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How do I stop my small dog from guarding me?

Small dog’s possessiveness of owner

I often hear people ask, “How to stop my small dog from guarding me?” but big dogs will also guard their owners.

With small dogs, 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

If your medium or large dog is showing possessiveness, these rules will also apply!

How to stop my dog from resource guarding me

1. Understand the problem – Why does my dog guard me?

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. More repetitions of that and eventually the dog no longer growls.

2. Commit to solving your dog’s guarding

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

What to do if your dog is protective of you?

If you can commit to making change in your own behavior, you can help your dog. I know it’s not always easy, so hang in there!

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 over time. If you can’t change, then it will not be possible for your dog to change.

Keep reading for more ideas on what to do if your dog is protective of you.

3. 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?

4. Block your dog from guarding you

If 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.

Barkley the Yorkie terrier mix

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. Or, 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.

5. Don’t allow your dog on the furniture (temporarily)

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. (My dogs are never allowed on the furniture and they are just fine!)

See our post: Stop my dog from growling at me on the bed

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.

How to stop a small dog's guarding

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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

*This article has been expanded into a FREE ebook on how to break a dog’s possessiveness. Get it here.

8. Teach your dog it’s OK to be alone

Sometimes a small dog feels 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.

See: How to teach the place command.

9. 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!

10. 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. I recommend the treats called Zuke’s minis.

Signs your dog is protective of you

Finally, I quickly wanted to list out some signs that your dog is protective of you because it’s not always easy to tell.

Signs your dog is guarding you:

(These can also be signs your dog is scared, which is often the real reason the dog is protecting you. She’s frightened!)

  • Growls or barks when other people approach you
  • Places herself between you and another person
  • Backs into you or sits on your feet or at your feet

Is my dog protecting me or scared?

How to stop my small dog from guarding me

Often, both! The top reason dogs “protect” their owners is because they are scared. Their owner is the one thing that helps them feel secure and safe, so they want to “protect” this “power source.”

The best thing you can do is help build your dog’s confidence and security using some of the tips outlined above.

What are some other tips you’ve used to prevent a dog’s territorial behavior?

Let me know in the comments!

*This article has been expanded into a FREE ebook on how to break a dog’s possessiveness. Get it here.

Best products to help with resource guarding:

  1. High-value treats!
    I recommend the brand Zuke’s minis when you work with your dog on “drop”, “leave it” and trading them.
  2. Treat pouch.
    Use a treat bag to conveniently hold all your treats during your training sessions.
  3. Clicker.
    Use the clicker to mark the exact moment your dog does the correct behavior. In our case, it’s “drop” or “leave it.” Followed by a treat!

More resources to stop your dog from guarding you:

Lindsay Stordahl is the founder of That Mutt. She writes about dog training and behavior, healthy raw food for pets and running with dogs.

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