When I met Lucy for the first time, she rushed to greet me at the front door, happily jumping and whining as she tried frantically to lick my face. She was a 9-pound Chihuahua mix, totally adorable and totally adored by her owners, Jan and Dave. Lucy was a joy in so many ways – she rode well in the car, loved every dog and human she met, came when called, and snuggled lovingly with anyone who would have her. She ate well and played well, was quiet and happy inside the home or yard, and was just the sort of “fur baby” that Jan and Dave had wanted. As I sat down with Jan and Dave in our first session, Lucy quickly relaxed and settled into Jan’s lap, curling up to sleep. After conducting the behavioral history interview, I asked Jan and Dave to demonstrate for me where they were having a problem with Lucy. “No problem,” said Dave, “All I have to do is try to walk over to Jan to say good-bye.” He got up from his easy chair and said to Jan, “Alright, then, I am heading to work, honey!” as he walked toward Jan and Lucy on the couch. As he said this, Lucy uncurled from her cozy ball and immediately lowered her head, her whole body stiffening as she stared at Dave’s approach. When he reached them and gently reached toward Jan to hug her, Lucy sprang from the lap like a cannon ball, snarling and snapping at Dave. Jan held her back and Dave said “No, Lucy, stop it”, but was unable to hug his wife without risking a Chihuahua-sized bite to his arms or hands. They looked at me with gentle smiles, confused and a bit embarrassed by their dog’s behavior. “You see? She is like Jekyll and Hyde!” Jan commented. (This is a description I hear over and over again from owners describing their pet’s seemingly mysterious or unpredictable aggression.)
Far from being mysterious or unpredictable in my eyes, Lucy’s aggression was in fact reliably triggered under certain circumstances. In addition to the aggression she showed in Jan’s lap, she often responded similarly if she was in Dave’s lap when Jan approached. They had even once seen the aggression directed toward them when Lucy was snuggling with a visitor and they went to remove her from the visitor’s lap. Lucy’s aggression was also fairly specific to laps – she was not aggressive around food or toys, with other dogs or people, or when she was petted while sleeping in her dog bed. This behavior that Lucy exhibited – aggression when approached while in a person’s lap – is common among dogs, and is characterized as a form of resource guarding. In this case, rather than the valued resource being dog food or a chew bone, it’s a person’s warm and cozy lap that the dog feels compelled to protect.
Many people who see this behavior in their dog first assume that the dog is protecting them. Some owners feel a bit honored or flattered even, assuming that their dog is serving a valiant role by protecting them because they love them so. But often the motivation is more selfish – the dog may not be responding to any perceived threat to their person but instead a perceived threat to their own comfort! Dogs learn that they are sometimes displaced when a second person comes to sit down. They may be put on the floor, their position may be readjusted, or they may lose the ongoing petting or affection they are receiving. To prevent this from happening, they may try out a growl or snarl and, seeing that it often causes the approaching person to hesitate or back away, they learn to use aggression again to hold on to their comfortable position on the lap.
To address this problem, we must first teach the dog to hop down from a lap on cue, and to do so happily and without tension or aggression. We first evaluated all of the things Lucy loved other than lap time, and discovered her two other favorite things were steamed carrots and going for walks. So I had Dave and Jan each practice calling Lucy to them with a happy “Lucy, Come!” any time they saw Lucy sitting with the other spouse. If Lucy did not hop down, they said “Oh well” and walked away, and the person on whose lap Lucy was sitting removed Lucy to the floor and also walked away. If Lucy did hop down and go to the person calling her, she received either a yummy carrot or the presentation of her leash and a fun jaunt around the block. Soon Lucy was coming when called nearly 100% of the time, even when she had been snoozing away on a warm lap. We then taught Lucy to come to the approaching owner as he or she walked right up to her, stopping just short of the lap and calling her from up close. She quickly continued her success streak here. Soon we saw that when Lucy was approached by either Jan or Dave while in the other’s lap, she looked up with happy anticipation of a reward instead of with tense dread over a perceived conflict. We taught Lucy that she had to give up that space when we needed her to, and by using positive reinforcement we did so without Lucy ever realizing we were inconveniencing her in the meantime! Now when Lucy sees an owner approach, she knows that sometimes she gets a carrot treat, sometimes she gets to go for a walk, and sometimes she just gets a rub under the chin. In any case, she remains relaxed and happy about these approaches, and Jan and Dave get to keep snuggling with their lucky little lap dog!