How do I stop my small dog from guarding me?

Small dog’s possessiveness of people

I often hear about small dogs guarding their owners.

The scenario goes something like this:

First, the dog barks and growls whenever people come to the door.

Next, the dog’s owner picks him up to stop him from barking or growling.

From his owner’s arms, the dog continues to growl at anyone who tries to get too close. He might not even “allow” anyone else to sit on the couch next to his owner.

Sound familiar?

Tips to stop a small dog’s possessiveness of his owner

How to stop a small dog's guarding

Of course, if your larger dog is showing possessiveness, similar rules apply.

Understand the problem

If a small dog is guarding his owner, he is often acting aggressive because of an insecurity.

The dog’s owner has been carrying him around for months, shielding him from experiencing the world as a dog. Whenever the dog is frightened, the owner picks him up. Although the owner is trying to protect her dog, the dog never learns how to deal with the real world. He never learns how to cope with new environments, other dogs approaching him, kids reaching for him, etc.

Naturally, the dog feels safe (and therefore more powerful) when he’s in his owner’s arms. He wants to maintain that feeling of power, so he learns to growl at anyone who comes too close. When he growls, people move away. The dog learns that growling protects his “power source.”

Often, if the owner would simply set the dog on the ground and ignore him, the dog’s state of mind would instantly change.

Commit to solving the problem

It’s often difficult for dog owners to realize they themselves are the problem.

If you can commit to making change in your own behavior, you can help your dog.

Are you OK with setting your dog on the ground when he’s scared? Are you OK with ignoring him? Using a firm voice? Setting clear rules and boundaries?

If you are willing to make changes, you will be able to help your dog overcome his possessiveness. If you can’t change, then it will not be possible for your dog to change.

Do not hold the dog when he’s growling

When you hold your dog, you allow him to become more powerful.

Obviously we love lap dogs, and it’s not a bad thing to hold and cuddle them. That’s one of the reasons we love dogs!

However, we should not hold or cuddle our dogs when they are acting insecure or aggressive. Doing so encourages the wrong behavior. If you hold a dog when he’s growling, he is not learning a more appropriate behavior. He thinks the barking is OK when it’s not.

I’m not saying you can’t give comfort to a frightened dog, but when the fear is resulting in aggression we need to look for other ways to offer comfort vs. picking the dog up. See my post can you reward a dog’s fear?

Block your dog from guarding you

Barkley the Yorkie terrier mixIf you set your dog on the ground, he might sit at your feet and guard you from there. Or, he might keep trying to jump back onto the couch or onto your lap where he feels more powerful.

Don’t allow this.

If he jumps onto your lap, set him back on the ground.

If he tries to jump on the couch, block him with your arm or leg. Push him off if needed.

If he sits at your feet, put his leash on him and tether him to a chair across the room.

If he keeps hiding behind your legs at the dog park, keep moving away.

The dog needs to learn how to cope without you.

When placed on the ground, the dog will most likely stop growling and barking. Instead, his true anxiety will show. He might pace and whine, frantically trying to get back to his “power source” – your lap!

This is when you should simply ignore your dog. Don’t think about him. Don’t touch him. Don’t even glance in his direction. Act as though he is not there. And don’t feel bad about it. You are helping him become a more confident, normal dog. When he’s calm and quiet, that’s when you should pet him and even invite him back to sit with you.

How to stop my small dog from guarding me

Don’t allow your dog on the furniture

If your dog has a habit of guarding you, I recommend a no dogs on the furniture rule, at least temporarily.

This rule seems very hard for the owners of small dogs to enforce, but it’s important.

Often, the furniture itself is what triggers the possessiveness. The dog may not allow strangers to sit on the couch, for example. If that’s the case, the owner should not allow the dog on the couch at all. The human decides who sits on the couch. The dog does not get to decide.

The dog might even growl at someone who sleeps in his owner’s bed! Again, the human should be the one to decide who sleeps on the bed. The dog does not get to decide!

Enforcing a no dogs on the furniture rule will also teach your dog a higher level of self control. This is important overall because a dog with more self control is generally going to be more obedient, balanced and happy.

