Possessive aggression in dogs, also known as resource guarding, is when a dog feels aggression over something they deem as theirs due to it feeling threatened. You may see this commonly when your dog has a toy or their food and their behavior suddenly changes. Perhaps they start growling or barking, their hackles raise and teeth barred.
This situation is not uncommon and it can be prevented and treated. Resource guarding in dogs can originate from abuse, vulnerability, anxiety, and other causes. If your dog is displaying possessive aggression, let us talk you through it.
What Is Possessive Aggression in Dogs?
Possessive aggression is when your dog begins to act aggressively because they feel their possessions are being threatened. Many owners believe this is just targeted towards toys but this is not the case. Their food and territory may also induce aggression in your dog. The aggression can manifest into some mild guarding behavior and some severe, these may include:
- Baring teeth
- Hackles raised
- Body bowed
Although the behavior may be mild, such as barking at you, if their aggression is not treated it could manifest into something more severe. The aggression will take place when your dog feels that their possession is being threatened. In the case of their bed, if you are making eye contact whilst they are inside or if you are interacting with the bed, this is when they will start to become aggressive. In severe cases, it may just be you being in the same room as the bed to cause them to behave aggressively.
What Causes Possessive Aggression in Dogs?
Here are five of the most common causes for your dog to be displaying possessive aggression.
Dogs can learn to be possessive aggressive from another dog or from developing vulnerability. Many puppies learn this behavior from their mother and then continue it into adulthood. Other dogs can feel vulnerability due to size, old injuries, or even illness. This can lead to resource guarding as a form of compensation.
Arrival of a Rival
When you bring a new dog, pet, or even a child into the home your current dog may view them as a threat. Someone who could take or intervene with what is theirs. This can be seen occurring much more quickly if your current dog and new dog are sharing toys, beds, and even food bowls.
Shelter Dog Syndrome
If you own a shelter dog and see them resource guarding, it is quite common to see in rescues. Due to the high level of competition, many shelter dogs had to fight in order to get their food and space. This behavior is therefore carried out once they are outside of the shelter and continued at home.
Trauma can induce dog aggression through resource guarding because they constantly feel that they have to be on alert and defensive. They may have not had access to food for a long time, never been given toys before, or were beaten when trying to interact with certain objects. These experiences shape our dogs and can unfortunately lead to negative behavior in order for them to protect what they feel is theirs.
Some individuals and breeds of dog are more prone to aggressive responses and guarding than others. This is because of selective breeding and genetics. Similarly, some dogs are born more anxious and feel more vulnerable. Two causes which can also lead to a possessive aggressive dog.
Signs Your Dog Has Possessive Aggression
One main symptom of dog resource guarding is when they growl or bite regularly. Perhaps it is when you are playing and it quickly becomes purposeful aggression as opposed to rough play. Maybe when you try to pick up their food bowl they begin to growl and snap at your hand. Notice that the aggression arises based on what you and what they are interacting with.
Dogs who are aggressive with other dogs and end up in a lot of fights can often be guilty of resource guarding. Owners will take their pup to the park and quickly find them and another dog growling over a toy. These fights can stem due to your dog’s aggression over the possession of the toy they are playing with. Even if it is one that they have found and you did not bring from home.
Puppies can show forms of aggression we dismiss because it is so small and they are so cute. As they get older though, it soon becomes an issue. Mild aggression is a lot larger and dangerous. Not only that, but untreated possessive aggression in dogs will continue to grow. Growling can become snapping and then biting.
Preventing Possessive Aggression in Dogs
There are many ways to minimize and cure resource aggression in your dogs. Here are our top five recommended methods to help.
Offer a Special Reward
By offering what is known as a ‘high-value’ reward, your dog is often going to prefer placing their attention towards that and less towards resource guarding. However, do not just give this treat to your dog or throw it to them as a distraction. This behavior could lead to them thinking they are getting rewarded for possessive aggression.
Instead, when they begin to show the aggression, show the special treat to them to get them to come away from the object or space. When they begin to approach you, ask them to sit down. Do not give the treat to them if they are still showing aggressive behavior. Wait for them to be calm and behave. Once they have responded well, reward them with the treat! This distraction techniques can help to positively reinforce your dog that stopping the behavior is positive. Therefore, it should start to diminish.
Teach “Leave” and “Give” Commands
Teaching your dog commands and keeping up a high level of training is crucial to having a well-behaved dog. This is especially important when controlling resource guarding as it enables you to stop it during the act without causing worry of injury to yourself.
The key commands you should focus on are leave or give, come, and sit. For a more advanced command, you can use quiet to prevent barking. Use positive reinforcement to training your dog to learn each command. When your dog drops a toy, give them a treat, and reinforce the act with the word ‘drop’ or one of the other synonyms you prefer. Do the same for come when your dog comes to greet you, and sit when your dog does so.
Therefore, when your dog is resource guarding, tell them to leave what they are guarding, to come to you, and to sit. Then praise them heavily. Making this into a routine will create a better-trained dog and one with gradually lessening possessive aggression.
