Written by Dr. Cariann Turbeville

If you’re a dog owner, you’ve probably experienced your dog becoming possessive of objects. It’s common for dogs to guard their toys, food, and beds from other animals and people. But why do dogs become possessive in the first place? And how can you help them overcome this behavior? In this blog post, we’ll answer these questions and offer tips on how to deal with a territorial or possessive dog.

Most pet parents consider their furry friends as part of the family. And many pets are spoiled with an abundance of food and toys. Why, then, are so many dogs possessive — even aggressive — about their toys and food?

This behavioral issue can become a problem, endangering you and other dogs. In extreme cases, a dog’s territorial behavior is a key factor in surrendering them to an animal shelter.

Signs of possessive behavior in dogs

If your dog displays any of the following behaviors, then retraining them is necessary.

  • Dog is agitated when your hands are near their food dish
  • Dog growls or snaps if other pets approach their food dish
  • Dog barks or bares their teeth when holding a toy
  • Dog lunges or bites when you reach for their food dish or toy

These behaviors occur when a dog claims a toy or a perceived space (turf or territory). Dog behaviorists call this behavior “resource protection,” and it arises from natural canine herding and hunting instincts. You may witness dog possessiveness in the dog park, at home when your dog interacts with other pets, or even when it’s just you and your dog together, with no additional stimulation, threat or competition.

When is possessiveness in dogs considered a problem?

As in humans, extreme, unnecessary aggression may initially seem to be a sign of super confidence, when in fact it’s just the opposite.

Look carefully at your dog’s body while she is eating. Is her body stiff and high with a tense back or raised hackles, ears back, or tail lowered? Some dogs even show the whites of their eyes while eating, indicating high stress approaching panic. These are actually signs of fear and any of these may be early signs of food aggression.

Food aggression in dogs

Possessive dogs will stiffen and snap if you reach for the dish to refill it while they’re eating, guarding the perimeter of their eating area. By contrast, confident dogs that feel safe in their environment don’t mind being lightly touched as they eat, and may even give you a tail wag of gratitude as they chow down.

Which dog breeds are more possessive?

While any dog can become possessive and sometimes dangerously so, the following specific breeds seem most prone:

  • English Cocker Spaniel
  • Border Collie
  • Rottweiler
  • Jack Russell Terrier
  • Golden Retriever

The possessive impulse may be genetic and negative early life experiences can worsen it. Experiences like stress, feeling threatened by humans or other dogs, deprivation, and/or abuse can leave an imprint of insecurity in the psyche of your dog. This leads to jealous guarding and “protection” of food, snacks, treats and toys.

What not to do when dealing with a possessive dog

Never, ever “fight fire with fire” when dealing with your dog. It’s a mistake to think that you need to establish yourself as the leader of the pack through force or aggression; it can be done gently. This probably goes without saying, but do not punish the dog with striking, scolding, or by withholding walks, food, treats, contact or love.

Instead, do this: be calm, assertive and consistent as you offer your dog alternatives to possessive behaviors.

Possessiveness in dogs can be prevented…and reversed

The good news is that possessiveness is a behavior that can be prevented and reversed with the right training. Here are a few techniques you can use to help your dog overcome his possessiveness:

Start training your dog young if possible

Possessive behaviors are typically set into motion when a puppy is very young. If you’re adopting a puppy, use their early years to establish trust and ease. Allow all household members to give the puppy food and treats, and allow the puppy to see and sniff their hands while doing so. Your puppy will also learn to enjoy seeing you fill the dish, making a clear and positive connection between friendly humans and getting fed.

Teach your dog appropriate commands

Puppies need to be trained to “Leave” and “Give.” The basic idea with these commands is to teach your dog to release something that they want, and then praising and rewarding them with another (even yummier!) treat or toy to compensate. In psychological terms, this is a form of the “abundance theory” in action for dogs, assuring your pet that there will always be enough.

What about possessive older dogs?

Older dogs with established possessiveness traits are more difficult to retrain, but the same basic principles apply. The dog must be skillfully desensitized so it’s no longer necessary to “protect” food or toys.

How to prevent possessive behavior in dogs

Be sure to train your dog as soon as possible, before they become possessive. The following tips will help you and your dog feel more comfortable and confident.

  • Make your dog earn every meal through obedience. Train your dog to sit or stay, preferably just outside of the feeding area (just outside the kitchen doorway, for example). Train your dog to stay in place as you set the full food dish down: impulse control is a valuable lesson. Then, release your dog from the sit or stay command, and continue to stand as close as possible to your dog as the dog approaches the dish. Gently step away, offering a few soft words of praise (“Who’s a good girl?”). The goal is to demonstrate that human proximity to the dog’s food is always a good thing, and a physically and psychologically safe place for your dog.
  • Feed your dog at the same time, in the same place, every day. This eases anxiety about food scarcity.
  • Feed your dog after a walk, not before. This satisfies their hunting instinct. Besides, exercising a dog with a full stomach may lead to indigestion, and even bloat.
  • Pack leaders eat first… And the pack leader is you! Never feed your dog before you eat, or while other humans are eating. This safe, kind, non-threatening display of human dominance sends a clear message to your dog: you’re the boss.

Is your dog possessive? Contact Airvet for a behavioral consultation to create a plan of action. And if you haven’t already, download the app today!

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