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Why is my dog possessive?

Possessive aggression should always be taken seriously, in any dog — not least because of the way it can so easily and rapidly escalate as a problem, if not better understood and handled.

The progression of a dog from early possession issues over food or toys in puppyhood, to the aggressive domination of a whole household as an adult, can be an all-too-common pattern. It can also be the reason why many dogs are given up for rehoming, or even put to sleep.

So what is possessive aggression? A typical possessive-aggressive scenario occurs when a dog mentally lays claim to a particular bit of territory or resource — which can be anything from his food or bed, to his owner or another household member — which he will then seek to retain, or defend from any other rival, with the use of hostile behaviour. This can be anything from teeth baring or a growl, to an all-out lunge and bite.

The initial motivation for the behaviour usually stems from some kind of deeper-rooted insecurity or fear, such as a dog losing control of his resources or environment. But the real problem lies in what he discovers about the effects of his aggression on others, such as it frightens or intimidates them, and makes them back off or leave him alone. Once the dog has discovered the rewards of his aggression, the desire to use the same behaviour again and again, in any scenario where he feels even vaguely challenged or threatened by some rival — human or canine — can become too great to resist.

Wrong approach

Another common reason why possession aggression escalates so seriously in dogs is because of the way owners attempt to solve it through fighting fire with fire. When a dog shows aggression towards them around his food bowl, or over some other item he is attempting to guard from them, they become aggressive in return. They either physically punish the dog, or try to forcibly remove the guarded item from his possession.

This forces the dog to become even more aggressive, in an attempt to defend himself. Very few owners ever gain anything from head-to-head physical battles like this, other than nasty injuries, plus a pet who becomes even more dangerous to be around.

The genetic link

Although possessive-aggressive behaviour can occur in any dog, there can often be a very strong genetic, or inherited, component behind it. This is why you will see the problem consistently reoccur in certain breeds or specific lines of dogs within breeds, such as Cocker Spaniels, Border Collies, Rottweilers, Jack Russells, and Golden Retrievers.

Too often I will see owners being blamed for this behaviour in their dogs, when the problem stems predominantly from their poorer breeding, temperament wise. At the heart of the possessive or control-aggressive impulse in dogs usually lies some hyper-sensitive, if not paranoid, perception of threat, which typically has a genetic origin, but can be greatly exacerbated by additional external stresses and a more deprived, abusive, or insecure early start in life.

Either way, this is what drives a dog’s obsession with control, over resources or territory, and his frequent tendency to shout before he is hit — to keep launching pre-emptive aggressive displays or strikes on others, even before they have proved to be any real challenge to him.

Early warnings

One way to reduce your chances of owning a resource or territory-guarding pet isn’t only through training and conditioning, but also through paying far more attention to the behaviour of any puppy you are interested in before you get him. Sometimes stronger possessive-aggressive impulses in dogs can be evident when they are only weeks old, and first beginning to share solid food from communal bowls.

So always ask a breeder if you can watch a litter of pups feeding, not just when they are very young, but also when they are older (six weeks plus). You might see one or more pups being more aggressive — growling and snapping — at other pups who get near them when they are feeding. These are not the dogs I would choose to own. If you are a breeder, also understand the vital need to remove all aggressive feeders from the communal eating area as soon as their hostile behaviour starts. Feed them separately by hand, so they have nothing to guard or get possessive about.

If you do not do this, then your bullying feeders might not only keep learning that aggression around food is highly rewarding, but they might also contaminate the future behaviour of all the other puppies in their litter. They’re establishing an association of threat and fear around food or the feeding environment, which other puppies may then take on to a new home. This means that they, too, could later become food guarders, even if they weren’t originally born with stronger genetic tendencies towards this behaviour.

A bigger issue

Many dogs can have their possessive or control-aggressive behaviour significantly reduced, if not removed, through more insightful, authoritative, yet far less confrontational handling on an owner’s part. With others, the issue is a far more deeply ingrained problem, stemming mostly from the dog’s more warped perception of his surrounding world, as a place of endless oncoming threat, over which he must constantly exert control. This highly personal world view is what can make any dog’s aggression seem so illogical to us, and so far more unpredictable and dangerous.

Once a dog has shown any kind of possessive-aggressive behaviour over resources or territory — and particularly of a more serious nature — you cannot go on treating him like any other dog without such inclinations, or imagine that the problem will just go away. You should seek expert help and advice at once.

The further away you are from understanding both the trigger for your dog’s aggression towards you or others, and the nature of the reward he is getting from each aggressive episode, the harder it will always be to stop the problem from getting worse.

My stuff!

Dogs can vary greatly in the things they are most obsessive about protecting or controlling with the use of aggression, but the most common targets include:

  • Food.
  • Toys.
  • Their owners.
  • Their beds/ sleeping areas.
  • More privileged sleeping positions, such as their owner’s bed, sofa, or armchair.
  • Doorways, hallways, stairways, and other strategic territorial positions within a home.
  • Cars.
  • The movements of other resident or visiting dogs and people.
  • Their general personal space.

How to avoid possessive aggression

As soon as you bring your puppy home, get everyone in the household to regularly come and put handfuls of food, and tasty treats, in his bowl at mealtimes, and move their hands around in his dish as they do so. This way, a puppy learns that people coming around his food bowl at mealtimes can only ever be a good thing.

Also teach him the ‘Leave and come’ and ‘Give’ commands. For the former, first wait until your puppy has got hold of something in his mouth. Instead of trying to chase him to grab it, or him, call him to you for a delicious treat. As he leaves the item behind to come to you, say the words ‘Leave and come!’.

Praise him fully for his cooperation. Then give him the treat plus an exciting toy to play with. Quickly remove the item you did not want him to have. Repeat this exercise daily.

To teach ‘Give’, first wait until your dog is holding something like a toy in his mouth. Hold the toy very gently with one hand — do not pull or tug it — while simultaneously showing your puppy some very tasty treats in your other hand. The instant he lets go of the toy to take a treat, say the word ‘Give!’ and praise him heartily. Then immediately let him have the toy back.

If your puppy has something in his mouth you don’t want him to keep, still use the ‘Give’ command, reward him, then replace what he has given back to you with an exciting toy instead.

Both exercises, if done regularly, remove any kind of confrontation scenario over resources. They also teach puppies the immense rewards of cooperating with your commands.

How to handle it

Dogs with possessive/control problems can be much like those people you know, around whom you always have to mind what you say or do, for fear of them taking it the wrong way or flying off the handle. You might call them touchy when actually they are just intrinsically hyper-sensitive to the prospect of challenge or threat. Dogs like these can be very stressful for other people or dogs to be around. They don’t like sharing and they don’t like anyone hovering near their favourite stuff — often including their owners. They also always have to be handled differently. Because of their strong control neuroses, and intrinsically shorter fuses, you cannot allow them total free access around your home, to commandeer resources or bits of territory at will. Set better limits instead on where they can go, using stairgates if necessary, because they can’t guard what they can’t have access to. And that includes you.

Additional stresses that can shorten any dog’s aggressive fuse even more include:

  • High levels of domestic tension, noise or other upheaval.
  • Ongoing verbal or physical hostility from owners.
  • Low levels of physical exercise and lengthier confinement in a smaller space.
  • Lives lacking sufficient stability or routine.
  • The dog having no safe place to which he can regularly go to rest in total peace and quiet.

Because all possession/control aggression problems in dogs have the potential to become far more dangerous with the wrong handling, you should always seek expert advice for them.

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