the Jealous Dog

Why does a dog act posessive (jealous) about a favored person, threatening another dog or person who approaches ? Why does the posessed person so often misinterpret this as "protectiveness" ? What might one do to change the dog's behavior for the better ?

the Jealous Dog

dog resource guarding a favorite human being

by Pam Green, © 2009

One of the not uncommon behavior problems that arise between dog and owner is that of the dog who guards a favorite person against other dogs or other persons, threatening others when they approach. This behavior often becomes intrenched because of owner misinterpretation of the behavior as being "protective" , a misinterpretation that causes the owner to give approval and to reward the dog either subtly or overtly. This behavior when intrenched and exaggerated can become very dangerous to other humans. At the very least it is inconvenient and embarrassing if a married couple has to go to a motel every time they want to "make woopee" because the dog will not let one spouse into bed with the other.

I am going to focus mostly on the situation of a dog guarding a person against other humans, plus the special case of preventing guarding against an infant human. When the guarding is against other dogs, it's usually less of a problem because the other dog is likely to heed the warning and back off. Still it can be a situation you will want to remedy.

Creating the Problem

The initial misinterpretation that the dog is "protecting" the owner is likely to arise if it initially occurs when the owner is faced with the approach of someone she (or he, but it's more likely to be she) vaguely distrusts. (Or it could be just a person who strikes the dog as a bit weird, ie something the dog has not been previously acustomed to, and who the dog thus percieves as possibly a threat to itself.) The dog gives a grumble and the owner praises the dog or speaks soothingly to the dog (which to the dog is pleasant, thus rewarding). If not overt praise, the owner simply has a bit of inner glow that comes from feeling pleased with the dog, and that is reward enough for many dogs. Or the owner simply feels amused, which is likely if the dog is still a puppy and the owner thinks "oh how cute" while forgetting that the same behavior won't be cute when the dog is a large powerful adult. Believe me, it's hard to hide your emotions from a dog who is tuned into you. Once this behavior has been thus rewarded ("positively reinforced " in behaviorist lingo), further occurances become more probable in similar situations and also become more vigourous in expression. The range of situations may also tend to widen out unless there are discriminative criterion discernable to the dog as to what situations will yield a reward for the behavior and what situations will yield either nothing or a rebuke. Thus the dog beomes more and more likely to escalate from a grumble to a snarl or snap or lunge or an actual bite. Hello, bankrupcy court.

The favored person's spouse (partner, significant other) may become a target because the first few times the young dog tries a mild version of this "protection", both the "protected" person and the spouse may be amused by the behavior, again likely to unwittingly reward the dog for the behavior. If the dog normally sleeps on the bed of the partners, the element of territoriality about the bed may be added. Then one day the spouse is warned not to enter the bed and now suddenly the situation is not funny anymore. Motel 69 here we come.

Now anyone who doubts this sequence from the dog very mildly asserting itself against the approaching person or dog to the dog vigourously aggressing against the approaching person or dog, let me tell you to go out to a Schuzhund club or a Police K9 training facility and watch how dogs are started in the game or profession of controlled aggression against a human opponent. The "decoy", or "Bad Guy", approaches in a mildly annoying way to tease the dog into the very slightest show of assertion, such as merely shifting posure forwards and taller, and the instant that happens the handler praises the dog warmly and the decoy acts scared and runs away. Then the sequence is repeated, and likely the dog's response is just a tiny bit quicher and stronger. And again. The rate of progression varies with the individual dog (and with the skills of the handler and the decoy), but eventually the dog is happy to bite the decoy, who recieves the bite on a portion of anatomy well protected by padding. The difference between this sequence and that of the behavior problem of the inappropriately "protective" dog is that in the deliberate training of the Schutzhund or the Police K9 the handler also teaches the dog that ultimately the handler is in control of whether or not the dog is to bite and when the dog is to release the bite. Also the dog being prepared for Police work is being prepared to defend his handler against a genuine threat from a criminal who is genuinely trying to hurt the handler or the dog. The Schutzhund is being prepared for a well choreographed ballet that is rather ritualized and that most dogs regard as a game, where the cues to bite are both the ritualized behvior of the decoy and the permission cues of the handler.

