Possessiveness in dogs is a common problem.
This post includes tips on how to prevent a dog's possessiveness to begin with, as well as how to prevent a dog's existing possessiveness.
Dogs can be possessive of pretty much anything, causing them to guard food, toys, bones, sticks, a dog bed or even another dog or a person!
How to break a dog's possessiveness
1. Start the “nothing is free” program.
I prefer to use this method even when the dog is not possessive. It's a good habit. Simply, the dog earns food, treats, toys, attention, etc.
Yes, I give my dog plenty of affection when he doesn't do anything first. However, we should try to make our dogs earn their food, toys and yes – our affection – at least some of the time. It's a way to reinforce good manners and teaches the dog self-control.
A lot of dogs that show possessiveness of food or toys do not have a high level of self control in general. They believe it is OK to take what they want. It's our job to teach them patience will bring them lots of good things!
You sit, you get a treat! You lie down and wait, you get food. You make eye contact, OK, we can head out for a walk!
2. Don't allow possessiveness of items that “belong” to the dog.
Be careful not to make excuses for your dog and allow possessiveness of objects that “belong” to him.
For example, just because the tennis ball “belongs” to the dog, that doesn't give the dog permission to snap at someone who tries to take it. The humans should always be allowed to take anything from the dog.
I've had some readers tell me their dogs were possessive of stuffed animals because the dogs thought the toys were their babies. While that may be true on occasion, it's still not OK for the dog to show aggression over a toy.
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3. Help the dog achieve a high level of obedience.
Dogs that come when called, stay when told and walk nicely on a leash have a higher level of self control than other dogs. This means they also have a higher level of respect for their owners, and they (generally) have better manners overall.
If your dog has a problem with possessiveness, one of the first things you should consider is his level of obedience. Does he stay when told 99 percent of the time? Probably not. Does he come when called even with distractions? I bet not.
In order to help your dog improve his manners overall, it is absolutely necessary to work on his basic obedience first. If you need some help, it's OK to attend an obedience class or work one-on-one with a trainer.
4. Make sure you “claim” anything you give your dog.
This is not complicated or mean. It's just a subtle communication to the dog – “OK, I see. That toy belongs to the human.”
For example, before giving your dog a toy, you could ask the dog to sit. This puts the dog into a calmer state of mind. If the dog accepts the toy in a calm state of mind, he is more likely to remain in that state and play with the toy calmly. A calm dog is less likely to become possessive and reactive.
As another example, you could ask your dog to wait before eating. Once you place the bowl on the ground, do not allow your dog to charge the bowl. Simply, ask for some space. You can do this by standing over the bowl calmly but confidently. Or, you can tell your dog to sit before you give a calm release command to get the food.
While the dog is eating, you should ask him to stop and back away or sit again. This teaches the dog that you can take the food at any time. Just make sure to give the food back as a reward, or drop in something extra that's even better like real chicken!
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5. When the dog shows aggression, “trade” him for something better.
Do not hesitate to seek help from a professional dog trainer in your area if you are at all hesitant about approaching your aggressive dog. If you are tentative and giving off a weak energy, your dog is only that much more powerful.
You definitely don't want to reward your dog for showing possessiveness of a toy, but it's hard to remove the object from the dog if she's growling and snapping. One way to do this is approach your dog with something even better than the original object such as pieces of chicken, beef or deli meat.
Approach your dog with the food, give a command such as “sit” and then when the dog drops the original object and sits, give him a jackpot of the treats in your hands. Since dogs only focus on one thing at a time, the dog will be rewarded for the most recent behavior, the “sit.” The dog will not be rewarded for possessiveness.
If you purposely set up these scenarios, you should have your dog on a leash for extra control in case your dog tries to grab the original object and run off.
Of course, you will need to practice this over and over again a few times per day over several weeks or even months.
6. Teach the dog the commands “leave it” and “drop.”
When practicing the trading technique above, you can incorporate a command – drop.
