It's called "lap guarding" and it can turn the sweetest little dog into a little Gremlin of fury any time other dogs or people approach. The lap guarder typically growls, shows his pearly teeth and even snaps in hopes of sending away unwanted visitors anytime they make a move in his direction while he's laying on his "throne." What gives? Why are some dogs so eager to protect human laps? And most of all, what can be done about it?
A Lap to Love
Let's face it, human laps can be quite valuable resources if we put ourselves in a dog's shoes. Laps are warm, they carry our scent and, on top of that, we often pet our dogs and talk to them when they are on our laps. It's therefore no wonder why dogs cherish human laps so much that they will guard them as their favorite chew toy or bone!
The problem is, when dogs appreciate certain things too much and they fear losing access to them, this paves the path to a state of stress, fear and insecurity triggering what's known as resource guarding.
This is the total opposite of what many dog owners assume. Many times, owners of lap-protective dogs think their dogs are acting bossy and their dogs are often described as being "dominant." In reality, with the dog dominance myth debunked, dogs who guard things are simply doing so because they are stressed.
Did you know? Some dogs were bred to be lap warmers. These dogs are known as "lap dogs" and they were specifically crafted to warm the laps of many aristocratic ladies in royal households. Examples of lap dogs include the Papillon, Pekingese, Pug, Bichon Frise, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Pomeranian.
Guarding Behavior is Reinforcing
Resource guarding is a behavior that tends to get worse rather than better with time. The reason for this is that it's reinforcing. In other words, if every time your dog growls when another person or dog approaches, and this other person or dog moves away upon hearing the growl, the growling behavior will reinforce.
In other words, the growling behavior strengthens and is likely to repeat next time, and the more your dog rehearses the behavior, the more it becomes habit-forming.
For sake of an example, imagine carrying a luggage that has valuables in it. One day, a person approaches and tries to steal it from you. You hold on to it tightly and start yelling at the top of your lungs "Thief! Thief!" This scares the thief who lets go and runs away.
Since this method proved successful, chances are good that you would employ the same strategy if the same scenario happened again.
To be more precise, guarding behavior is negatively reinforced because it makes somebody perceived as threatening go away so that the dog feels a sigh of relief (negative reinforcement) as he knows his possession will not be taken away.
A Behavior to Tackle
As mentioned, guarding is a behavior that you want to address considering that, the more your dog rehearses the behavior, the more it's likely to establish and put roots. This makes the behavior more difficult to eradicate compared to nipping a new behavior in the bud.
The aggressive behavior may also exacerbate with time. A growl may lead to a snarl, a snarl may lead to a snap and a snap may lead to a bite in the case of a person or dog not backing down to the earlier warning signs. It's as if these dogs were saying soething along the lines of: "What part of my growling don't you understand? Go away!"
On top of this, consider that dogs who guard laps from other people or dogs, may start expanding their behavior, to the point of manifesting their aggressive behavior from farther distances up to the point of even guarding an entire room preventing another person or dog from coming in from outside.
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Now That You Know...
Now that you understand why your dog growls when on your lap, you may be wondering what to do about it. Here are some tips, but because guarding is a serious issue that may lead to biting, it is important to enlist the help of a professional using force-free behavior modification techniques.
Avoid punishment-based techniques. It may be tempting to scold your dog or even use some physical, confrontational techniques you may have seen on television shows, however, these methods will only create more problems. While it may look like these methods work, what is really happening is that, when you punish your dog for growling, you have suppressed an important warning signal without tackling the underlying emotions. This often leads to a dog who bites without warning. On top of this, your dog may start perceiving you as unpredictable and untrustworthy. This may lead to hand-shyness and defensive aggression.
A word about negative punishment. It may make sense to get up the moment your dog starts growling at other dogs or people approaching your dog when on your lap, but this can also have negative repercussions. While it's true that you are interrupting the behavior and providing a consequence by doing this, it's also true that by removing access to your lap when your dog growls contingent upon another dog or person approaching may trigger the guarding to get worse. Why? Because your dog may associate the approach of other dogs with losing access to your lap, leading to negative emotions as his biggest fear is coming true.
Use management to prevent rehearsal. This simply means don't put your dog in the position of practicing the undesirable behavior over and over. So in the case of lap guarding, avoid keeping your dog on your lap and train your dog to go to his mat instead. This comes helpful, especially while you are seeking the intervention of a dog behavior professional.
Change the emotional response. The goal of behavior modification for lap guarding is making great things happen when other dogs or people approach using desensitization and counterconditioning techniques. For correct implementation of behavior modification, (it requires skill and one-on-one personal guidance) and for safety, (bites can happen if you're not careful enough!) once again, it's important seeking the assistance of a dog behavior professional such as a veterinary behaviorist (DACVB), a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB) or dog trainer using force-free dog behavior modification.
Training an "off" cue. To address lap guarding against people, it may be helpful training the dog to happily hop down from their beloved lap on cue. To accomplish this, it helps to use a highly valued reward such as the dog's favorite treat. For instance, if Fluffy is on Julia's lap, John would call Fluffy in an upbeat tone and reward her with the treat for complying. If Fluffy refuses, then John would say "too bad!" and walk away with the reward as Julia would get up too. This exercise done correctly under the guidance of a professional should lead to a conditioned emotional response (happy anticipation!), with Fluffy now looking forward to John approaching rather than dreading it.
A word of caution. Lap guarding overall is much easier to tackle when it's directed towards people rather than dogs. This is because, with people, we can instruct then on what to do and this helps tremendously in paving the path towards success.
With lap guarding directed towards dogs, things are more challenging. Other dogs may approach too quickly and giving the dog treats while on the lap may lead to the lap becoming more valuable from the guarding dog's perspective. Not to mention, the other dogs may want the treats too and may therefore approach more which can obviously lead to problems.
In this case, it's important to use a systematic approach making sure treats happen contingent upon the appearance of other dogs. An assistant should be therefore employed to walk another dog towards the lap-guarding dog, but initially from a distance making sure the dog stays under threshold. Treat delivery starts upon seeing the other dog and treat delivery abruptly stops when the other dog leaves.
Distance is then gradually decreased based on how comfortable the lap-guarding dog appears. In the whole process, it's fundamental ensuring the lap-guarding dog is kept under threshold and that the process proceeds at the dog's pace. Again, for this reason, it's important to seek the guidance of a dog behavior professional.
Consider potential for regression. It is not unusual for setbacks to happen when working on behavior modification. This phenomenon is known as regression, and it's most likely to occur in novel situations (like a stranger or new dog approaching when your dog is in your lap) or when your dog is particularly stressed, sick or tired.
It's also important to hold "refresher sessions" every now and then so to maintain the progress made and ensure those good feelings about dogs being near the lap remain solid in the dog's mind