Possessive Behavior in Dogs: What Causes It and How to Stop It
Dogs aren’t always great at sharing – it’s not really in their nature. While possessive dog behavior such as food guarding or hoarding may start small and innocent, it can quickly escalate into more dangerous behavior patterns like aggression. That’s why it’s important to identify possessive dog behavior, understand why your dog is doing it, and correct it with effective training.
What Possessive Dog Behavior Looks Like
A Possessive Dog May Bark or Growl to Protect a Resource
The primary possessive dog behavior is simple and somewhat common: protection of a resource. This might be a toy, treat, bowl of food, blanket, or specific area of the home. Any time a dog vocalizes by barking or growling when someone approaches something that “belongs” to them, this is possessive behavior. Even if this possessive dog behavior seems minor – such as a dog growling gently when someone reaches down to pick up their food bowl – it should be concerning because it can easily become more aggressive.
Possessive Dogs Might Hoard Treats or Toys
Hoarding is another common possessive dog behavior. While it’s normal for a dog to bury a bone or hide a special toy you’ve recently given him or her, that should only be occasional behavior. If you notice your pet is hoarding treats or gathering all the toys in the house to hide them from other pets and people, this may be a sign of possessive behavior.
Refusing to Give Up an Item Is Possessive Behavior
Ever used the command “drop” and had your dog ignore you? It may not seem like a big deal, but it does qualify as possessive behavior. Refusal to abandon an item or leave it alone is not only concerning because it reflects your pet’s possessiveness, but it can be dangerous, too – “leave it” is a very important command for keeping your dog safe and protected from potentially toxic substances.
Jealousy Means Your Dog Is Possessive of You
It’s not just treats and toys your dog might show possessiveness of. They can also be possessive of you as their owner. If your dog vocalizes or tries to get your attention with poor behavior when you are focusing on something (or someone) else, then they are being possessive of your affection. This can seem endearing, but like all possessive behaviors, it has the potential to grow into a problem.
Possessiveness Can Show Up as Show Aggression Towards Dogs and People
In the worst-case scenario, your dog’s possessive behavior may manifest as downright aggression towards other pets or people. Your dog might snap, bite, or lunge when there is interference between them and the item or space they are possessive about. Any minor possessive behavior has the potential to grow into this more serious problem, so it’s important to address possessive behavior early, even if it seems minor and unimportant.
Why Your Dog Is Behaving Possessively
Dogs typically develop possessive behaviors for one of three reasons:
- Trauma from shelter life or puppyhood
- The introduction of a new pet
- Because it is learned from other pets around them
Possessive Dog Behavior Sometimes Develops Because of Competition for Resources
Your dog might arrive at your home with possessive behavior because they learned it in their litter environment. Even an adult dog might have learned possessive behavior at a shelter where they were required to compete for resources. If a dog has been in an environment where food was communal and they had to be vocal or aggressive in order to get enough to eat, this will transfer over into their home environment with you (even if there is no longer competition for resources).
The Arrival of a New Pet Can Stimulate Territorial and Competitive Behavior
A dog who has never demonstrated possessive behavior might begin doing so when another pet arrives in the household. A new pet or even a new human in the home space can cause a dog to feel threatened and worry about resource competition. Dogs are naturally territorial animals, so changes like this are not unusual when the number or dynamics of the family changes.
Watching Other Pets Behave Possessively Can Trigger Imitation
Dogs can learn possessive behavior from other dogs, too. If you have an already possessive dog and you bring a new pet into the house, it’s likely that your second animal will learn that possessive behavior. This is why it’s so important to correct this behavior quickly and efficiently, so it doesn’t spread.
How to Correct Possessive Dog Behavior
Your approach to correcting possessive dog behavior will be different depending on how your dog’s possessiveness appears. Here are some strategies to consider when trying to discourage this behavior pattern:
- Avoid high-value items, at least temporarily
- Create positive associations for your dog with people and other pets
- Make your dog wait for treats and toys
- Train your dog to respond to commands
Put Away High-Value Items While Correcting Possessive Dog Behavior
If there is a particular item that really triggers your dog’s possessive behavior, you should put it away while you try to re-train them to be relaxed and trusting rather than possessive. Perhaps there is a special toy or blanket that causes your dog to growl when they are approached, or a certain type of treat that they seem to hoard. Use other fun toys or treats to reward positive behavior and keep the high-value items put away until your dog has learned not to be possessive.
Socialize Your Dog with Positive Associations Early in Life
Your dog needs to learn from a young age not to see people or other animals as a threat. This happens by creating positive associations for your dog by giving them treats and praise as a person or animal approaches. If they learn that other people and pets are not a threat to their food and toys, they won’t feel the need to demonstrate possessive behavior. Socializing your dog to the human and animal environment is an important part of ensuring they have a happy and relaxed life.
Demonstrate Your Authority By Teaching Your Dog to Wait
Possessive behavior, by its very nature, implies that your dog doesn’t fully respect your dominance in the household. If you tell a dog to drop something or leave it, and they ignore your command, they are indicating that you don’t have authority. In order to correct this possessive behavior, you need to reassert your dominance as owner.
One way to do this is by teaching your dog to wait for things they want and feel possessive of. Whether it’s a toy or their dinner bowl, place the item out within their reach and teach them to wait for your release command before accessing the item. If your dog growls, barks, or goes for the item without permission, remove it and wait for your dog to calm down before trying again. This process might take some time, so be patient. Don’t deny your dog his or her meals while doing this – it’s best to first try this strategy with treats or toys.
Train Your Dog to Respond to Basic Commands
Commands are crucial when it comes to redirecting and correcting possessive behavior. You should establish some basic commands with your dog when they are a puppy and continue reinforcing these commands as well as employing new commands with your dog regularly. Training your dog to respond to commands can be a bonding experience and it also makes your dog safer while you move together in the world.
If your dog hasn’t mastered any commands yet, you should start with basic ones and then graduate to ones that will directly address their possessive behavior, such as “drop,” “stay,” and “leave it.” The training process will take time, but it will ultimately help you correct your dog’s possessive behavior.
Possessive Dog Behavior Needs to Be Addressed Immediately
Even if your pet’s behavior seems relatively minor or unconcerning, you should try to correct it as soon as possible. Not only can small possessive behaviors grow into larger, more troublesome ones, but you also want your dog to feel safe and trusting. If they are demonstrating possessive behavior, it means they don’t feel secure and confident in their environment. Take steps and make environmental changes to ensure your dog feels comfortable and doesn’t need to be possessive.