Possessive behavior in dogs is dangerous but it can be prevented.
Big issues can arise when a dog becomes confident at defending bones, toys or other items. Some dogs even become possessive of people and won’t let others approach or sit next to “their human”. This is scary in a number of ways.
If a dog with resource guarding issues gets a hold of anything potentially dangerous it can be very challenging to try and take it away. It is now dangerous for the dog, plus dangerous that someone may get bit trying to remove the item. There is also a good deal of potential liability when owning a dog that has possessive behaviors. All too often it is the unknowing visitor or house guest that is the one who gets nipped or sometimes seriously hurt.
As with any behavior problem, trying to fix existing issues is much more difficult and time consuming than preventing them from ever getting started.
To help you get an idea of how to head off these problems of possessive behavior, I filmed one of the routine interactions we go through when dogs are here at the training facility.
We often have dogs practicing the Place command while we are attending to other tasks. For those who don’t know what a Place command is, we define it as the dog remaining on their mat or bed, (4 paws on) until given permission to go.
Today I noticed that the staff had given each of the dogs a food stuffed bone or rubber toy to chew on to keep them entertained. This was the perfect opportunity to see if any of the dogs in training had issues with possessive behavior and make sure we were heading off any potential problems.
Here is a quick look at what I did to help create the right associations for dogs being approached by humans when they had coveted items in their control.
Notice that I always approached bearing gifts. I moved toward the dogs with something to offer. It gave them reason to look up, sniff my hand and discover something yummy was there waiting for them. I offered them several treats before I ever touched the item they were chewing on. When I did take a hold of the bone or toy, I shared possession of it with them, rather than taking it away.
Then I gave it back and let them enjoy in peace.
What I didn’t do was approach with an attitude of “I’m dominate and I’ll take things away if I darn well please.”
While I do firmly believe we need to teach our dogs to relinquish anything to us, I don’t think that an aggressive attitude will gain us cooperation in the long run. Making a stand to prove you can remove something from your dog’s mouth is not the best way to head off future problems of possessive behavior.
Even if I prove to a dog that I am bigger, stronger and more dominate, that isn’t going to have any carry over with the next person or make the dog any safer with other guests, family members or children.
Let me explain the rational for my approach this way:
Imagine yourself, sitting in a restaurant, enjoying a wonderful meal. You’re fully engaged in eating, not anywhere near done and the waiter comes up, reaches in and takes away your plate. You try to take the plate back and he pulls it farther away and tells you No.
How exactly do you feel about that? I mean after all, it’s not yours right? You haven’t paid the bill yet. That food belongs to the restaurant and if they want to take it back, well, then they are entitled. Now let’s suppose that happens a few times. Apparently restaurateurs and waiters are out to teach you a lesson about not trying to possess food and that you should give up your plate willingly at any time.
How’s this lesson working out so far? I am guessing that you are starting to feel a bit apprehensive and perhaps even defensive when a waiter approaches your table?
Now lets imagine a different scenario. You’re eating your meal, the waiter approaches and offers you a sample of a very awesome new appetizer that just came out of the oven, then he offers to move your plate so he can make room for a new dish they want you to sample as well. Later he comes back to top off your drink and gives you a piece of dessert
Do you see how the waiters approach now has created anticipation of “what great thing is coming next!” rather than apprehension that you might lose something of value?
And if the waiter did have to come to take your plate away from you quickly because they just discovered their was something wrong with the food…you would not have developed the desire to hide or horde your meal. The waiter could remove the plate with little resistance or defensiveness from you.
Possessive behavior is a pretty natural state of being. Without some innate sense of it, I doubt any of us, dogs or humans, would have survived very long.
The thing is, we want to teach our dogs that it isn’t necessary.
The goal should be to develop a dog that trusts us enough to take away a coveted item. That trust is built by having a higher ratio of giving rather than taking when we approach our dogs.
The training takes a little practice and the ideal time to start is with a young pup that hasn’t learned (or at least hasn’t had lots of practice) with the habit of defensiveness yet.
If you have a dog that growls, snaps or bite in situations like this, please get professional help. By the time the dog is bearing teeth you are already having serious issues with possessive behavior.