You may have noticed that your dog has favorite things. Maybe it’s that sunny spot by your front window or that little rubber chew toy they always have at their side. Or maybe it’s a favorite person, that they don’t want anyone else to be around. Just like people, dogs can find their territories and possessions valuable and comforting.
However, if your pet is particularly aggressive when someone is encroaching upon their territory, toys, or humans, it may be engaging in resource guarding or possessive aggression.
In nature, it’s important for animals to have resources to survive. Success in nature means protecting one’s area, possessions, and pack mates from outsiders who may want to steal them. These base survival instincts are ingrained in our pets and can sometimes come out in unexpected ways.
It’s normal to not bother your pets while they’re eating or playing with a toy on their own, but if they’re lashing out aggressively when someone comes near, it could be potentially dangerous to be around your dog.
Signs Your Dog is Guarding Resources
According to AKC dog trainer Nicole Costanza, any dog breed can potentially engage in resource guarding. The environment a dog grows up in can sometimes affect how much they guard their toys and territory. A dog that grew up in a litter may have learned that aggressive behavior will keep other dogs away from their favorite toys.
But any dog can potentially exhibit possessive aggression, regardless of upbringing. Here are signs to look out for while your dog is near their favorite toy or spot:
- Stiffening of body when approaching
- Hard stare, showing the whites of eyes
- Lifting of lip, growling, or biting
- Aggression toward anyone close by, regardless of intention
The aggression your dog exhibits may vary between specific objects and places. Just because your dog doesn’t display aggressive behavior toward people doesn’t mean it won’t toward dogs.
Dogs can also resource guard people! If there’s a person they’re particularly attached to or claim as their own, they may grow aggravated or aggressive if someone is getting too close to them. While it’s good to have a dog that’s protective of you, overprotectiveness is not a behavior that you want to encourage in your pets.
Resource guarding is dangerous for your dog and others, especially children. Someone reaching to pet your dog at the wrong time can potentially escalate into them lashing out or biting. A friendly interaction between you and a stranger can aggravate your dog to the point that it lashes out. Another dog on a play date can get hurt if they accidentally bother your dog at the wrong time. Therefore, it’s important to discourage these behaviors as soon as your dog begins to exhibit them.
Resource Guarding Training
Many trainers will have more specific advice for curbing the specific types of aggression that your dog is exhibiting. If your dog’s possessive aggression is severe, you should consider consulting a professional trainer in some ways to stop their bad behavior. However, here are some general training methods to stop your dog’s resource guarding.
Reward good behavior
If your dog is growling and snapping as you approach their favorite toy or bed, you shouldn’t force them to give up what they’re guarding. Instead, reward them with a treat when they drop or give away the item. Over time, they’ll be desensitized to your presence near valuable objects and will expect a treat when you’re close. You can say “drop it” or “leave it” so they associate a command with giving up the item.
Condition your dog
If your dog is possessive around food, some trainers recommend conditioning them to expect better food when you’re close by. Start by putting bland food in a bowl and giving it to the dog. Then, after they eat a little, approach them with a bowl of slightly better food. Don’t get too close, however, to the point where they start to growl. You want to avoid encouraging or evoking negative behavior. This conditioning also applies to people and favorite places, as you try to desensitize them to people being close to their resources.
If your dog isn’t seeing you as a resource and is just having trouble distinguishing friendly and non-friendly strangers, consider our guide on teaching dogs the difference between strangers, visitors and friends.
Keep highly valued objects away from your dog
If your dog has a favorite toy, you should be in control of when they get to play with it. If you have a controlled environment like a crate, you can only give the good toys to them while they’re in there. You don’t want to start with your dog’s most valued items, however, as that may only evoke a more aggressive response. Ease into controlling your dog’s resources with less-favorite toys first. You’ll want to work up to taking their favorite resources away.
Of course, this method of keeping highly valued objects away from your dog doesn’t work if your dog is resource guarding a favorite human being. There is a fine line between allowing your dog to be protective over you and your family versus resource guarding and being aggressive toward anyone who comes near. If your dog is exhibiting possessive aggression when other people or animals come near, it might be best to consult your veterinarian, first to rule out health issues, and also to get the name of a good dog trainer.
Ultimately, your dog’s tendencies and behavioral patterns are unique, and a professional trainer is best for advice and training methods specific to your pet. Also note that many elements of possessive aggression training require your dog to first understand basic commands like “sit,” “come,” and “stay.”