Possessiveness or “resource guarding” in dogs is a common problem. By that, I mean your dog is guarding items like food, rawhides or toys.
I’ll share tips on how to prevent and manage this behavior, but I highly recommend you consult with a professional dog trainer in your area if your dog is showing aggression.
How can I tell if my dog is possessive?
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!
The most obvious signs your dog is possessive of you or certain items are:
- a stiff posture
- a cold stare or
- a growl if someone approaches.
Some dogs will follow through with a snap or a bite if they think a dog or person is trying to take the item. Others will lunge and bark ferociously, and some will just clamp onto the item refusing to let go.
Other signs to watch for include:
- running away to hide with the item
- raised hackles
- licking their lips
- raising their lips and showing teeth
- crouching or moving slowly
Possessiveness can range from barely noticeable to very serious aggression. Sometimes it’s only between other dogs and sometimes dogs are possessive to people as well.
Every dog and situation is unique, but my goal is to help you brainstorm ideas to help your own dog overcome possessiveness (often called resource guarding).
How to stop dog possessive aggression
How to stop a dog from being possessive of food or toys
If your dog guards or refuses to let go of certain items like toys, tennis balls or rawhides, the following suggestions should help decrease the behavior.
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 and attention.
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 teach 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! Lie down and wait, you get food. You make eye contact, OK, we can head out for a walk!
This post has been expanded into a FREE ebook on how to break a dog’s possessiveness. Get it here.
2. When the dog shows aggression, “trade” him for something better.
Do not hesitate to seek help from a professional trainer in your area if you are hesitant about approaching your aggressive dog. If you are tentative, your dog will likely pick up on that and usually the response is not what we’re looking for!
It’s hard to remove an object from your dog if she’s growling and snapping. One way to take the item is to “trade” your dog for something even better than the original object such as pieces of chicken, beef or ham.
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 goodies from your hands or toss the food on the ground.
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 he 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.
3. 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.
See my post: How to teach the drop command.
4. 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. Behaviorist Dr. 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. 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.
- 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.
5. 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. It’s a good rule that people 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.
*This article has been expanded into a FREE ebook on how to break a dog’s possessiveness. Get it here.
6. 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.
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 when on a leash? If not, then how can you expect him to listen to you when he’s off leash?
Does he come when called even with distractions? Now you know where you have work to do.
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.
7. 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 than an excited dog.
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 calmly release him 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 that’s even better, like real chicken!
8. 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?
9. Hire a professional trainer to stop a dog’s possessiveness.
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 for your unique situation.
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. A good trainer will observe you and your dog in a biased, non-emotional way.
10. What about correcting the dog for showing possessiveness?
When correcting a dog that is showing possessiveness, you need to be careful because using force can bring out additional frustration or fear from the dog. Frustrated or fearful dogs are more likely to bite.
It’s all about timing. Ideally, you would step in and block or give a calm, firm “no” or “leave it” before your dog has a chance to grab or guard an item. That way you’ve removed his chance to guard the item and you can actually reward him for a more appropriate behavior like sitting or backing away.
With your dog on a leash, you could even set up these types of scenarios and practice in short sessions a few times per day. Dogs need a lot of repetitions before a behavior becomes conditioned, so be patient.
What if the dog already has the item in his mouth?
Generally, I don’t recommend correcting a dog at this point. Instead, use one of the other techniques I mentioned above such as trading your dog for something else.
For some dogs, a firm “no” or “drop” will work or even a firm tug on the leash as a correction. Then reward your dog with a treat for dropping the item.
If he doesn’t release, do not keep tugging on his leash because there’s not a great outcome from this. At best, your dog might drop the item eventually, but in the process you’ve caused even more arousal or fear from your dog. Some will become more aggressive.
How to stop a dog from being possessive of owner
One last thing, what if the dog is possessive of the owner? For example, what if your dog growls and lunges at people who get too close to you?
If that is the case, you can certainly work on using counter-conditioning and desensitization like I mentioned above (#4). You’ll just need to recruit some helpers. Your helper would approach you while your dog is in your lap or at your feet. She should toss a treat to your dog before he has a chance to guard you and then walk away.
An issue with dogs that guard their owners is they’re often acting out of fear. They’re afraid of new people and feel more confident or powerful when they’re leaning into their owner or sitting in the owner’s lap. They growl and bark at strangers out of fear.
If you have a small dog, I recommend you block him from sitting in your lap and guarding you. Likewise, if you have a dog that guards you from your feet, do not allow him to do this. Instead, get up and sit somewhere else or put your dog in a down/stay on a dog bed when you have people over.
For further reading on a dog’s possessiveness, see my additional posts:
- Teach a dog the “drop” command
- Stop a small dog from guarding her owner
- Stop a dog’s toy guarding at the dog park
- Prevent a dog from guarding food or toys
- Dog to dog resource guarding – Patricia McConnell
What do you do to prevent a dog’s possessiveness?
Let us know in the comments.
This post was updated in Feb 2018.