The puppy has something of high value that she doesn’t want to lose. Another pup has come too close for comfort and she freezes, shifts her eyes and hovers over her prize. If the other pup persists, she may escalate to a low growl, snarl or snap.
This is normal dog behavior. As long as it remains a simple communication between dogs and not a serious squabble, it’s probably no problem at all. When a dog covets an item or parades it for canine housemates to admire, its part of how they peacefully maintain their own order within the pack. Having, keeping and sharing is what leaders do. Relinquishing, and not challenging higher pack members is what followers do.
It is serious problem when a dog threatens to bite its owners when they try to take something away. Dogs must be willing to give up things they’d rather keep – like that rawhide that has gotten too small or a turkey bone that has fallen on the floor. You, the pack leader, own all the items in the house and your dog should give them up to you if asked. There are some dogs who make huge statements, taking a stolen Kleenex under the coffee table and daring anyone to come close. Possessive aggression, commonly called resource guarding, can be a serious problem. The solution is to teach your dog that people who approach when he has something of value are going to give him something better, not steal his prized possession and leave him with nothing. You want your dog to believe that giving valued resources to its humans is the greatest thing ever.
Don’t pester, don’t dare. Just because you should be able to take things away from your dog doesn’t mean you should make it a point to repeatedly bother your dog while it is eating or march over and take things just because you can. One of the worst things you can do is practice challenging and stealing from your dog. You can annoy the nicest dog into becoming ready for the next challenge and make matters much worse, or even create a problem where there really wasn’t one.
Make your puppy or dog understand that the approach of a human to his food, toys, space, etc. is a Good Thing. The process is called classical conditioning. Just as the clicker is associated with treats in your dog’s mind, the approach of a human hand, face or other body part to his food dish, toy or bone should mean better food is on its way.
The following process should be done will ALL dogs, for their entire lives. Definitely do it with young puppies. The only part that changes is how often you do these exercises, what sorts of things your dogs has when you approach, and how close you can get to the dog before presenting it with the treat. Every capable member of the family should take part in these exercises, keeping safety firmly in mind.
1. Initiate Nothing In Life is Free
2. Condition your dog to expect Good Things when you approach, especially if he has some sort of highly prized resource, like a bone. Start with something your dog does not guard. Walk over, present the treat while he’s enjoying his low value toy or food, and leave. Do this with several low value toys throughout the day. Repeat this for several days until he begins to look up at you with a “Hey, she’s here to give me a treat” expression on his face. Once you have successfully achieved that, follow the progression below being sure that at each level you get an immediate positive response to your approach and presence before proceeding to the next level.
- With the low value objects, approach, touch the dog in some way, pop a high value treat in his mouth and move along.
- With the low value objects, approach, touch the object, pop a high value treat in his mouth and move along.
- With the low value objects, approach, take the object in your hand, pop a high value treat in his mouth, put the object down and move along.
Progress to higher and higher value objects repeating all steps at each level. With high value toys/food/bones, start by just walking by the puppy, out of the range that makes him growl, and dropping a treat. Move closer as the days go by if the dog is ready, never progress faster than your dog is happily willing to go. If the dog is not relaxed and happy at any stage, you have moved too fast, retreat to the previous level. Repeat this entire process with several high value objects. After that, progress to doing that with more people around, more stress in the environment. Children should only work on the conditioning step under adult supervision.
Keep your dog from exhibiting resource guarding behavior by not moving past his acceptance level. If he growls when you get within three feet of his toy, then don’t make him growl – stay more than three feet away from his toy next time. Better yet, remove the toys that he guards from the living area, so that he can’t accidentally be triggered. If your dog guards his dinner, make sure no one approaches or give him his dinner in a separate room for now. If your puppy guards the couch, try to keep him off of it by not inviting him up and/or by making it uncomfortable to lay on (an upside down carpet protector works well for that). Any approaches you make to your dog at this time while he ahs a resource should be on purpose and accompanied by a treat. Do NOT punish him for growling by scruff shaking or any other show of violence. All you will be doing is proving to your dog that he was right – humans are crazy and you’ve got to protect yourself from them!
3. Teach your dog the cue “Trade” (or “Drop” or “Give”) – trade helps you remember that most of the time you should be “trading” and giving the dog something of value for relinquishing the item.
The goal is not to teach your dog to “give it up or else” but to create a relationship based on trust and respect where the dog will WANT to give you what he has.
Always trade what your dog has for something better.
When your dog has an appropriate item, ask to see what he has and then praise him and give it back so he doesn’t think just because you are showing interest, that you are planning to steal.
- Prepare two large items, one with peanut butter or cream cheese on it, and one without. For safety, start with something your dog probably wouldn’t want to keep, like a wooden spoon or paint stick (or Kong!).
- Hide the doctored item behind your back and hold out the plain one and let the pup investigate it while you hold it. (Keep the item in your possession during the groundwork of this lesson.)
- Next, produce the “better” on AS you say “trade” and praise “thank you” as he leaves item number one to lick the stuff off item number two. While he is busy with item number two, dip item number one in a bit peanut butter and hold it behind your back.
- When he’s about finished with the peanut butter on item #2, say “trade” RIGHT BEFORE you produce the newly-doctored item #1. After a few repetitions of this, the word “trade” will come to predict “better item is coming” and he will remove his mouth from the item he has when you say “trade” before you have to produce the doctored one.
