Why won’t my Spaniel drop my bloody socks?

April 29, 2021

We have all been there, sweat dripping down our brow, our Spaniel looking at us, eyes wide, sock, toilet roll, stick, whatever other item they could get their paws on, glued in their jaw. Who needs a matching pair of socks anyway?!

So, what to do next? Ideally, we really don’t want our dog to have the item in their mouth… especially if it’s of importance to us, like the TV remote for instance, you want to be able to change the channel right?

And it’s at this moment I hear so many owner’s tales of making the decision to chase the dog all over the house to retrieve whatever they have got from their mouths.

Sometimes this is a whole family affair, a strategic military operation to get the item from the dog. Sound familiar?

As humans we instinctively think we have to get it off our dog at all costs, I’ve heard stories of owners chasing their dog around the house, around the park and no matter what their dog just doesn’t seem to want to drop the item and in some cases owners have found that their dog seems to enjoy this game of chase! (they often do, it is in fact the best game ever at your expense!)

But the problem with this is that it can actually create deeper issues for our dogs, and in some cases these ‘minor’ chasings of items can even lead to resource guarding.

What is resource guarding?

Resource guarding is often an anxiety or fear-based behavior, which starts when our dog is worried that it’s going to lose their resource, such as the toy, the stick, whatever they see as ‘theirs’, so this is where the guarding can happen.

You might have experienced your dog growl, bark or even bite when you’ve tried to approach to get them to move off the sofa or take a blanket or item from them.

Some dogs guard food, their favorite toy, a prized seat on the sofa and even your bed but other dogs may even guard anything that they put in their mouth.

A lot of animals do this, even us! For example, if we are at a nice meal and a waiter takes the food before we have finished eating, we will likely tell the waiter to get off, or if you have a few chips left and your friend or partner goes to get one you may give them ‘the look’… this is the equivalent of the dog’s growl. And if my other half asks me to share my Galaxy chocolate (other brands are available) not a chance I am doing this, and if he tries to just take it off me well…

With resource guarding it’s very easy to influence the behavior through our own body language and actions. We can end up inadvertently adding a lot of extra value to the items.

For instance, if you’re out on a walk and your dog finds a piece of paper and they pick it up, if you start to chase them trying to trade them for the piece of paper and giving it a lot of attention, it can actually increase the value of the item. So, a boring piece of paper could go from being worth £1 to having lots of attention from us and becoming worth £100 to them.

How to behave when your dog is resource guarding

So, it’s very important we look at how we manage our own behavior around them. For example, the reason dogs are different when an item is stolen is because our behavior is different. When we are keen to get the item off them we often add a lot of attention and value to it. The more we want to get whatever they may have off them, especially if they are really expensive designer sunglasses, your behavior to your dog will show this.

With puppies they explore the world through their mouth and will pick everything up, if you don’t want your puppy to get something it needs to be far out of their reach, puppies teach you to be really tidy! Spaniels and Spaniel mixes are gundog breeds, they are genetically bred to want to pick things up and sometimes hold on to them.

Whether you have noticed resource guarding or not it’s important that you keep in mind management and your behavior around your dog.

Since dogs don’t speak, if only they did it would make my job a lot easier!  they “talk” through their body language so always make sure you are taking note of what your dog is trying to tell you.

How to understand your dog’s body language

Dogs communicate their discomfort with visual cues, and in my dog and Spaniel training I often use the canine ladder of aggression often to help owners see what’s happening.

ladder of aggression 1
The ladder of aggression

If you think of the growl, snap and bite being at the very top of the ladder there are visual cues lower on the ladder that owners need to look out for in order to make sure their dog doesn’t reach the top.

It can be scary when your dog growls at you, but a growl is a warning. Telling off a growl is like taking the batteries out of your smoke alarm, you get rid of the pre warning and your dog is more likely to bite.

Before the growl you often see other earlier behaviors that your dog is uncomfortable such as yawning, turning their head away, walking away or their body stiffening up. If you listen to these your dog will not feel they have to go higher up the ladder.

For those of you who have noticed resource guarding is present in your dog’s daily life I would always recommend working with a professional who understands the behavior, and I would also recommend a checkup with your vet as there can be medical reasons for the behavior also. There is a lot you can do with the support of a professional who knows what they are doing to improve the behavior.

But for those of you who are looking to prevent this behavior and ensure that your Spaniel isn’t stealing socks for the rest of your life together I would suggest working with a mix of management and training exercises to teach them the value of bringing resources to you.

What you can do to help prevent resource guarding

With management think of what you would do if you had a small child, you wouldn’t leave dangerous and fragile items around the house, and it is the same with your dog. If you do not want your puppy to put it in its mouth, put it away! Trust me there is no worse feeling than seeing your puppy running around with your new favorite handbag in its mouth. But if that does happen, stay calm, and remember don’t add lots of extra value to the item. Casually pick up another toy/treat and swap your puppy for the item. And then hit yourself with a piece of paper and repeat I should not leave my expensive handbags out around my puppy 😉

With your Spaniel or Spaniel mix breed, teach them to pick up items you want them around the house, tell them how clever they are when they pick the item up, play with them, act amazed, tell them they are the best puppy ever, stroke them and let them hold the item. If they do drop it, give them a treat then give them the item back. You will teach your puppy to bring everything to you if you do this.  

If they are eating something tasty, walk towards them and throw them some treats and then walk away again, with their food bowl if they are eating don’t put your hands in their food or add too much control, let your dog eat in peace. Teach them that your approach = your adding things not removing them. Remember this behavior often happens because your dog is worried you’re going to remove things from them in the first place.

A little while ago, one of my spaniels Bailey, managed to get hold of £100 of birthday money! I know I know it should have been out of his way! Anyway, because he has been taught to bring things to me, that is what he did, I did have to breathe very deeply when I saw all the notes hanging from his mouth, but actually all he wanted to do was to give me the money, now if I could teach him to go find the money in the first place that would be good! Though he would likely just go spend it all on socks! Spaniels hey!

If you do need support with resource guarding I would love to help, please feel free to complete this form and we can work on helping your Spaniel feel happier around resources. I work with clients nationally and internationally via zoom, so distance isn’t an issue!

Now where on earth are those bloody socks?

By Hannah Antrobus

Hannah is a spaniel specialist dog trainer for spaniels and spaniel crosses. Her catchment area is Warwickshire but she offers video sessions and works with clients nationally and internationally so don’t hesitate to get in touch from wherever you are in the world!

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