Reward Patience and Good Behavior
Make sure to praise your dog as the resource guarding minimizes and their good behavior grows. One key example of this is when your dog is more patient when you are holding a toy, or pouring their food. Perhaps their growling has stopped and they are watching you without aggression. Make sure to provide them a treat or praise them vocally. Studies have actually shown that if you praise a dog with a baby voice your bond with them grows and they will listen to you more.
By praising and rewarding your dog often for good behavior, they will continue to show the praised behavior and more frequently. If you praise them every time they are waiting for their food patiently, or allow you to stand near their food bowl, they are more likely to continue it. Be patient with them and they will be patient with you, the changes will follow.
Take Him to a Dog Behavioural Specialist
In moderate to severe cases you cannot always make a difference without a helping hand. A dog snapping or biting can result in serious issues and injuries, especially if you have multiple dogs or children in the house. Calling a behaviorist can help them to identify the cause for the possessive aggression so the treatment is more tailored to your individual.
Furthermore, if you own a dog who is displaying severe aggression, it may not be the smartest idea to try to intervene with this and allow a professional to help your dog properly and as quickly as possible. Dog behaviorists will also be able to find the quickest method to treat them. This will leave you with a dog that is behaving better after a much shorter period of time than if you were to train them at home.
Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning
This is a long term training method for dogs with more severe issues of resource guarding. It involves getting your dog used to sharing and the interaction between others and what they are possessive with. For example, if your dog is possessive over their food bowl then the first step is to get them used to you being near the bowl. Use patience, praise, and positive reinforcement to encourage a positive association. Once your dog is comfortable with you being near, then step it up to getting a bit closer. These things keep progressing but will take a lot of time and patience to accomplish.
The technique for other things such as toys and beds is the same, gradually getting closer to interaction. However, if your dog is moderately to severely aggressive then you should call a professional behaviorist for aid with this technique. They can ensure you are doing so safely.
What to Avoid While Treating Possessive Aggression in Dogs
Some actions that either seem positive or inconsequential can actually have a big impact towards your dog’s behavior. Here are three elements you need to consider and avoid during training.
Don't Punish the Growl
Punishing your dog can lead to more negative behavior and a worse severity of what already exists. Yelling or punishing your dog outside leads to a negative association with you and with whatever they are resource guarding. Therefore, it can actually get worse because of this.
Instead of punishing your dog, using positive reinforcement to praise good behavior. Work on creating positive associations with good behavior as opposed to the other way around. It creates strong bonds between you and your dog, doesn’t install fear in them, and helps them to learn and change their behavior in the manner you are hoping. Punishments hold no guarantees of effective results, and even if they did, they are not worth the sacrifice of your dog’s happiness and trust.
Don’t “Play” With Their Food and Chews
If you disturb your dog’s meals or treats, they will begin to become defensive around their food and treats. This can create resource guarding in dogs and can worsen it in dogs that already have possessive aggression. When you give food to your dog, place it down, and allow them to eat it all. Do not put your hand in their bowl and play with the food or take food from their mouth. Allow them to have their own time to eat their food and in their own space without being disturbed.
This is the same with chews. Don’t use these as toys and grab them from your dog to play tug of war with or chase. Allow your dog time to chew all of it that they wish without interaction.
Don't Leave Out Items That Your Dog Might Guard
While you are working on your dog’s resource guarding it is best to remove items that could initiate their aggression. Hide toys until you are playing with your dog, keep their food bowls off the floor unless it is food time. By preventing your dog from interacting with objects that could lead to aggression.
Of course, you will need to interact with your dog with these objects, but you can limit the amount of time until you can dedicate yourself to training.
Possessive Aggression in Dogs – FAQ
In order to stop possessive aggression in dogs you should use training, positive reinforcement, and desensitization to help your dog. One of the most important things to focus on through helping your dog is your patience. Regardless of what method you use to help your dog, it is going to take some time to see results. If you have any concerns or your dog has severe resource guarding aggression, it may be worth calling a dog behaviorist.
Your dog may be guarding her toys for a number of reasons including feeling vulnerable, past trauma, and even a new arrival in the house. There is no one reason for this behavior and you will have to consider your dog’s life, past, and traits to figure it out. If you are struggling to do so, a dog behaviorist can identify the causes and offer solutions to the problem if you need help.
In order to stop your dog toy guarding we would recommend training your dog commands to drop, leave, sit, and stay as well as use positive reinforcement and gradual desensitization to help them. However, if your dog’s toy aggression is anything but mild we would recommend contacting a professional behaviorist to help so it is not dangerous for you. As intervening, especially with a large dog with powerful jaws, could end up with you being bitten if it is not done properly.
Your dog may be trying to bite you because they are possessive over that object and are trying to deter you. It takes patience and long term training to stop this response and to allow your dog to understand that the toy, food, or whatever else will return. Their worries are often if they don’t guard their possession they will be intervened with and leave without them having any control. Their aggression is to gain control over the situation and over the toy, food bowl, or other possession.
If your dog is guarding you then their aggression will target others when they interact with you. It can be when a dog or person is looking at you, interacting with you, or is even near you. If they are guarding you though their aggression should not target you. Training them to obey commands thoroughly will help to control their guarding behavior of you.
Resource guarding in dogs can be a worrying thing to see but it can be treated. Be patient and concentrate on positive reinforcement. Soon your dog will be as good as gold!