The dog may not drop the object right away, but as you continue practicing the trading technique, the dog will be more willing to drop the original item. This is when I recommend you start saying “drop.” The dog will already be doing the behavior, but you are adding the command.
The dog will eventually learn to “drop” on command with or without a treat. You should of course continue to use treats every now and then to keep the dog interested.
I also use the command “leave it” to mean “Do not touch.” This is easier to teach and practice, because you would give the command when the dog does not already have the object in his mouth. Then, reward the dog for showing self control and not touching the object.
With practice, you can eventually use “leave it” in many different contexts. You'll just need to practice in different environments and with different items slowly over several weeks and months.
Your dog might be so aggressive that the trading technique above is not working. One thing you can consider is setting up a desensitization plan. This type of training takes several weeks to work, so you need a lot of patience, and don't hesitate to get some advice from a local trainer.
The idea is to set up scenarios where the dog is likely to become possessive. For example, if the dog is possessive of rawhides, you're going to have to present rawhides to him every day and work to desensitize him. Patricia McConnell has an excellent post on how this desensitization and classical conditioning process works in dogs. I wrote a summary of her post here.
Here's what you would do:
Put your dog's leash on him, preferably a long leash. Use a training collar if it generally gives you more control. Then, give your dog a rawhide and leave the room.
Next, return to the room with a stock of highly valued treats (like pieces of beef). Walk up to your dog but stop before he has a chance to guard the rawhide. That distance will be different depending on the dog. Toss him a treat so it lands right by his mouth, and then walk away.
You want the dog to think, “No! Don't go away! Keep giving me treats!” This will only work if you can find food that is “better” than the rawhide.
Then, over several days or weeks, you would continue to get closer to the dog until he is OK with you approaching while he has the rawhide.
8. Correct the dog, then redirect and reward the new behavior.
I mentioned the desensitizing approach first, because it's generally safer, but it's not the only way to stop a dog's possessiveness.
Some trainers will recommend correcting the dog for the inappropriate behavior, and I have used this approach many times. You just need to be careful because using force can bring out additional frustration from the dog.
For correcting a dog's possessiveness, I recommend you keep a leash on the dog. This will give you more control and confidence. You would then set up a scenario where the dog is likely to become possessive. Maybe you drop a rawhide on the floor. If the dog tries to go for the rawhide without your permission, you would tell the dog “no” and then ask the dog to sit. Once the dog sits, reward him for that behavior. The dog must learn to wait until you give him permission to take the rawhide.
You can also practice this by allowing the dog to take the rawhide. Then, give the command “drop.” If the dog obeys, reward, reward, reward! If he doesn't, you could correct the dog by giving a quick tug with the leash and collar. If he releases, reward him! If he doesn't release, you may have to have a backup plan and trade the dog for something better.
Practice this multiple times a day. Dogs need a lot of repetitions before a behavior becomes conditioned, so be patient. Make this process fun rather than stressful. You want to be the leader, but you want to be a fun leader.
9. Do not make up excuses for your dog's possessive or aggressive behavior.
Small problems lead to bigger problems when dog owners do not take a dog's mild aggression or possessive issues seriously.
Of course, some dogs sound aggressive when they are playing with toys. This is normal as long as the dog is just playing and will allow you to take the toy and end the game at any time. For more information, see my post on why does my dog growl at other dogs?
10. Hire a professional trainer.
This is actually my number one suggestion.
Aggression is serious, and I do not want anyone to get hurt. A professional trainer will be able to evaluate your dog and tell you some additional ideas.
One of my foster dogs was showing some severe possessiveness, and even though I have a lot of experience with dogs it was nice to consult with a trainer for some extra ideas. When you don't live with the dog, it's easier to notice things the owner may not see.
For further reading, see my additional posts:
- Teach a dog the “drop” command
- Stop a small dog from guarding her owner
- Stop a dog's possessiveness at the dog park
- Stop a dog from guarding food or toys
What do you do to prevent possessive behavior from your dog?
This post was updated in October 2016.