- Change your physical orientation. Sitting, kneeling, standing. Leaning over and looming are often a trigger for coveting. Remember at all times that your goal is to NOT trigger a guarding response. If your dog goes still at any time, go back two steps. Do not move to a more difficult level until your dog is relaxed, unthreatened and willing at the previous step. When he hears “trade” he should look up with eager anticipation.
- Let go of the item briefly, say “trade” and immediately produce the doctored one. He should have no problem with your picking up the first one or taking it as he lets go if you have worked long enough at the previous level. IF YOUR DOG HAS PROBLEMS GO BACK A STEP, or two.
Increase Criteria Gradually!
The above might happen over several days or several weeks. The goal is to avoid bribing: “look what I have – wanna trade?” but instead teach the dog to give you the item without seeing what you have to offer.
Future steps might include starting over at level one using two large rawhides and going through ALL of the above steps, one by one, carefully watching for any signs of reluctance. The biggest mistake most people make is to get into a power struggle with their dogs. They end up practicing guarding instead of practicing a willing exchange.
Start with objects that he does not value as much and treats that are highly valued. Gradually work your way up to objects that he cares very much about. Ask him to “trade” the object, reward and praise for giving you the object, then give it back to him when he’s done chewing his treat. Practicing this cue, giving the resource back each time, helps the dog understand that giving away his resources to a human is a good thing, so there’s no reason to guard them.
Teach Leave It
If the object is already in the dog’s mouth then use “trade”, if they are approaching an object that they should not take then use “leave it”.
- In a familiar environment to your dog, free from any distractions (other people or animals) sit down with your dog.
- In one hand place an ordinary treat (some kibble or other plain, dry treat) in the other hand place your dog’s very favorite “jackpot” treat (liver, hotdog, cheese, etc.).
- Let the dog see/smell the ordinary treat in your hand. Keep treat in your closed hand and say one time and one time only in a calm but firm voice, “leave it”. Then wait. Wait while the puppy paws, noses, licks, etc. all over to get that treat. Wait until the puppy backs off just a fraction and immediately say “Yes!” and present the treat in the other hand with a “take it” and let the dog eat that treat. Note that at first the pup will back off the hand just a fraction of a second to “rethink” their approach, try to come up with something else to try and to get that treat. You are showing them the something else is simply the act of “leaving it”.
- Immediately repeat Step 3 and continue many times. Repetition and consistency are two of the vital keys to success in dog training. Pretty soon your dog will catch on that if he doesn’t go for the treat in your hand he is rewarded. Be careful to switch which hand has the “leave it” treat and which hand has the “take it” treat so that your dog does not learn to ignore anything in your right hand and take everything in your left hand!
- When the pup is reliably backing off at “leave it” start to extend the time period for which the dog must remain relaxed off the hand before getting the “take it” treat. If the pup is impatient and goes back to the hand give the pup a little reminder, “uh uh”.
- When the pup is backing off and leaving the treat for maybe 10 seconds start opening your hand once the pup has backed off. If the pup makes a go for your hand (most will at first), quickly close your fist over the treat and give an “uh uh” to resettle the pup and open your hand again. Repeat until the treat can be in your open hand with the pup leaving it. Go back to a very short time period and work your way back up.
- Now you’ve got the behavior and you’ve got it on cue it’s time to add some other variables. This step generalizes and proofs the leave it command so we can rely on it in any circumstance. One at a time introduce the new elements listed below – don’t move too quickly for your dog, take it slowly.
- While practicing the Leave It command hold your hand in different positions – close to the ground, up at your dog’s eye level, etc…
- Use “leave it” with your sock they want to chew on, a toy, bone or rawhide they might want
- Hold off with saying “Yes” and giving giving the jackpot treat until your dog actually looks you in the eye.
- Put the ordinary treat straight down onto the ground in front of your dog and say “Leave It”
- if your dog goes for the treat quickly cover it to your foot.
- Take your training sessions into other rooms and eventually outside.
- Say “Leave It” when you are varying distances from your dog.
- Practice in the presence of distractions such as other people and dogs. Ask your dog to “leave it” with a person or dog that is approaching on a walk.
- Practice by setting up toys or treats around a room or your yard, walk the dog on leash by the items, asking them to “leave it” with each item and rewarding the behavior.
- Practice when you are out on your daily walk – with your dog on leash drop some treats on the ground and then walk past them.
– Low value object in your hand
– High value object in your hand
– Low and high value object, on the floor
– Low and high value object on floor with you 10 feet away
– Walk by object, on leash inside or outside
– Thrown or dropped object inside or outside
– Live subject inside or outside
– Object/subject for 1 minute or more
After your dog or puppy is happily accepting any human approach to his food or toys (a state that humans cal “normal” and dogs call “strange”), you are at the maintenance stage. Twice a week at first, then twice a month, approach him while he’s eating, pick up his bowl, plop a handful of treats in and set the bowl back down. Do the same with bones and toys as well. Occasionally practice the “trade” cue, replacing the surrendered object with something else if you really must take it away.
During the process you must use error-less management, NEVER letting your dog have a chance to practice stealing, hoarding or guarding.