Why do dogs get possessive over toys?

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Why are some dogs possessive with their toys, when others aren’t in the least? Have you ever noticed your dog begin to growl, snarl or snap when you try to take his toy away, or simply approach while he is merely playing? Does this mean your beloved pet is angry with you and doesn’t like you anymore, or something else entirely?

Find out exactly why dogs get possessive over toys, what it really means to them, and the best way you can fix the problem below!

Natural Instincts: Resource Guarding

Thousands of years ago (and even today to a lesser degree), wolves needed to guard literally everything from other potential predators. If they didn’t either protect or bury their kills, they risked losing meals to other animals. Unlike today’s domesticated dogs, wolves would sometimes go for days without eating; losing a meal they finally managed to acquire could mean starvation. Resource guarding was very natural and even expected!

This age old instinct is also why some dogs might hide or bury toys today!

So you see, resource guarding (whether it be food or toys) is a completely normal, natural behaviour. It doesn’t mean your dog is ‘angry’ with you, or that he doesn’t like you. It certainly doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t respect you, more a ‘human’ term that shouldn’t really be associated with dogs.

Resource guarding is instinctual, simply meaning your dog fears his food (or in this case, toys) is/are going to be taken away. Dogs aren’t capable of the same type of reasoning humans are, and don’t always understand you only have the best intentions in mind!

Symptoms of Resource Guarding:

  • Growling
  • Lifting upper lip
  • Aggressive barking
  • Snapping, lunging, biting
  • Other extreme reaction

So, your dog growls and snaps when you approach his food, or try to take away his toys. The immediate and simplest answer is: Don’t approach your dog while he is eating, and don’t try to take away his toys. Most owners don’t want to stop there, and would rather cure the problem at its core!

Desensitisation and Counter-conditioning

Desensitisation: Adjusting (dog) to a normally distressful situation by gradually presenting the situation in a pleasant manner the dog enjoys.

Counter Conditioning: Combining something a dog doesn’t like with something he does, until he begins to like that ‘thing’ because it means he gets the other ‘thing’ he always enjoyed. For example, Jimmy teaches a dog who doesn’t like the water to swim by very gradually tossing the stick further and further out, eventually forcing the dog to enter the water to retrieve it, and rewarding with a tasty treat the dog really wants. Jimmy has also desensitised the dog to water.

Both the terms above are both extremely popular among dog trainers, and used all of the time! But how can they help you and your dog?

Does your dog hate baths or fear the water? Now you know how professional trainers would cure these fears, and you didn’t have to pay a cent for the advice!

Food Aggression

If you absolutely must be around your dog while he is eating, or remove his food dish, offer a valuable treat when you do! Right now, your dog is afraid you’re going to ‘steal his food’, but eventually he will learn that your presence isn’t something to be wary of, but means tasty rewards! Be sure to present this ‘prize’ every time, so your dog begins to associate your presence with good things. In order for this to work, your dog must value the treat more than the food.

Also, stop taking away your dog’s food (duh)!

Not only have you just desensitised your dog to your continued presence while he’s eating, you’ve counter-conditioned him from something he once feared to something he now enjoys!

Same Idea for Toys

To a dog, his toys and bones are resources too, just like his food. For that reason, these exact same techniques can be applied to help cure toy – possessiveness. If you need to take your dog’s toy away, don’t just snatch it or fight him for it. Offer a treat instead- something he values more than the toy he’s playing with!

Possible Additional Causes

Like everything else, this isn’t always 100% cut and dry; there could be other causes leading to your dog’s resource guarding behaviour. It’s always a good idea to have your pup examined by a veterinarian to rule out any painful injury or other condition that might be causing him to behave unusually aggressively.

Other Possible Causes

  • Underlying medical conditions
  • Poor socialising as a puppy
  • Sexual maturation
  • Inbreeding
  • Environment
  • Pack order behaviour
  • Genetic or hereditary predisposition to that particular breed

Avoid Over-Punishment

Punishment or chastisement is probably going to be the very first instinct any human dog parent has, especially if their dog is exhibiting aggressive behaviour. Unfortunately, the internet is absolutely full of articles claiming ‘You need to be the boss!’, and ‘Be the pack leader!’. Those theories have been disproven and discredited by almost the entire educated scientific community, and can actually lead to harmful situations.

Wrestling with or punishing/harming your dog will only reinforce his instinctual fear that you mean to harm him or steal his toy/food, and accomplish little more than making the current problem worse. Punishment is the last thing you want to treat over-possessiveness with. At best, your training will take longer; at worst your pet could become aggressive to the point of causing harm.

Adrienne at PetHelpful.com has some great tips for dealing with a possessive dog:

  1. Give your dog an item that he does not guard fiercely
  2. Casually pass by a distance your dog does not appear to mind you
  3. Toss pieces of medium-value treats as you walk by in your dog’s direction
  4. Repeat several times until your dog looks at you passing by in hope for the treats

Teach your dog you aren’t a threat, and don’t intend to take away his prize! Show him that you only mean good, pleasant and tasty things! You can eventually teach him that ‘In order to get your treat you want so much, you’re going to have to give up the toy’.

Your best course is to make your pup want to behave a certain way for the rewards, not because he fears the outcome if he doesn’t.

Comments 2

  1. Fantastic article – thanks for this!

    I found that training my dog to behave better around food was a great way to improve their behaviour with toys too. I started by making him sit before he got his food and with time he was much more willing to share his toys with his adopted brother. We do have to bribe him to get him to trade the toy for a treat, but after a while he became much less precious of “his” toys.

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