Possessive behavior happens when your dog “lays claim” to a particular resource, like a toy or bed, and seeks to protect it. Dogs who get anxious, growl, or even snap at other animals are showing “possessive aggression,” and it’s important to intervene. With patience and training, you can help your dog learn to relax. Read on for tips on how to handle a highly possessive dog.
1. Know What Possessive Dog Behavior Looks Like
Some possessive behavior may not seem like a big deal. For example, your dog “ignoring” you when you ask her to drop a tennis ball is a minor form of possessiveness, but it probably doesn’t alarm you much. However, these small signs of resource guarding can grow into bigger issues. If your dog growls or snaps at you when you try to take back a toy, you have a problem.
The first step to managing a possessive dog is to recognize the warning signs of possessive behavior:
- Refusing to give up a toy or treat when asked
- Snapping at other dogs while eating
- Hoarding toys or treats
- Growling at other animals while holding a toy
- “Jealous dog” behavior such as head-butting another dog who’s being pet
Once you know what behaviors to look for, you can better manage your possessive dog.
2. Prevention and Managing the Environment
The most immediate way to control your dog’s possessive behavior is to prevent access to the things he guards. For example, my dog Radar gets possessive around chews like bully sticks, so I simply don’t keep them in the house. If your dog is possessive over “high-value” items, the easiest solution is to not bring those items home.
You can also use doors and baby gates in your home to keep your possessive dog separate from resources he may guard. My second dog loves bully sticks, and I like to give her one once in a while, but I make sure to do it in a separate room from Radar.
Finally, if your dog is only possessive in certain situations, you can manage when and where you let him have valuable treats and toys. Some dogs guard their food bowl if another animal is around, but have no problem eating in a room alone. You can use the environment to manage your dog’s behaviors.
3. Leave It, Drop It, and Trade Ya
Sometimes, a possessive dog needs a basic obedience refresher course. All the basics, from “sit” to “stay,” are important for your dog, but these three commands are most useful for dogs who tend to hang on to resources:
- “Leave it!” This command tells your dog to ignore a compelling treat or toy and focus their attention on you, or to walk past an enticing morsel on the street. This command will help manage your possessive dog’s reaction to resources.
- “Drop it!” A key command for all dogs, “drop it” is especially helpful for dogs who get possessive about toys. Training a reliable “drop it” can help prevent possessive behavior before it starts.
- “Trade ya” is a cousin of “drop it,” and is useful if your dog won’t drop the item she’s guarding. Essentially, you offer a “better” resource than the one they’re guarding. I use “drop it” when Radar refuses to let go of a tennis ball. I show him a particularly tasty treat, say “trade ya,” and follow it with a “sit.” When he sits, he gets the tasty treat as a reward, and drops the ball!
Training takes time and patience, but if you’re consistent, you and your dog will breathe easier.
4. Nothing in Life Is Free
Possessive dogs are guarding resources, and the longer you let them get away with resource guarding, the more it will be reinforced. If you have a hard time saying “no” to your dog when she begs for treats, but are disappointed when she growls at another pet over the food bowl, we totally get it. The “Nothing in Life is Free” training may help!
“Nothing in Life is Free” training, or NILIF, teaches your dog that all resources come from the human. The idea is to ask your dog to work for everything he wants. A professional trainer or online guide will give you the details, but you can start small, by asking your dog to hold a “sit” for several minutes before releasing him to eat dinner. The key is to be patient and persistent!
NILIF training is a positive, safe way to remind your dog that you control the resources, and it can greatly reduce possessive behavior.
5. Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning for a Possessive Dog
For dogs with severe possessive behavior (i.e., they growl or snap at humans), a longer course of training may be necessary. Desensitization and counter-conditioning training is a gradual, deliberate process of changing your dog’s behavior. It’s useful for dogs who guard their food bowl, or growl when you try to take away a toy.
Over the course of many weeks, you can work with your possessive dog. The idea is teaching her not to react emotionally to a specific object or situation. Then, you teach her the rewards of having a different reaction. For example, a dog who growls when people come near her food bowl can be trained not to react at all, and eventually to react positively to a person near them at meal time. The ASPCA has an excellent guide on using this type of training for food guarding.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning training is very effective, but takes a lot of time, patience, and consistency. If you feel your dog may benefit from this type of training, it may be best to consult a professional behaviorist.