Possessive Aggression in Dogs: What is it and how to stop it

No one likes a misbehaved dog, especially one whose behaviour can become dangerous to other people and other animals in your household. Possessive aggression can quickly turn from simply not dropping their favourite toy to snapping at others at dinner time. The good news is this behaviour can be treated and the earlier you catch onto it and start treating it, the easier it can be to get your dog back to being a well behaved pooch. 


What Is Possessive Aggression

Possessive aggression, also known as food aggression or resource guarding, is when a dog becomes aggressive towards other animals or people when they are approached while with food, a toy or treat. They may growl or snap at anyone or anything that approaches them in order to protect and avoid their valuable object being taken away from them. Basically they’re trying to say, back off, this is mine! While typically  it occurs with their favourite toy or food, it can also happen over an object that seems trivial, like a piece of paper fished out of the bin.

Such a behaviour usually happens because the dog believes they are under some sort of threat. This can develop in dogs that have previously lived as strays or puppies that haven’t had appropriate training when the first signs of this behaviour began to show.


Signs of Possessive Aggression

Signs of possessive aggression can look different in all dogs and can be displayed at different levels of intensity. Your dog may demonstrate a more mild form such as a low growl or by curling their lips, while others may actually attempt to nip or bite anyone or anything who approaches them. It’s also possible for the behaviour to increase in intensity over time. What may start out as a small growl during dinner time, if left untreated, could progress into snapping and biting.

Some dogs may also only show signs of this behaviour in connection with a certain object or two and nothing else. Some dogs, for example, can become aggressive over their food during meal time but will more than happily share their toys, while others may become possessive over nearly everything in your house. The earlier you can pick up on the warning signs of this behaviour, the sooner you can treat it and the easier it can be to get your dog out of this habit, so be sure to pay close attention to how your dog interacts with their things. Here are a few different warning behaviours to be on the lookout for.

  • Ignoring you when you ask them to drop something or refusing to give up the item when you ask.
  • Hoarding their toys and treats away from others.
  • Growling at other animals or people when they approach their food bowl.
  • Growling or snapping when someone tries to take away their toy or bone, or demonstrating the same aggressive behaviour when other animals approach them while they have that object in their possession.
  • Showing signs of jealousy, such as head-butting another dog when you are petting them.


Why Do Dogs Display Possessive Aggression 

Possessive aggression is actually a natural dog behaviour that originates from their natural instincts to protect themselves and their resources against perceived threats. While this behaviour may have been useful in the wild, it has no place occurring in your home, however there are a few reasons why our beloved pets still develop this behaviour.

  • New arrival - if you’ve recently introduced a new furry friend to your family this may cause your dog to start showing signs of this undesirable behaviour. With a new dog in the house, your pet may feel the need to protect their toys, food bowl, etc from this new addition. 
  • Learned behaviour - while they were still a puppy, your dog may have picked up this behaviour from their mum or even some of the other puppies in their litter. It’s not uncommon to see puppies who are only a few weeks old showing signs of this behaviour, particularly where there is a large litter and limited food available.
  • Shelter dog syndrome - if your dog has previously spent an extended period of time in a shelter, they may have developed this behaviour from being in that environment. If they’ve previously had limited resources that they had to compete for with other dogs in the shelter, or even observed the other dogs exhibiting this behaviour, this can cause your pet to also develop this undesirable behaviour.
  • Ineffective training - traditional training methods taught us that we should take things away from our dogs in order to teach them rules and show them who is in charge. However, by continually snatching things off our dogs, what we are actually training them to think is that we are thieves who will take the things from them they find most precious. Instead of training our dogs to be obedient we can end up teaching them negative behaviours instead. 


How to Treat Possessive Aggression

If your dog is showing signs of this undesirable behaviour, the worst thing you can do is to try and forcefully take the item away from them. Not only is this dangerous to you, it doesn’t actually teach your dog anything and won’t resolve the issue. You need to teach your dog that it’s ok for them to trust you with their valuable items and that if they do allow you to touch their resources something good, not bad, will happen.

Train Them Early

The most effective way to prevent your dog from developing possessive aggression is to train them while they’re still a puppy. Showing them, while they're still young, that you handling their food or other possessions does not result in anything negative can help deter this behaviour from developing. While they’re eating, calmly approach them and start softly talking to them and petting them. You can also drop some extra tasty treats into their bowl at the same time. This will teach them that you approaching their food is not something to feel threatened by. Once they seem comfortable with this, you can start gently restraining them and taking their bowl away, followed by praising them and returning their bowl. This same approach can also be used with their toys.

Multi-Step Conditioning

A multi-step conditioning process is a potentially good option if your dog is being extra possessive over their food. Start by placing several bowls around the room that they normally eat in. Put a more bland food into one of the bowls and while they start eating this, add a more tasty food to a different bowl that is a little distance away from the first. While you don’t want to get too close to evoke their aggression, once you have placed the better food, let your dog see you’re offering them a more valuable alternative. Repeat this process, adding better food to each of the remaining bowls. If your dog does show any aggression towards you during this process, be sure to stop.

Give Them More Valuable Resources

Instead of just simply taking away the valuable resource your dog is guarding, replace it with something they would find even more valuable. When your dog starts guarding something, use “drop it” to get them to give up the item to you and then reward them for doing so by giving them an even better treat or toy. Once your dog has been given the extra special reward, you can then give them back the item they were originally guarding. Repeat this every time your dog starts showing possessive aggression and over time they will learn that nothing bad will happen if they don’t protect their things.

Keep the Valuable Possessions Out of Sight

In the early stages of treating their possessive aggression, it can be best to simply keep any items they find valuable away from your dog and only allow your furry friend to have them in a controlled and confined setting, such as a crate. Make sure you keep them well out of reach so your dog doesn’t try stealing them when you’re not looking or not around. From here, you can start trying some of the methods above using items that your dog isn’t as possessive over and work your way up to bringing in their most beloved possessions. 

Consult a Professional Trainer

If you find yourself not making any improvements with your own methods or your dog’s behaviour is a bit too aggressive for you to handle on your own, the best option may be to bring in a professional dog trainer. They will be able to figure out the root cause of your dog’s aggression and develop a training program to help them kick the habit. 

Back to blog