Do not allow possessiveness of food or toys

Dogs that are possessive of their owners are often possessive of food and toys as well. This is behavior that you should not tolerate from your dog.

To stop a dog’s possessiveness of food and toys, it’s important to  teach the dog a command for “drop” or “leave it.” It’s also important to follow consistent rules, and to teach your dog that everything belongs to you – even “his” toys, food and bed.

Practice solid obedience skills

Dogs with solid obedience skills are generally more respectful of their owners. They listen to commands, and they have a high level of self control.

It’s not a coincidence that small dogs are less likely to be trained and more likely to be possessive compared to larger dogs.

It’s never too late to start training your dog, though. I highly recommend you start taking your dog to group obedience classes. It’s important for the dogs to learn self control while working around other dogs.

Teach your dog it’s OK to be alone

Sometimes a small dog feel the need to guard his owner because he is not comfortable being alone. He barks and growls at anyone who comes near because that person might be trying to remove him from the owner.

You have the ability to change your dog’s behavior by helping him cope without you. It’s not healthy for a dog to be near his owner 24/7 just as it’s not healthy for any two people to be together all the time!

So, give your dog some time each day in his kennel or in a separate room. You can give him a special treat during this time like a Kong toy with peanut butter. If the dog whines, it’s very important to ignore him until he’s quiet.

Another way to create separation is to tether his leash to a chair and sit on the other side of the room, ignoring him for 20 minutes. You should also work on teaching him a solid down/stay command until he will lie on a dog bed or mat for up to a half-hour.

Help your dog bond with people other than you

Ask friends and family members to feed your dog, take him for walks and play with him from time to time. This will help your dog see that other people are good, too!

And here’s a great training exercise recommended by a reader named Marie:

Tie your dog’s leash to a chair and sit on the chair. Then, ask different people to approach you and your dog. The second your dog barks or growls, get up and walk away without saying a word. This will teach your dog that barking and growling will not help his situation. It will actually make you go away!

Sounds like a great idea to me!

Reward good behavior

It’s important that we praise our dogs when they are showing good behavior. If your dog is sitting calmly on the floor while guests are over, make sure to pet him and tell him he’s a good boy. Or toss him a treat. If he sits patiently while you pet another dog, tell him what a good dog he is.

We want to ignore unwanted behavior and reward the good.

What are some other tips you’ve used to prevent possessiveness?

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22 Readers Commented

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  1. on November 29, 2012

    My parents have a Shih Tzu. This post is absolutely perfect for them. LOL.

  2. Lindsay Stordahl Author on November 29, 2012

    Haha! I hear ya!

  3. Ty Brown on November 29, 2012

    I agree, holding a dog when they are aggressive is very empowering to them and makes the behavior worse.

    I like to go one step further and not tether the dog on the other side of the room but teach a ‘place’ command and have the dog stay on the other side of the room. A dog that is tethered is staying because he has to, a dog who is taught to stay without being tethered is staying because he chooses to. One thing I’ve found over the years is that the more proactive the dog is in fixing the problem the sooner he doesn’t have the problem. In this case, the dog actively staying because of choice means that his little brain and nervous system will have to find a coping mechanism other than aggression.

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on November 29, 2012

      Yep, I think you have some good advice! Now, how many dog owners have actually taught their dogs to do this? 🙂 But I agree, it’s something every dog should learn.

      • Alison on December 2, 2012

        My pup will do a reliable stay command but I added a ‘mat’ command also. Now when I have a party, I can get her to her mat to watch people enter but not greet them until they are ready. It’s very helpful as she is a mastiff and can be overwhelming to first time visitors.

        • Lindsay Stordahl Author on December 2, 2012

          That’s wonderful, Alison! Thank you for setting a good example. Do you have any advice for others who would like to teach this?

      • Ty Brown on December 5, 2012

        You hit the nail on the head. When people are given advice on what to do with an aggressive dog I often hear them complain that they can’t comply with the advice because their dog doesn’t listen to the commands being recommended.

        I always wonder why there is the disconnect that they don’t immediately grasp that they need to be working on those basic commands first?

