine why your dog does what he does will help you deepen your relationship with your dog through better understanding.