Back to our companion dog who is on the way to becoming a serious behavior problem, a problem that may well result in a death sentance for the dog :

Solving the Problem : first get your ideas in order

The initial labeling of the dog's hostile behavior as "protective" has to be dispelled by a look at the reality of the situation . It is NOT protective because there is no actual threat nor the pretense of an actual threat. The other person or dog is behaving normally and innocuously, indeed usually has only the friendliest intentions towards the person the dog is "protecting".

So let's put the correct lable on this behavior. The correct lable is "posessive" or in behaviorist terms "resource guarding". The dog is resource guarding the person as if that person were a bone or a pig-ear. I have put the term "jealous" in the title of this article because that would be the everyday term that we'd readily recognize if it were a person exhibiting this behavior. "Jealous" is a concept that's easy to remember and a vivid description and it's a concept that we all understand. Also there is the connotation that jealousy is a harmful emotion and thus better to reduce or eliminate it.

I got into a bit of discussion with Dr Patricia McConnell, PhD, about the word "jealous". She was giving a seminar on emotions in dogs, as discussed so well in her excellent book "For the Love of A Dog, understanding emotion in you and your best friend." In discussing whether dogs can feel jealousy, she had defined "jealous" as "you've got it and I want it" or "you've got something I want and I don't like that", ie that someone else has something valuable to you that you want to have or that you'd like to take away from them. I said that that was really "coveting" (which we might all recall is one of the 7 Deadly Sins), and that to me "jealousy" was "I have it and I am afraid you will take it away from me" and "I've got it and I won't let you take it away from me or share it."
Now of course we both agreed that there is no question at all that dogs are very much aware of who has control of any valuable resource and that they have the feelings of wanting to keep a valued resource that they already have or to share or take a valued resource that someone else has that they don't have. Dogs know what they want and they try to get it or keep it.
With one another dogs often make various games such as "keep away" and "tug of war" that revolve around posession of a chosen toy, and they also play such games with humans, as indeed humans play such games with other humans. Played as a game, these resource-competition activities are healthy and enjoyable.
And as McConnell discusses in her marvelous book "The Other End of the Leash, why we do what we do around dogs", it's critical to understand that social rank and dominance hierarchy are totally about which individual has the right to "preferred access to scarce and valuable resources", ie the ability to claim posession of something that both of them regard as valuable and both regard as not being enough for both of them to have, eg such as a single toy, single bone, or the undivided attention of the human pack-leader.
When rank works the way it is supposed to work, the higher ranked individual initially takes posession and keeps it as long as desired without any challenge from the other and without a fight being needed. All that is needed is a certain "look" (hard-eyed stare, plus perhaps lip lift, and body posture) from the higher ranked dog to inform the lower ranked one that the higher ranked one is asserting his rights. I could call this the normal healthy form of "resource guarding". It's normal in being approprate to its context and in the appropriatenss of the forcefulness of expression. But like everything that has a normal form, resource guarding can also take place in an a way that is inappropriate in forcefulness or in relation to its context. So in when behaviorists discuss "resource guarding " as a problem behavior they are talking about something that might or might not be normal from the dog's viewpoint but that is inappropriate from the human viewpoint. And certainly there are dogs whose vehemence in resource guarding goes way way overboard in amount or who guard things that have no real value from a human point of view but are valued by this dog (eg kleenex would seem to me to be such an object) or guard things that are in such plentiful supply that guarding would seem to make no sense.

Back to our companion dog who is on the way to becoming a serious behavior problem, a problem that may well result in a death sentance for the dog :

Solving the Problem : a corrective protocol

Now we have the "Triangle" of the Jealous Dog , the person who is the Object of Jealousy (which I could also call the Possession if an object or Possessed Person if a person ; I suppose the Object could also be another dog, though a mother-bitch guarding a young puppy would be utterly normal ), and the Rival (adult person, infant, or another dog).

