Puppies can be sweet as pie, but that doesn't mean that they're incapable of being protective of their possessions, whether chew toys or canned chicken and brown rice. If you notice your little cutie behaving aggressively when it comes to his belongings, he's likely showing classic resource guarding behavior.
Your puppy might have a cozy life inside with you, but it's important to remember his wild heritage. In nature, dogs battle it out against each other for everything from relaxing resting spots to sustenance. If your puppy gets a little irritable about the thought of anyone else "snatching" up his precious food, it's his survival mechanism kicking in. Dogs express food guarding aggression in a variety of ways. They might, perhaps, stare down someone who is approaching them as they eat. They might not eat until the "intruder" goes away. Other dogs might get a little more forward -- think growling, baring teeth, running after and even biting the other party. While some pooches might reserve their defensive food behavior to unfamiliar individuals, others behave this way toward everyone, including family members.
Possessions in General
Canine possessiveness isn't limited to meals. If a dog considers something to be precious and hard to come by, he might guard it closely so no one else can take it away from him, food or not. Toys are particularly common items used in resource guarding. Some pooches get protective about unassuming things, even if it's just a discarded, crinkled paper bag they dragged out of your kitchen garbage bin.
Resource guarding is prevalent especially in puppies. The little cuties are used to the rivalry of their litter mates, after all. Some puppies learn early on that if they're pushy and assertive about mealtime, they'll get what they need -- regardless of whether their siblings receive their share, too. Not only is food and toy aggression no surprise in the youngsters, it also isn't unheard of in mature pooches. Dogs of both genders display resource guarding behavior.
If your puppy hasn't displayed signs of resource aggression, you can try to get him on a good path by helping him associate your presence -- and the presence of others -- not with his food being taken away, but with positive, happy and comfy things. Try putting food in his mouth using your hands, for example. Talk to him in a sweet and soothing voice as you watch him enjoy a meal. Gently rub his back as you observe him eating. Establish the same "happy" link with toys. Start out by playing fetch with him. Help the youngster understand that if he offers you one of his toys, he gets a yummy snack in return. If your puppy is behaving aggressively, however, it's important never to try to eliminate the problem on your own. Closely interacting with dogs who behave truculently can be hazardous; assistance from a professional canine behavior expert is a must. Your veterinarian can point you in the right direction to find a qualified professional in this field. Never let children or other pets go near aggressive animals, no matter what.
By Naomi Millburn
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Food Guarding
The Humane Society of the United States: Dog Aggression
VCA Animal Hospitals: Aggression in Dogs - Possessive - Objects and Toys
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Aggression in Dogs
Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA: Resource Guarding
Animal Humane Society: Reasons for Aggression in Dogs
Seattle Humane Society: Resource Guarding
About the Author
Naomi Millburn has been a freelance writer since 2011. Her areas of writing expertise include arts and crafts, literature, linguistics, traveling, fashion and European and East Asian cultures. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in American literature from Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.