If your good dog turns into a growling and snapping terror the moment you try to take his toy away, you are likely dealing with a resource guarder. Resource guarding in dogs is not an uncommon problem, but you need to address the problem as it could potentially lead to biting. Fortunately, by implementing some easy step-by-step behavior modification techniques, preferably under the guidance of a professional, you can teach your dog that giving up his prized possessions is no biggie and can actually be a rewarding experience.
Preparation for Training
Determine what triggers your dog's resource guarding response. Does he growl only when he has a particular toy? Are new toys the main problem? Is he growling when you try to take his toy away or when you get too close? Also, determine if the resource guarding is only limited to toys. Many dogs who guard their toys may also guard bones, food bowls and other treasures worthy of protection.
Become familiar with your dog's body language. Learn how to readily recognize signs of relaxation. Look at Scruffy's body language when he is relaxed on the couch and pay particular attention to his body, ears, eyes and tail. Compare this body language to the body language you have witnessed when your dog was protective of a toy. Most likely you noticed how his body tensed up and became stiff as you walked by and how he may have given you a hard stare while keeping his head low and emitting that low growl, pleading you to stay away.
Step 1 - Arm yourself with some high-value treats. Skip the kibble your dog eats every day or those stale doggie biscuits you have stored for several months in that cookie jar. You want soft, bite-sized treats that your dog perceives to be much higher in value than the toy he has been fiercely guarding. Many dogs drool for small bits of chicken, beef, hot dogs or cheese. Use these treats only for training purposes.
Step 2 - Let your dog initially have a toy that isn't excessively perceived as valuable. Stay at a distance where he is likely to not tense up and walk parallel to him. As you are passing by, toss high value treats. You want to make it clear that when you pass by, great things happen. Repeat several times to make it clear that you are not a threat, but rather a bringer of yummy treats. If your dog becomes tense at any time, then you are likely too close for comfort.
Step 3 - Move gradually closer each day. Continue walking parallel to your dog and tossing treats right when you pass by. Make it clear that it's your presence that makes those treats happen. After repeating several times, something wonderful will happen: your dog's emotional response will change. Instead of tensing up as you get close, your dog may lift his head and even wag his tail in anticipation of the treat. Progress by getting gradually closer every day and tossing treats until you are walking right past your dog.
Step 6 - Let your dog have a toy and in the meanwhile smear some peanut butter on another toy. As you walk by your dog, instead of tossing treats, let him have the toy smeared with peanut butter. In order to obtain the toy with peanut butter, your dog should drop his other toy. Take the latter as he works on licking the peanut butter off the other toy. When he is done, again smear some peanut butter on the other toy, walk by and let him have the toy while you remove the toy without peanut butter. Repeat a few times a day over a course of several days until he no longer shows signs of possession aggression.
A Few Warnings
• If at any time you think your dog may bite, don't hesitate to call a professional.
• Don't punish your dog by taking his toy away. This will only increase his aggression because it confirms in his mind that your intent is to really take his toy away.
• Don't aggressively scold your dog for growling. If you respond with aggression to a dog's aggressive behavior, this only escalates the situation and may lead to a dog who bites without warning.
By Adrienne Farricelli
About the Author
Adrienne Farricelli has been writing for magazines, books and online publications since 2005. She specializes in canine topics, previously working for the American Animal Hospital Association and receiving certification from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Her articles have appeared in "USA Today," "The APDT Chronicle of the Dog" and "Every Dog Magazine." She also contributed a chapter in the book " Puppy Socialization - An Insider's Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness" by Caryl Wolff.