        • Lindsay Stordahl Author on December 5, 2012

          I get the impression that some people think only certain dogs can achieve a high level of obedience. They don’t seem to think their own dogs are capable. Really, most dogs are capable. They just need the human to work with them and teach them what to do!

  4. Pipa on November 29, 2012

    Great post Lindsay – my friend’s small dog used to do this a lot and when she stopped carrying her dog all the time and they had some space from each other the dog improved on this front a lot. Maybe guarding is one of those things that’s a symptom of a deeper problem?

  5. Tegan on November 30, 2012

    This post embraces the myth that fear can be rewarded. Picking up a dog that is growling is not reinforcing the behaviour, but it’s also not addressing the cause of the problem. For dogs that growl at people, I would suggest working on a classical conditioning program, that changes the dog’s attitude towards people as fundamentally good. Dogs that ‘guard their owners’ are really just expressing their insecurity towards people in general, and THIS is what needs to be fixed.

    More reading: “The Myth of Reinforcing Fear”

    Additionally, the suggestion to “simply ignore your dog”, the dog that is acting aggressively, is not something I’d ever advocate. Aggressive behaviour should not be ignored. I know the premise, here, is that the ignored behaviour will become extinct, but in reality, the behaviour will continue being rewarded. Fundamentally, dogs are acting aggressively to avoid contact with ‘scary people’. People don’t approach growling dogs, and so the dog is being rewarded (negative reinforcement – scary people go away). Additionally, when a dog is ignored he is allowed to practice his aggressive behaviour, and then further instil the behaviour into the dog’s repertoire of behaviours.

    In summary:
    *You can’t reward fearful behaviour, so picking a dog up that is growling is not a problem.
    *A more effective way to deal with ‘guarding behaviour’ is to address the dog’s innate insecurities, and
    *Ignoring these innate insecurities is not a proactive approach to preventing aggressive behaviours.

  6. Jen on January 25, 2013

    My male Boston used to have this issue, it was simply fixed by saying it’s ok and putting him on the ground, or telling him to lay in his bed. Now I have to find a way to Stephon from biting peoples feet when they come over. It usually works if I get up and tell him to stop by putting myself between him and people(and by people I only mean adults) kids can run by and around him with no issues. When he bites my feet it’s only once and awhile when I leave. But it has to stop , it’s a long process but were getting there lol.

  7. Courtney on April 8, 2013

    About two years ago my boyfriend and me got a rescue dog a blue heeler. We have given him loads of attention, playing keeping him busy, doing sit and stay etc. My boyfriend started letting him on couch etc and suddenly i can’t even get near my bf anymore without the dog throwing fits, whining, jumping all over us and trying to push me away from my bf who this male dog has seemed to claim. We cannot even be alone without dog whining for hours. Today i got growled at i’m afraid of what this is developed into and my bf thinks its cute [the dog is big!!!] I told my bf this needs to change now before it gets worse but he will not listen…

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 8, 2013

      I am on your side with this. I think you two need to have a serious talk about how to handle the situation before it escalates to something worse. If this were my dog, and the dog was guarding me from my husband, the dog would absolutely not be allowed on the couch. I would tether him across the room and work on teaching a solid down/stay command. The dog does not get to decide who approaches me. I get to decide. And my husband can sit where he wants in his own house, which includes sitting next to me if he wants. The dog does not get to decide.

      It might help to hire a trainer to come talk through these issues with the two of you. It’s a difficult subject and it’s even harder if the two people are not on the same page.

  8. Cristy on July 15, 2014

    Two days ago I adopted a dog. He has been at my side is not aggressive towards my boyfriend but I have another dog and new dog has growled at my old dog out of nowhere for example when I throw a toy that new dog is not interested in for old dog or old dog is approaching by me he jumps down and starts to growl in her face. What should I do?

    • Cristy on July 15, 2014

      I forgot to add he sits by my side on the couch and doesn’t leave my side. My bf will try to pik him up to sit with him and he will jump down an come right back.

