What to do if your dog is possessive of food and toys

Using aggression to maintain ownership of an item of value such as food or a favourite toy is known as ‘resource guarding’.

In the dog world, this is perfectly natural and normal behaviour. However, when a dog demonstrates this type of behaviour towards a person, it is seen as unacceptable. This view point is a reasonable one because if a person fails to see the signs or change how they conduct themselves, the behaviour can escalate up to and including a bite.

It’s a known fact that all behaviour is directly related to an individual’s emotional state. In other words, we act how we feel. With this in mind, understanding the emotion behind this type of ‘guarding’ behaviour is vital if we are to implement a successful behaviour modification program.

Aggression, to varying degrees, is often caused by a dog that is fearful, worried, or scared of something.

Here’s a few examples:

  • Dog growls at strangers when waking on the lead = dog is worried about strangers.
  • Dog growls at owners when he is on the sofa = dog is worried about losing his comfy resting place.
  • Dog growls and snaps at owner when they approach him whilst he is eating = dog is worried he will lose his food.

Toy guarding

All dogs should be given the opportunity to play with toys. They help with exercise, training, chewing, and the simulation of natural behaviours. Sometimes however, certain dogs get possessive over their toys when people try to touch them.

The most common response from an owner when this happens is for them to chastise the dog either verbally or physically. Bearing in mind that fear is the underlying emotion driving the dogs behaviour, this approach only makes the situation worse. This approach is more likely to get a person bitten than cure the problem.

Encouraging positive toy play

  • Teaching a dog the ‘take it’ or ‘leave it’ exercise is always a good place to start. If the dog is just a toy guarder, then the use of treats only for this exercise is recommended.
  • Refrain from entering the dogs personal space in order to obtain its toy. Teaching the dog to ‘retrieve’ (take the toy to the owner) is crucial to success.
  • Engage the dog in a game of tuggy. Verbally reward the dog for pulling against you, and then suddenly let go of the toy whilst happily telling him that he is very strong and clever. Hold your hand out whilst still using a happy and praising voice and ask the dog if he wants to try his luck again. The first couple of times you might need to encourage him to come towards you, but providing you make the game of tuggy fun and exciting and let him win, the chances are that he will end up thrusting the toy in your hand to give it another go.

Guarding of stolen items

Lots of owners inadvertently teach their dogs to steal things. Their response to the dog running off with a stolen item is to run after him, verbally chastise them and then forcibly remove the item. The drive for a dog to steal something in the first place is generally due to boredom and/or attention seeking. The aggression problem arises for the same reason as with toy guarding – fear of punishment, and fear of losing possession of the item.

How to prevent it

Ensure that the dog is kept adequately occupied. This can be achieved in many ways, but if you are stuck for ideas, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Steps to take if your dog has stolen something

The first thing an owner must do if a dog steals something is ask themselves two questions:

  • Is the item dangerous to the dog?
  • Just how valuable is the item to the owner?

If the dog is in danger or the item is of high value to the owner, it must be removed from the dog as quickly as possible:

  • Avoid direct confrontation. Grab some high value food such as lumps of cheese, liver, or sausage, and throw pieces of it to the dog in quick succession.
  • As the dog starts to take the food, the owner should then throw a handful of the food away from the stolen item and when it moves away to eat it, the owner can safely obtain the item.
  • Any verbal interaction with the dog should be encouraging and rewarded, so as not to arouse the fear trigger that has been previously mentioned.

Things to remember

It is worth bearing in mind the following:

  • Keep your verbal responses as neutral or slightly positive when they discover that the dog has stolen something.
  • The main aim is not to trigger the fear response, and any form firm language or physical manipulation will almost certainly do this.
  • Keep your tone happy and non-confrontational, as it will likely keep the dog relaxed and therefore relatively close to them. If the owner then casually walks towards the treat cupboard or fridge whilst congratulation their dog on its trophy, the chances are that it will follow them and then drop the item in the expectation of a reward.
  • It’s far better to have a dog that steals things who then immediately seeks out their owner to show them their prize in order to get a reward, rather than having a dog that steals things who then runs off with it and guards it with its life.

Food guarding

Food guarding seems to be the one type of aggression towards people that most owners can understand or even tolerate. Food is required in order to stay alive, therefore it is very valuable, and is often the highlight of a dogs day, so to have someone interfere with it can cause a great deal of distress to some dogs.

Symptoms of food guarding include:

  • The dog eating faster
  • Freezing over the bowl and staring
  • Growling
  • Lunging
  • Snapping and biting

Ideally, an owner should be able to recognize that the dog is feeling uncomfortable before the last three symptoms are displayed, and therefore stop their approach and adopt a different strategy.

How to handle food guarding

Although serious, this problem can be overcome with relative ease. It just requires a gentle persistent approach:

  • The first step is to ensure that the dog has an appropriate diet that isn’t the tastiest.
  • The second step is to have a selection of very high value food at your disposal.
  • The final aim is when the owner approaches the dog while it’s eating, the dog lifts its head to come happily out of the bowl in expectation of something nice being added to it.

Steps to take

  • The training starts with the owner being a distance away from the dog and its food. As with the rest of this type of training, it’s still imperative that the dogs fear trigger is not activated.
  • Drop a decent sized chunk of high value food as close to the bowl as possible. The food should be thrown whatever the dog’s response to the call might be. This should be done approximately three times per meal.
  • When the training gets to the stage where the dog lifts its head out of the bowl, the owner can take a step towards the dg and then throw the food. This process needs to be built up very slowly, if it is rushed in any way, the dog may regress very quickly.

If this has been achieved, the dog is associating good emotion with a person approaching them whilst eating instead of a fearful/defensive one. Therefore, the aggressive type behaviour previously witnessed should not be present.

Any form of resource guarding can be difficult to live with but understanding how a dog is feeling at the time, and therefore why it is demonstrating such behaviour, goes a long way to giving an owner the inspiration and confidence to work at resolving the issue.

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