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How do you break a dogs possessive behavior?

What are some ways I can break my dogs possessive behavior when it comes to balls and Frisbees.
June 27, 2012 1:57 PM Subscribe

My dog becomes aggressive around other dogs when she «claims» a toy at the dog park or around the home. She learned long ago when she was a puppy that it was her duty to protect any ball that she claims, and she learned that the best way to do this is to snarl and nip at any dog that comes near. What are some ways I can deal with this behavior through positive reinforcement?

Please note, the dog is not aggressive towards people. She will gladly give her ball to any people that come and grab it. She also will drop the ball in front of random people, expecting them to throw it. This is only behaviour that is displayed towards other dogs. She is also not food possessive, this only occurs with balls and frisbees.

Right now, I deal with it by not letting her have balls or frisbees in the park. She generally won’t pick up balls thrown for other dogs. But this is a dog park, and people throw balls. Sometimes people pick up a ball and throw it for her. I will usually talk to people about this when it occurs, letting them know she is not allowed to play with balls. She also will bring me tennis balls she finds and will lay them at my feet. I simply pocket these balls and toss them away when she is not looking. Telling her no when she is about to pick up a ball always works, but sometimes she will grab one when I am not looking.

So, in conclusion, I am looking for a positive way to help her become less aggressive when she finds balls. Keeping balls off limits works for now, but I’d like to work with her in the hopes that one day she can get past this.

posted by ShootTheMoon to Pets & Animals (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

For something like this, teaching a strong «leave it» with your dog could help, and would at least be a good starting point for training. Leave it is pretty simple to teach actually, present a baited hand to your dog, and have treats ready in your other hand or in a pouch. The dog will initially sniff or try to get the treat from your hand, when they remove their nose from your hand, praise them (or click) and give them the treat from your non-baited hand. Eventually you can increase this, implement the «leave it»command as they are pulling their nose away from your hand. You can increase difficulty but using higher value rewards, or placing the treat out in the open, like on the floor and giving the command.

What I would recommend is working with another dog in a safe, leashed environment. Particularly you may want to see if you have a friend whose dog isn’t interested in balls or toys and is calm. What you can do from there is present the toy/ball to your dog while the other dog is present. To set them up for success you’ll want to start with them far away from each other, and click or praise and treat your dog for calm, relaxed behavior. Then slowly decrease the distance between the dogs, until you can have your dogs calmly playing with the toy in the presence of the other dog. This will help your dog associate positive things with having other dogs around while they have a toy, and if you stick with it regularly should help reduce that pesky guarding behavior.
posted by Quincy at 2:27 PM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Quincy has it. Use positive reinforcement to train your dog that wonderful things happen when she surrenders the object to another dog. And btw «leave it» is a hugely useful command for lots of things, not just letting other dogs play with toys. So I’d also suggest teaching «leave it» separately in many situations, with positive reinforcement for doing so.
posted by bearwife at 4:01 PM on June 27, 2012

I don’t know if I would bother correcting this, as long as it’s not a full-on attack (and, as you say, she’s not biting people). Dogs can’t say to each other, «hey, my owner bought this for me and I hardly know you and don’t trust you enough to not run off with it» . verbally. That’s where the nipping and snarling comes in.

I mean, does it only happen at the park?

If she’s doing it with «trusted» dogs (maybe a neighbor’s dog) — if she growls over a toy to keep it away from the other dog, say «no» and take the ball — but don’t pocket it — GIVE IT TO THE OTHER DOG.

This will show her you trust the other dog, and she can too.

. I guess you can try that at the dog park, too. I just suppose *I* wouldn’t bother with strange dogs. XD
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 4:01 PM on June 27, 2012

This is a difficult behavior to train out,especially between dogs who may have never met before, and a major reason many dogs parks don’t allow toys, balls or treats. It’s worth considering leaving the toys at home and playing with them there. Or find the times the dog park is empty and play then.
posted by vers at 5:57 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is called prey-possession or possession aggression. If I were in this situation I would try to use extinction. It would be difficult to treat the dog when he is acting the way you want to in this situation, though I would certainly try to treat when the dog gave up the ball to another dog, or be encouraging in a high happy voice.

The key to this is to reinforce the idea that fun is over when possessive behavior happens. So the dog starts exhibiting prey possession behavior—you will have to take the ball/toy/thing away with little fanfare, clip him to his leash, and ignore him for a few minutes.

Don’t call the dog to you to take the ball away. He will stop coming because he will learn that fun ends when you call him, not when he acts possessively. The easiest way to do this, I think, is to work with just one or two other dogs and then extend the behavior to the park. Dogs often think situationally, so their first response is to assume that possession is not ok in the training area, but ok everywhere else.
posted by xyzzy at 10:51 PM on June 27, 2012

This might be a good place to use clicker training. A dog park would be a hard place to treat the dog as needed but a click from the clicker when your dog is doing the behaviour marking that that is what you want the dog to do and a treat is pending, would probably work. You might have to start with small changes, like she lets a dog near her when she has a toy and then as she learns she gets rewarded you can slowly extend it out to, she lets a strange dog smell the toy etc.

The trick is to get the click in before the behaviour turns to aggression. The added advantage is that the click can help distract the dog from aggression as it associates the click with a treat and may well come to you for the treat or look at you at least and it might help to derail the aggression before it starts.

I’d use really high value treats to start with as you have a lot of stimulus at a dog park to compete with, on the same note you’ll probably need a loud clicker too. There are lots of good sites and youtube videos on clicker training as well as books.
posted by wwax at 7:19 AM on June 28, 2012

Dog parks are not for all dogs, I think your dog is one of them (I hate dog parks, personally, I think they are extremely dangerous — properly-supervised play groups are fine, dog parks are not).