The original curative paradigm for prevention and cure of the dog being or becoming jealous of a new baby was published by Dr Benjamin Hart DVM more than 30 years ago. The basic protocol is to reverse the behavior that most people find natural. The natural behavior when you have a new baby is that when the baby is present, espcially being nursed or diaper-changed, the parent's attention is totally on the child and no attention is left over for the dog. The dog thus gets attention and petting , and other interactive pleasures only when baby is absent (especially napping). That natural behavior teaches the dog that having baby present is bad news. So the cure to to do just the opposite. The cure is to give the dog little or no attention when baby is absent and to shower the dog with kind words, attention, and other pleasures when baby is present. Of course that calls for real effort on the part of the parent. But you can keep containers of treats at the changing station and near where you sit to nurse the child, thus can toss treats to dog while doing these baby care activities. If you are seated, you can even pet the dog with an unshod foot. And of course you can talk to the dog while doing just about anything else. As the baby gets older and is offered pureed foods, the baby will make himeself attractive to the dog by dropping or flinging food to the floor. Most dogs at this point decide that the kid is an asset to the dog's life.

So basically the paradigm for any Triangle is for the Object to greatly reduce the attention and reward to the dog whenever the Rival is absent and to shower the dog with attention and pleasures when the Rival is present. If the Rival is a human able to understand and participate (ie not a very young child and not another dog) the Rival can also shower the Jealous dog with pleasures as well as become more of a pack-leader by acting more like a pack-leader. The nature of the pleasures to be used depends on what this particular dog enjoys. Food works for most dogs, but toys or physical caresses may work as well or better for some other dogs. Any game that the dog enjoys can work well.

Note that this paradigm is one of Desensitization plus Counter-Conditioning .

In Counter-Conditioning the method is to cause the formerly aversive stimulus , which is the nearness of the Rival to the Object, to become associated with stimuli that naturally cause the dog to feel the emotion of enjoyment or happiness rather than the previous emotion of dislike of the Rival or hostility towards the Rival (and perhaps also some fear towards the Rival in some cases). Some behaviorists call this "the Bar is open" , ie a sign that something desirable is now available. When the Rival is present, good things happen to the dog, but when the Rival is absent, those good things do not happen and are unavailable, thus "the Bar is closed".

Now in any case where the dog is already showing an unpleasant (fearful and/or aggressive ) reaction to the Rival, we also need to Desensitize the dog to the approach of the Rival. That is we need to work on the dog not reacting to the approach, while at the same time starting to work on turning the Rival's approach into a welcome event. In Desensitization , the basic protocol is to "dilute" or weaken the stimulus so much that the dog does not react to it, does not have an unpleasant reaction.

Thus for the approach of the Rival, the Rival would initially approach only very slightly, ie only to a relatively far distance, far enough away that the dog does not show a reaction. At this point, the counter conditioning begins : some event pleasant to the dog begins, eg the Object person and /or the Rival toss food treats to the dog or the Object person begins petting and praising the dog. Then the Rival turns away and leaves, and immediately the treats or petting or other pleasant event stops. Then the Rival approaches again and the good stuff begins. Rival leaves, good stuff stops. After a number of repetitions where the approach remains far distant, the approach can be a little closer. Now the good stuff begins only at that slightly closer distance and ends as soon as the Rival turns away. After more repetitions at that distance, the distance is again reduced a bit. The goal is to get to the point where the Rival is very close to the Object, or is touching or hugging the Object, and at this point the rewards to the dog are only when Object and Rival are quite close together.

