How to break a dog’s possessiveness



How to break a dog’s possessiveness
















*Note: This post has been expanded into an ebook on how to break a dog’s possessiveness. Click the Buy Now button to order your copy for $1.99. Learn more about the ebook here.

In this post:

  • Tips to prevent a dog’s possessiveness to begin with (focusing on food, toys and bones)
  • Tips to prevent a dog’s existing possessiveness

Let’s get to the tips!

1. Hire a professional trainer.

This is my number one suggestion. Aggression is serious, and I do not want anyone to get hurt. A 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.

2. Start the “nothing is free” program.

I prefer to use this method, even when the dog is not possessive. It’s just a good habit to get into. Yes, I give my dog plenty of affection when he doesn’t do anything first. Most of us do this. However, we should try to make our dogs earn their food, toys and yes – our affection – most of the time. It’s a great way to reinforce good manners, and it teaches the dog some 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, for whatever reason, that it is OK to take what they want. It’s our job to teach them that patience will bring them lots of good things! You sit, you get a treat! You lie down and wait for a minute, you get an awesome dinner. You sit and make eye contact, OK great, we can head out for a walk!

Be careful not to make excuses for your dog and allow possessiveness of objects that “belong” to the dog. For example, just because the tennis is 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.

3. Help the dog achieve a high level of obedience.

This goes along with self control and the “nothing is free” idea. 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. So, 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.

Stop a dog's toy possessiveness

It helps if you show ownership of something before you give it to your dog. So, while you want your dog to work for his food and toys, you also want to show ownership before giving it to 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. Again, this helps the dog accept the food in a calm state of mind, which is a good thing when food is involved.

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 liver treats!

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. This will be different for each dog, but I recommend you skip the dry dog biscuits and use real meat like pieces of chicken, beef or liver.

Approach your dog with the treats, 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 the 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.

7. Desensitize and condition your dog.

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?

For further reading, see my additional posts:

What do you do to prevent possessive behavior from your dog?

“Possessiveness. Now that’s a lot of S’s.” -Ace

This post was updated in August 2013.

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  1. Megan MacRae on August 8, 2013

    I have a one and a half year old Pitbull and Chow mix. He is the most loving dog I’ve ever had, but we’ve run across a couple extremely bad habits. If he isn’t doing what he likes (like not wanting to go to bed) he will have no problem growling at you and acting like he’s going to bite you. Also, this morning he went out to see the horse and stole a piece of hoof that was left by the farrier (not my horse so I’m not picking up after it) and tried to bite both myself and my Mom when we went to take it from him. We have kids that come over and we are getting nervous that if they go after whatever is in his mouth he will bite them. I think I am a huge part of the problem. When we play, I growl at him when I try to take his toys away from him. How can I get this loving and caring dog to not have temper tantrums?

  2. Stefanie on October 11, 2013

    I have a 2 year old German Shephard mix. She is very sweet, loving, and playful, knows the drop command, and plays well with humans. The issue is that she hoards all of the toys and bones, and shows aggression towards our other dogs if they try to take or have one of the toys. For example, we have a 7 month old puppy who had a ball and was calmly laying with it in his mouth; my GSD entered the room, saw the puppy had the ball, and went to attack him. The strange part though, is that when she does play with the puppy she knows to be gentle because he is smaller and will often lay down and just let him tug. How do we fix this possessiveness?

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on October 28, 2013

      Sorry to hear you’re having this issue. Have you been able to fix it since you wrote your comment?

      I would recommend you work on some self-control exercises with your 2-year-old shepherd mix. For example, have her on a leash and allow the other dog to play with some toys. With your shepherd, work on some obedience commands with treats, rewarding her for focusing on the task at hand and ignoring the other dogs. You may need another person to help you. One person could work with the shepherd while the other plays with the other dogs.

      When/if she tries to go after the other dog, I would give her a verbal correction – “no” and a tug on the leash. Then reward her for a more appropriate behavior such as sitting on command.