You can trade her for the toys when you want them (trade for a treat or another toy), but it is so unlikely that you will be able to usefully stop this behavior with other dogs that personally, it would not be a battle I would choose to have with my dog. Either take her to a dog park with a no toys rule, or just set up play dates with dogs she likes where you can have a no toys rule. This is a potentially dangerous situation, and I think simply avoiding it is the best option.
posted by biscotti at 7:46 AM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

How To Stop A Dog From Being Possessive Of It’s Owner

angry dog

Possessiveness is not unusual behavior in a dog. Your dog may be possessive over its toys, bed, food, any treats you give it, but potentially also over you or its other owners. Some dogs are more prone to possessiveness than others, but most family dogs want to protect their family members to some extent.

There are other possible causes of possessive behavior, but having your dog bark, growl, or even attack people or other animals that get near you is an activity that should be discouraged. Fortunately, you can prevent it. Follow these steps to help reduce possessiveness and the negative behaviors that it encourages.

Recognize Possessive Dog Behavior

Possessiveness can start small and grow to become a major problem. You should identify these small signs before it has a chance to develop into something bigger. Your dog is showing these early signs if they:

  • Growls or snaps at you when you try to take their toy
  • Snaps at other dogs or the cat while eating
  • Pushes or headbutts another dog out of the way when they are getting attention
  • Hoards toys out of the way of others

If you identify any of these behaviors, you should take action before it becomes a much larger issue. You may not really mind your dog being protective over his toy, but it can, and often does, progress.

Don’t Overparent The Dog

You may be causing or exacerbating your dog’s possessiveness through no fault of your own. Dogs naturally bark and growl at people when they come to the door. If your attitude is to pick them up and hold them, or to stroke them and tell them they’re a good boy, you are effectively rewarding them for protecting you. They are learning that this is a desirable action, and not an undesirable one.

Ignore The Possessive Behavior

As long as your dog isn’t snapping or likely to snap, you should ignore the behavior as much as possible. If they bark when somebody comes to the door, ignore them. When your dog eventually stops barking and leaves the visitor alone, you can give it a treat and praise it, because it is then being rewarded for desirable behavior.

Be Dominant Over Your Possessive Dog

Most dogs will take a dominant role if they do not recognize you as being in the dominant position in the pack. Some breeds enjoy the dominant position more than others, and may actively seek it. In these cases, you will have to assert your dominance in everything you do.

When you walk the dog, ensure that you are at the front and that your dog walks behind your foot line. You can also show dominance by making them wait before giving him their food. Don’t simply let your dog get what they want, when they want it. Show them that you are in control. If they see you as being the dominant leader, they will not feel the need to protect you.

Teach Obedience To The Possessive Dog

woman teaching dogs

Obedience training is another way of asserting your dominance, and it will also provide you with some basic commands that will help prevent your dog from displaying possessiveness. Enroll in obedience classes, if you need to. These can be especially beneficial because they will allow you to meet other people and other animals in a safe environment and with people in a similar situation to you.

Learn and teach commands like “sit”, “stay”, and “leave”. You can command your dog to “sit” when people come to the door. The command “stay” will be beneficial if you want to discourage them from taking toys and other items. You can use “leave it” to encourage your dog to drop a toy or other item that they are being possessive over.

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Determine and Teach Boundaries Of Possessiveness

You need to determine and set boundaries. For example, you may want to stop them from getting on the bed or even on the sofa. It is common for dogs to get possessive over their owners when somebody approaches them while sitting down. It is down to you to show that this is acceptable. If your dog is not allowed on the sofa, it will not be able to display possessive behavior.

Reduce Separation Anxiety

One possible cause of this possessive behavior is that they are afraid of being left. This is more common in rescue dogs, but may also occur in dogs with separation anxiety. Separation anxiety means that your dog will bark, howl, and even show destructive behavior while you are out of the house. But you can’t be expected to stay home with them all day, every day.

Put them in a crate, or tie their leash away from you. Go about your typical routine and ignore the barking and howling for some time. It may feel cruel, but when you return, it shows them that you won’t leave them.

dog inside crate

Encourage Healthy Socialization

Possessiveness is common in dogs that are used to having a single owner. They spend all day with you and nobody else is around. They get all the attention and enjoy your time. When another person comes along, they have to share your attention.

Encourage your dog to form bonds with other people or other animals. They won’t be forced to rely on you so heavily for emotional support. You should take care to ensure that they won’t snap at the person during the first meeting. And don’t forget to avoid the temptation of over-mothering your dog when you make the introduction.

Be Committed

Teaching a dog a new behavior, or correcting existing behavior, takes time and effort. You will need to commit to the cause and be persistent in your training. If you’re teaching them not to get on the sofa with you, you shouldn’t relent just because they sit and stare at you, and certainly not because they are barking. This teaches them that they can get what they want through certain actions and activities.

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Conclusion: Dog Possessive of Owner

Possessiveness can become a major problem if it is left unchecked. Don’t be overprotective of your dog, discourage minor possessive behavior, and be persistent in all of your training and behavioral techniques. Also, remember that training and correction do not equate to physical reprimands. Never hit or be physical with your dog. It teaches them that this kind of behavior is accepted and it may encourage them to be physical to get what they want.

Featured Image Credit: Piotr Wawrzyniuk, Shutterstock

  • Recognize Possessive Dog Behavior
  • Don’t Overparent The Dog
  • Ignore The Possessive Behavior
  • Be Dominant Over Your Possessive Dog
  • Teach Obedience To The Possessive Dog
  • Determine and Teach Boundaries Of Possessiveness
  • Reduce Separation Anxiety
  • Encourage Healthy Socialization
  • Be Committed
  • Conclusion: Dog Possessive of Owner
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