Eventually of course one wants to transition back to a more normal mode of life. By this time the dog should be very happy to be around the Rival and the Rival (if human) should be supplying many of the high enjoyments of life to the dog. The Rival can often be the one to deliver the dog's meals to the dog, requiring the dog to obey a simple command like "sit" in order to get the Rival to set dinner on the floor. The Rival can be the one to take the dog for some of its walks and some of its car rides. The Rival should be doing some of the obedience training or some of the Agility or other enjoyable sports-training. The Rival should play with the dog in games where Rival is both playmate and umpire ("it's my ball so we play by my rules"). If the Rival can be involved in some work , such as Tracking or Herding, that gives the dog extreme joy, this is a great way to get the dog to strongly enjoy the Rival's presence.

When you are at the point where the dog regards the former Rival as a welcome friend, you can resume life in a normal fashion. You might still want to be aware of giving the dog somewhat less in the way of pleasant events when the Rival is absent and somewhat more when the Rival is present, but if the dog has come to find the Rival's presence inherrently pleasurable, then life feels pretty normal to everyone. Do take notice if it starts to appear that the Rival is so much valued by the dog that the dog begins to guard the Rival against the Object. In theory that could happen, though in actuallity I'm not aware of cases of it occurring. Perhaps more likely were the former Rival is a child and the former Object is a parent ???

For cases where the Rival is a child of toddler age, it's harder to regulate the distance of the child's approach unless another adult (or teen) manages the child's movements (perhaps using a leash if voice commands or hand signals are not sufficient ?). It's also not possible for the child to take the dog for walks or car rides, or do obedience training. For an older child, the child's role is more similar to that of an adult.

For cases where the Rival is another dog, again it's harder to regulate distance of Rival's approach unless another person manages the Rival dog's movements (probably with a leash).. In cases where the Rival is another dog, one also has to take relative ranks of the two dogs into account. Usually the dog who is doing the Jealous guarding is going to be the higher ranked dog. So to some degree that dog is just claiming her natural right of preferred access to a scarce valued resource, ie the attention of the Object person. Now I still think that the Object person should be asserting her own still higher rank and letting both dogs know that it's her own choice whom to pet and when to pet, etc. But the higher ranked dog generally gets preferred treatment as compared to the lower ranked dog. If the dog you believe is lower ranked is successfully guarding you against the dog you believe is higher ranked, there's a pretty good chance that you have mis-judged the relative ranks of the two dogs, or else it's possible that the genuinely lower ranked dog values your attention a great deal and the genuinely higher ranked one either values it much less or else is smart enough to realize that your attention is not all that scarce and will turn to this dog sooner or later.

The only real case that I have had personally of a dog acting possessively about a person towards other dogs was my beloved and precious Pixel. Pixel adored being center of attention of myself or of any person whatsoever. She was a real "love junkie". She particularly enjoyed the attentions of guests and regarded any approaching person as one more person to be charmed by her and to devote attention to her. So she was never Jealous towards other humans but only towards other dogs. The only other dog with whom she willingly shared the kindness of a stranger or of myself was her consort and partner in crime, my darling Chris. So if while she was being admired and caressed by a person another dog were to approach, Pixel would give them a hard eyed stare, followed by a lip lift and very low growl. The warning seldom had to go beyond the hard eyed stare and very rarely beyond the lip lift and grumble. The furthest it ever went, and this only for the most foolhardy of newcomer dogs, was a loud snap that missed the offending dog's nose by about a quarter inch.
I thought about titleing this article "The Jealous Bitch" in honor of and in memory of Pixel. She passed away in January of 2009 and I miss her terribly. Little Chris survived her by another six months, and I miss him too.
Update 2012 : well I might add that my adorable Fox (Fox, the Wicked Queensland) could also have an inclination to be jealous if I allowed that to develop. Fox certainly loves attention. But I recognized early her similarity of personality and propensity to Pixel and so from the start I have managed to downplay the problematic potential while encouraging and enjoying the desirable propensities.

So I really do feel that dogs mostly deal with these possessiveness issues pretty well between themselves. Of course I always did let my dogs know that I was the final decision maker and umpire in the game of life together. And I always teach my dogs that I am only responsive to requests for attention some of the time and that there are times when I am here but doing other things and not available to them. Eg they learn that if I am working in my office or am reading or am on the phone and taking notes on a steno pad, there is not much point in trying to get more than the most cursory attention from me.

