Possessive Aggression in Dogs

What is possessive aggression?

Possessive aggression describes aggressive behavior when a dog is approached or reached for while close to or possessing something she values. The behavior is also referred to as guarding or resource guarding. Aggressive responses can range from subtle to obvious, including stiffening, grasping at or hovering over an object, snarling, growling, barking, snapping, lunging, and biting. The intensity of the response may increase if a person or animal continues to approach your dog when it has the valuable item.

"Dogs can communicate using a range of postures and vocalizations that signal ‘do not approach.’"

To a large extent, it is perfectly normal to want to maintain control of one’s valuables. Dogs can communicate using a range of postures and vocalizations that signal ‘do not approach.’ A behaviorally appropriate dog may stare, freeze, put a chin or paw on an object, or even snarl or growl. Problems arise when these signals are not recognized or heeded. Failed communication, such as when the oncoming person (or pet) does not back away, results in frustration, which motivates the dog to increase the intensity of its signals. Dogs quickly learn that lower-level signals to ‘stay away’ are not helpful and use a more effective behavior, such as a lunge or bite. Preventing this escalation requires early identification of subtle signals so that an effective management and behavior modification strategy can be applied.

How can I tell if my dog will develop severe possessive aggression?

Watch for these early warning signs of possessive aggression when you approach or pass by your dog while she has something valuable:

  • Chewing quickly or gulping
  • Pausing, stiffening, or freezing rather than continuing to engage with the object
  • Staring or watching, especially with the whites of the eyes showing
  • Moving to cover the item with her body

These signs all show the dog is uncomfortable or concerned. Never ignore these signs; they are important. Recognizing signs when they are subtle and intervening early is essential for success. Obvious signs like growling, snarling, showing teeth, lunging, snapping, or biting are more severe and always warrant consultation with a professional.

If you notice a sign of aggression, do not attempt to remove the item, and do not scold your dog. A verbal or physical confrontation can trigger a rapid escalation within moments, putting you at risk of being bitten. Furthermore, even a single confrontation may cause an increase in the level of possessive aggression in the future and is a serious safety concern as the risk of a bite will increase dramatically during such a conflict. Instead, walk away quietly, lure your dog from the object from a safe distance, and then seek professional guidance.

How can I prevent possessive aggression?

Proactive management is a good strategy for preventing possessive aggression. In some cases, strategic management is all you need to create a lifetime of success. Some management suggestions:

  • Never forcibly remove an item while your dog is chewing or playing unless the item presents an immediate danger to her (e.g., a knife, bottle of medication)
  • Practice emergency procedures, such as emergency ‘drop it’, before they are needed
  • Give high-value or long-lasting chew items in an area away from people and other pets, using a crate, baby gate, closed door, or another barrier to prevent mistakes
  • Encourage your dog to use chew items or high-value items in low-traffic areas, such as an out-of-the-way dog bed where she will not feel social pressure while chewing or playing
  • Always teach children never to approach a dog who has a valued chew or toy
  • Prevent puppies or dogs from gaining access to your valuable possessions by putting them away when you are not available to supervise

Are there any helpful training exercises?

Before starting any training program to prevent or reduce possessive aggression, check with your veterinarian to ensure your dog is at an appropriate weight and has no illnesses that can contribute to increased hunger or irritability.

Training can teach your dog to expect something wonderful when a person approaches, even when your dog has something valuable. Training can also teach your dog to eagerly release objects when asked. Any time you are practicing prevention exercises, watch for subtle warning signs. If you see a warning sign, stop and seek guidance from a behavior professional.

"If you see a warning sign, stop and seek guidance from a behavior professional."

‘All Good Things’ game for prevention
When your dog has a valued resource, such as a chew or toy, walk by, leaving a generous distance—stay far enough away that there are no subtle warning signs. As you pass by, maintain that comfortable distance as you roll a delicious, special treat so that it lands close to the treasure. Treats such as a small cube of meat or cheese often work well. Continue walking away without lingering.

This exercise helps the dog understand: someone approaching means wonderful higher-value treats will appear; someone moving away means higher-value treats will stop appearing

If your dog is comfortable and free from the signs of concern mentioned earlier, repeat this exercise a few times a week. Gradually decrease the distance from which you pass until you are close enough to toss the high-value treat right between her front paws as she chews or plays. Always continue walking away after you roll or toss the treat.

If that goes well, add a small amount of duration by remaining at the closest point of the approach for a few seconds. Do not stare at your dog or reach down. If your dog freezes or stares, drop the treat and walk away—you are too close. Roll or toss one treat every one to two seconds when you are near the dog. End each repetition by calmly walking away.

