04/04/2013 06:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2013

School Budget Woes, or Dogs Fighting Over a Bone?

In the dog world, resource guarding is a problematic behavior in which a dog uses aggression to guard possessions. Dogs have long lists of desirable, protection-worthy stuff including, but not limited to: food, toys, comfy beds, and favorite people. Some dogs feel so strongly about their possessions that they growl and bare their teeth. Some even bite.

It's my job to help people to understand this behavior and what, if anything can be done to stop it.

When times are good and the resources of food, toys and attention are plentiful, few dogs complain or act snappy or covetous. Conversely, lean times bring out the aforementioned resource guarding behavior. In dogs, it's the meatiest bone or the cushiest bed. In people, it's their savings or their children's educational experience.

When dogs' resource guard, I try to get to the root of the reaction: was this dog starved or mistreated at some point in his life? Does he live in a home that inadvertently supports domination, his people afraid or unwilling to interfere?

In either case, I begin to realign the dog's past perceptions with his current reality. Using a variety of training and behavior modification tools, I reassure the dog that he is not at risk for abuse or starvation, nor is he the dominant leader of the pack. In most cases, my clients find that a structured and compassionate training program that includes clickers treats, and correction collars is enough to curb these aggressive tendencies. Sadly, however, I cannot solve every case, and at that point there is little recourse than to re-home the dog or return him to a shelter. Heartbreakingly, some of these dogs are put to sleep.

In people, resource-guarding reactions--stress, reactivity, fear of loss--worsens during periods of slow economic times. I believe the root cause, regardless of species, is the fact that so much of life is beyond our control. And this sensation leads to feelings of anger, covetousness, and anxiety. Those who are dependent lash out at those who they believe are in control of the resources.

Whether the situation involves an anxious dog growling over her food bowl, or neighbors going toe-to-toe over the school budget, we need to examine misguided perceptions. Dogs who resource guard are often projecting onto their owners an image that is not real: 90 lbs. Aunt Sally is not the man who kicked you as a puppy, even though they both wear red sweatshirts. People need to closely examine the realities behind their own emotionally charged reactions.

Many dog owners would love to fulfill their dog's every wish (of course I'll serve you filet mignon every day and let you sleep on my new duvet!), but it wouldn't be practical. They need--and ultimately benefit from--sensible limits. Similarly, school boards across the nation would love to give each of its schools unlimited funds to explore innovative programs without raising our taxes a penny, but it's not always possible.

When fear overtakes reason, it is easy to believe that the hand that holds the leash is a competitor, out to steal food from the dish or bones from the floor. On the flip side, some people are quick to demonize neighbors, unions, administrative staff or teachers, and members of an elected board--because they cannot, like an over indulgent parent, respond to their individual desires.

If we as people can stay involved, communicate and not let accusations and slander overtake civil discourse, we can find solutions that are fair and practical...something solidly in between filet mignon and an empty bowl.

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