I don't think that there is necessarily any correlation between a dog being jealous towards other dogs and a dog being jealous towards humans. Nor does the fact that a dog adores human attention necessarily mean that dog will be possessive of that attention. But then I have not yet had a dog living with me for any significant length of time who exhibited jealousy towards other humans. (Note : for some years now I have been the only human resident in the house, but we never had problems when there were roommates.) I've had a few who were timid with humans who were strangers. Most of mine who liked human attention were absolutely delighted to have guests or strangers approach as they viewd these as additional sources of pleasant attention rather than as competitors for my attention. Of course most of the guests who come to my house have come expressly to meet the dogs and are prepared to shower them with attention and admiration.

another method for case where Rival is another dog/dogs

It has occurred to me that there is another method when the Rival is other dogs, ie the Jealous one is close to the Object Person and gives dirty looks or growls or snaps as another dog comes too close. Sometimes this is based on fear of the other dog and the Jealous one actually wants the person to protech him against the approach of the other dog. Other times it really is a case of posessive jealousy. In either case attempts to "corrcct" the Jealous one by harsh voice can be perceived by him as desirable attention or , worse, could result the other dog backing off, which would powerfully reward the Jealous one.

What might well work (and I have not yet tried it) would be if every time the Jealous one gives any warning or offensive gesture to the approaching dog, this behavior had the immediate result of the Object Person instantly leaving.. That glare or growl or snap does not drive away the other dog but drives away the desired Object Person. The behavior causes the Jealous Dog to lose the very thing he wanted to keep. Bad strategy ! This would be classified by a behaviorist as "negative punishment", ie the behavior causes something good / pleasant to cease or go away or be lost. "Negative punishment" is both very powerful to change behavior and it is very benign as there is no causing of fear or pain or even real discomfort. Losing something you want or not gaining a prize is very discouraging of whatever caused that loss..

So get up and leave and don't let the Jealous dog follow you, shut the door in his face if he tries to follow. Try this for a month or at least a couple weeks and see if it works. Now this is harder to do if the guarding takes place when you are in bed or doing something hard to suddenly leave.

And I have not yet tried it myself, but I may be trying it on a dog I just took in to foster care who is showing some propensity for wanting to keep other dogs away.. I may not have to do anything however, as my own dogs just are not that impressed by this nonsense from the new dog

Preventing the Problem : a new member of the household

The protocol for prevention is largely the same as the Counter-Conditioning part of the remedial protocol. Usually in prevention you don't need to do the gradual desensitization because the dog is not yet reacting badly to the approach of the potential Rival. You'd still begin by giving the dog pleasure while the potential Rival is not yet real close simply because you want at first to make more oppertunities for the dog to form a good association of the Rival with good stuff happening. So maybe at first, "the bar is open" when the potential Rival enters the same room as the Object and the "bar is closed" when the Rival leaves the room. Also you probably don't need to be as intense about the pleasures provided, and don't need to be as total about ignoring the dog when Rival is absent. Just make sure that the dog associates the Rival with improved quality of life for the dog. Once you see that the dog has a very welcoming attitude towards the potential Rival, then you can transition to living normally. Just be sure that this other person continues to be a source of some good things to the dog, such as petting the dog or taking the dog for a walk, or being the one to set down the dinner bowl.

When the potential Rival is a baby, the advice is to begin changing the dog's lifestyle many months before the baby is born. One does after all usually know many months in advance of the actual birth (or while awaiting an adoption). So the advice is to gradually wean the dog down to a lower level of overall attention months ahead of birth time. One could also get the dog used to other people's children and associate their presence with pleasant events for the dog. It's good advice to get the dog used to doing some ordinary events somewhat differently. Perhaps the dog's seating assignment in the car will change because of placement of the child-safety seat, so buy and install the seat ahead of time. Certainly the dog will be doing walks beside a baby carriage or stroller, so get in practice ahead of time (this also lets the humans master the skills needed to manage leash and carriage simultaneously).