      • Lindsay Stordahl Author on July 15, 2014

        Just brainstorming here to give you some ideas. You know the dog better than me, but I would work on general obedience skills with the new dog such as teaching a really solid stay command. That way, you can calmly put him into a stay position while you pet your other dog and then reward the new dog for calm behavior. Ignore any whining, growling, etc. Walk away from him when he does this or turn your back to him.

        Since he probably won’t stay reliably quite yet, you could tether him to a certain area a few times a day while you are supervising. Then, calmly play with or give attention to your other dog while ignoring any whining or barking from the new dog. Give him attention when he is calm. You could also try petting both dogs together, but turn your back and ignore the new dog if he growls. Kind of like “too bad” and pay attention to your other dog.

        They may adjust on their own in a few days. If not, you could consider hiring a trainer to come help you out. Even one session with a trainer may give you some great ideas.

  9. Sandy Weinstein on May 26, 2016

    my middle child is very protective. the other 2 gals are fine. however, since i live alone, i done mine that they are protective of me. i just dont let me continue to bark or try to nip at someone’s heel’s like the middle child does with men. once they know that i am okay or it is someone i am willing to talk to, then i will get them to stop. after they smell the person, they are general okay. when the dog sitter came to the house to help me when i has surgery, they girls were fine, when she sat down they jumped on the couch for her to play with. my middle child has never really liked men for some reason. she is okay with men that she knows but not strangers. the schnauzer that my parents had, which had been originally mine til i went to do a college internship and they would not let me have her back, was protective of the house. when my dad passed away, Rose would not let any men in the house, except my brothers. she would bark and them but not attack or try to bite them. she was very protective of my mother. the men that she knew she was okay with, it was just strangers that she would not let in the house, like workmen. the girls let me know when someone is coming down the road or at the door. i live in the country on 11 acres and have a long, long driveway. i have not had the problem of picking up the middle child when she is barking, as soon as she settles down, i put her down and she is fine. the girls are fine when out in public, never cause any problems with strangers, no barking, growling, etc. in face, i have been told that i have the best behaved girls and people say they have never seen such well behaved mini schnauzers. even when i had a boyfriend come over, the girls were fine, i think it is just with strangers and men they dont know for the middle child. it may bother other people but it does not bother me. i would prefer them to show protection for me since i live alone, as long as they are okay in public which they are and when i have guest in the house which they are. if someone comes to my house and starts getting aggressive or yelling at me, the girls get upset and start barking at them. these are good points though.

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on May 27, 2016

      I can see why it’s nice to have them as watchdogs and for protection. All depends on what the owner wants and decides. I have family in rural areas and their dogs have the job of alerting them to intruders/visitors so they are there for some protection.

  10. EJ Haskins on June 2, 2016

    I have used this with ‘other people’s dogs’ as well to prevent my own dog guardibg me .


    This exercise helps to minimise aggression and fighting between animals in a household. It can also be useful in a class or park situation to defuse tension between two or more dogs.

    Have, if possible, all your animals together, but especially the two you are having trouble with. Include the kids too if you have children. Cats can sit on something high so they are out of immediate range of the dog if necessary.

    Have a *lot* of treats that all animals like, including yourself, if possible. Then start doling them out one by one to each animal and yourself in turn. “One for Yogi, one for Sheba, one for old cat, one for new cat, one for cocky, one for me, one for Yogi, one for Sheba, one for old cat, one for new cat, one for cocky, one for me, . . . ”

    If the dogs do sit/stays ask for this, but it is not vital — just ensure they are concentrating on waiting for their turn for the treat.

    When all of the treats have been doled out, say ‘That’s all,’ or words to that effect, show the empty food container or your empty hands and dismiss all animals. If necessary, separate the feuding two, but do not make an issue of this either — if possible the dog shouldn’t even be aware of the separation.

    Eventually, all the animals should come to enjoy this and fighting should stop.

    However, you will still need to keep an eye out for situations that could trigger aggressive behaviour and manage this. Keeping feuding animals separate when not supervised is still a sensible measure.

    Possibly this feeding together seems to convey the message that they are all part of the same social group. It also stops the cats from running away from the dogs — and it is often this running away that triggers the dog’s predatory behaviour.