Teaching ‘drop It’ for prevention
‘Drop it’ is the skill of releasing an item a dog has in her mouth. This item may be food, a chew, a toy, or stolen goods. A reliable ‘drop It’, taught with positive reinforcement, teaches the dog to look forward to releasing objects with a feeling of happy anticipation and prevents conflict between dogs and people over items.

Start with a supply of tiny, high-value treats. While your dog is chewing on something appropriate but not too valuable, cheerfully toss 5-10 treats on the floor. As soon as your dog leaves the item to investigate the treats, call out ‘drop It’ in a happy voice and walk away. Repeat this exercise four to five times every day for a few days. Next, instead of just tossing the treat, say ‘drop it’ first—if your dog looks up eagerly, immediately drop a pile of treats and walk away. Repeat this for several days in a row. The goal is for your dog to stop what she is doing and rush over to investigate excitedly when she hears the cue ‘drop it’.

For the next level, teach your dog to ‘drop it’, even if the possession is a little more valuable; for example, a food toy filled with a few plain kibbles or any toy your dog favors. For this advanced training, monitoring your dog’s body language for any subtle signs of discomfort, as described previously, is essential.

"...monitoring your dog’s body language for any subtle signs of discomfort, as described previously, is essential."

While your dog enjoys the medium-value item, stay a distance away. Then, without approaching, call out ‘drop it’ in a happy voice and cheerfully toss 5-10 treats on the floor near your feet, then walk away. Your dog will most likely run away from the medium-value item and excitedly eat the higher-value treats. Most dogs will return to the medium-value item after finishing the treats.

Walk to a new location and repeat the steps above. The goal is for your dog to choose to leave the item and excitedly anticipate something safe and fun when she does so. After several repetitions, end the exercise by leaving the area and letting your dog keep the medium-value item. To increase the difficulty, you can continue to increase the value of the item she is asked to drop. Over time, if your dog is doing well, stand a little closer to her before asking for a ‘drop it’.

Lastly, and only if your dog looks relaxed and shows no signs of concern, call out ‘drop it’, drop the high-value treats, and while your dog is enjoying the treats, quietly pick up the item she dropped. Then, once your dog finishes the treats, give her back the object.

Will ‘drop it’ be immediately effective if my dog has something dangerous or precious to me?

It is a great idea to have a special ‘emergency button’ cue in the event your dog could be injured, or a valuable object might be damaged. Choose a new cue for this training—for example, you might use ‘treat party’.

To train the new cue, when your dog is busy or relaxing nearby and does not have anything valuable in her possession, randomly call out ‘treat party’, drop two to three high-value treats near your feet, and jog happily into another room, encouraging your dog to follow you. When you arrive in the other room, scatter 10-15 high-value treats onto the floor. While your dog is eating the treats, walk out of the room and close the door behind you. Open the door every 5-10 seconds and toss two to three more treats into the room.

"Practice often when your dog is NOT chewing anything valuable so that, during training, your dog does not have to give anything up and will eagerly follow you."

With this training, the cue, ‘treat party’ will be strongly associated with having fun and getting great treats. Practice often when your dog is NOT chewing anything valuable so that, during training, your dog does not have to give anything up and will eagerly follow you. Having a rapid and automatic response to ‘treat party’ will be helpful when your dog must release a possession immediately.

What if my dog is already showing signs of possessive aggression?

If your dog is already exhibiting possessive aggression, professional guidance is appropriate while working through any exercise to avoid unintentional miscommunication that can cause aggression to escalate. Your behavior specialist might suggest a modification of the ‘All Good Things’ exercise to assure safety while working to reduce food bowl aggression. Meanwhile, use the management suggestions described earlier to prevent accidental conflict between yourself and your dog or pets within the household. Safety first!

Modified ‘All Good Things’ game and ‘drop it’ cue to be done with a behavior specialist

Standard exercises might not be safe if your dog has previously snapped or lunged when approached. Modifications of the ‘All Good Things’ game and ‘drop it’ cue rely on using a physical barrier, such as a gate or crate, so your dog cannot bite you if you accidentally get too close. You will need to toss the treats over the barrier or into the crate and then move away. Dogs can be very possessive when in crates; if there is any lunging, or you notice other signs of aggression while your dog is in the crate, this exercise should be discontinued. Even if you are physically safe, a crated dog may feel trapped and experience a high level of frustration when approached. In some cases, using a remote-operated treat dispenser can be helpful, as these devices allow you to deliver the reward without approaching too close for your dog’s comfort.

As you progress, with the barrier in place, you may begin to reduce the distance between you and your dog as you walk by. Finally, if there are no signs of distress or aggression, you may stand near your dog for a few seconds before delivering the treat. If you see any subtle signs of aggression, end the session by quietly walking away. Please seek professional help.