Please be aware that anti-Jealousy training is not the only potential baby issue. Very very rarely a dog will react to an infant as if it were a prey species. This is enormously dangerous, and the usual advice is that infant and dog should not be in same household until the infant is old enough that the dog does not regard it as prey. Again, this is a very rare problem and I mention it only because recognizing its occurance is essential. If you have the slightest reason to suspect that your dog is reacting to an infant in a predatory manner, immediately get professional help from a really well qualified behaviorist, and keep dog and infant completely separated until such help is at hand.
If you learn before a baby is conceived that your dog is predatory towards infants, it's time to change plans, get your tubes tied, and if you still feel life is incomplete without a child you can adopt any of the far too many older (non-infant, non-toddler) children who are languishing in the foster care system.

When the potential Rival is a human adult, first consider whether your dog is normally very friendly towards strangers or whether your dog is indifferent, fearful, or hostile towards strangers. The dog who, like my Pixel, adores everyone is most unlikely to ever develop a Jealousy problem. All you need to do is to avoid neglecting the dog because of whatever attention you are paying to the new human. The dog who is indifferent or fearful or hostile to strangers is much more likely to develop a Jealousy problem if you don't monitior the relationship and take preventative measures.

When the potential Rival is a human adult who is the dog's owner's new sweetheart , Significant Other, prospective live-in lover, or (for those extremely traditional and optimistic) prospective spouse, the best advice is to have the dog and the prospective live-in become friends well before the move-in. So start the prevention program well before move-in date by making most encounters with the new person especially delightful for the dog. You probably don't need to reduce your attention to the dog when new person is absent. It's worth investing effort by both humans to ensure a good relationship between new person and the dog. (If dog and Other really don't get along, I'd recommend forgetting about a closer relationship with that person. "Love me, love my dog --- and make yourself loveable to my dog !" . And if your sweetheart ever says "either the dog goes or I go" you should reply "I'm sorry to hear that because I will miss you.")

When the potential Rival is a human adult who is a (non-romantic) prospective roommate or house-mate, you are probably less likely to run into trouble because you probably would only invite someone to share your home as roommate if that person were already a dog lover and at least somewhat dog-savvy. We tend to choose our roommates with more rational judgement than we tend to choose our sweethearts, etc. And when a roommate relationship does not work out, there is seldom the same level of anguish and acrimony as when a romantic cohabitation breaks up. (Though to judge from episodes of Judge Judy, roommate break ups can be bad enough). In any case, if you suspect your dog might be the possessive kind, plan ahead with the prospective roommate to do some Jealousy prevention.

When the potential Rival is another dog, first of all assess your dog's general dog to dog sociability by introducing your dog to a series of individual dogs who have a history of being very dog-sociable. You may find that your dog really enjoys the company of other dogs. If so then only a small bit of jealousy prevention will be needed, and indeed may be superfluous.

If you are selecting a second dog, ideally that second one is of opposite sex to the first one -- and at least one of the pair is altered. A neutered male and a spayed bitch are almost certain to get along unless one of them is seriously deficient in dog-socialization. Ideally the second dog is also one with good dog to dog social skills. If you have made such a favorable choice then probably the only prevention measures you need will be just to avoid neglecting your origninal dog during the "honeymoon" when you are enchanted by the new dog and need to spend a lot of time working on the new dog's basic training. If the new dog is a puppy, it's easy to be so entranced by the puppy that your adult dog gets neglected and might feel rejected. Most adult dogs are pretty tolorant towards puppies, but it still is wise to be aware of the need to give attention to the adult in ample measure. (Note : the adult may need to give the pup a few lessons about not behaving obnoxiously towards the adult. This is usually a sudden paw slap or neck grab, pinning the pup down. The pup won't be hurt, but will learn to respect the adult's warning stare or growl. Do not interfere with this process. !)


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 7/19/09 revised 11/30/2013
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