      It definitely gets tricky when you’re dealing with multiple dogs. I would definitely be interested in hearing what has worked for others.

  3. Kerry Bilsby on November 10, 2013

    I have a 4 year old rescue jack Russell,during the day I can move his bed or even sit in it,he doesn’t take any notice,but at night if I pick it up to move it he runs towards it growling & showing his teeth,even if his in it at night & I walk past it he growls at me,his such a lovely dog but this is getting worse & I’m not sure the best way to handle it??

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on November 10, 2013

      Sorry to hear you’re having issues with this. How frustrating. Points #’s 7 and 8 on this list are two options for how you can help your dog overcome this problem. My ebook goes into more details on both, so I recommend you check it out. Best of luck to you, and don’t hesitate to contact a trainer in your area. I don’t want you to get bitten.

  4. Dana on November 15, 2013

    I have an 8 month old Husky who I put in daycare last week to help keep him busy during the day. The same week, I noticed he has been possessive of his rawhide bone. He doesn’t take this to day care with him, but I was wondering if the issue was stemming from being around other dogs. I have only had him a month and I am unsure of his background. Should I not be taking him to daycare if he is having these issues?

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on November 15, 2013

      I wouldn’t say he shouldn’t go to daycare, but you might want to find a dog daycare that doesn’t keep toys and bones out on the ground in the main play area. That may sound odd (what? no toys?) but I think it’s generally a good policy to keep all the dogs safer. I’m not sure what your current daycare does, but it would be worth asking. Also let them know about his potential issue so they can prevent any incidents. And they may suggest he should come to daycare anymore. Don’t take it personally if that’s the case.

  5. Kyle on November 28, 2013

    My 7 month old rott has an aggressive possesive behavoir that we are working on with techniques above. He has only had a problem with toys food treats but now I had a tool bag laying in the living room by th couch for a couple days And last night i was on the couch watching tv as he was sleeping by the tool bag and he woke up calmly then snapped at me and begun guarding the tool bag and for two days showed no interest in it at all…when he was guarding it it took 10 min of trying to trade him with various foods to get him away from it…..so what may have triggered the guarding of the bag

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on November 29, 2013

      Gosh, it’s hard to say what triggered it. Some dogs have a tendency to guard their space or to guard their beds or other things on the ground.

  6. Debbi on January 9, 2014

    I have a 5 year old lab pit mix with possession aggression issues. I have paid for $1000′s of dollars of trainers. She will fixate on an object, growl, bear her teeth and threaten to bite. She was a rescue and has been fearful of going outside, etc from day one. We cannot even get her to walk outside at times. I am considering surrendering her because nothing seems to be working. Is there a time when you just have to say enough is enough? I am afraid she will hurt someone. Most of the time she is the sweetest animal. We even have a small dog that she plays with just fine.

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on January 9, 2014

      So sorry to hear you are going through this. It’s so hard to give advice over the Internet, but I know you will make the right choice for you, your family and the dog, whatever that might be.

  7. Tiasha on March 2, 2014

    My friends puppy who os only a few months now is being very possesive of her bones. I try to train her and so far its going well but she just wont let us touch her when she has a bone and I cant trade anything because she is too small to have dry food. She is a lab and the reason they got a lab is cause they are gentle but she snaps and shows her teeth and thats really bad because zhe is so young and still tiny

  8. Lindsay Stordahl Author on March 3, 2014

    Oh I’m sorry to hear your friend’s puppy is acting possessive. I go over some tips in my ebook on how to stop this behavior. I would also encourage your friend to seek the help from a professional trainer in the area. You can definitely put a stop to this problem now before it gets worse.

    Any breed can become possessive.

  9. Suzette McGlynn on April 16, 2014

    Thank you for this article! Very helpful. My dog is a German Shepard lab mix. He has become very possesive over the chuck it balls. He can fit two in his mouth and on play dates he actually will guard up to 3 of them at a time. I am stumped on how to fix this.

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