Guarding Valued Objects
A dog can become very possessive about certain objects. Guarding occurs with food and a variety of objects valued by a dog, such as a favorite toy or bone. It may also guard inappropriate objects, such as your shoe or a piece of trash. In many cases, the guarding animal carries the valued objects to a secure area. Attempts to remove the object from the pet may be met with an aggressive response. It may stand over its food dish, for example, and growl when approached. This warning must not be ignored because the dog may bite.
Guarding behavior may begin as an attention-seeking game when the dog is a puppy. You may no longer enjoy the game, however, when it persists in your adult dog. Your dog may guard objects during play to attract your attention. This is typical of dogs that steal objects, often in plain view, and run off. If your dog fails to engage your attention with a particular object, it may continue to test your reaction until it discovers one that works. Though playful guarding may not progress to aggressive guarding, it should not be encouraged.
Many pet owners believe that guarding food indicates a dog was deprived of food as a puppy. However, this behavior is seen in dogs that have never experienced starvation. Guarding behavior is not a sign of dominance because it can be intensely displayed even by submissive dogs.
The best way to deal with guarding behavior is to prevent it. If your dog tends to stay in the same corner or under a bed with its favorite object, block access to these hiding places. Teach your dog that giving up a possession is actually fun in the form of a game. Train it to fetch neutral objects (of no value to the dog), and teach it to retrieve and return them to you. Command the dog to sit and stay. As you gently remove the object from its mouth, introduce a new command, such as drop it or let go.
If you practice this frequently and offer lots of praise, the dog will associate the new phrase with relinquishing an object. After several weeks of practice, when the dog has learned the basic rules of the game, practice with a variety of objects of increasing value to the dog. Eventually, include objects that were previously guarded.
Another obedience exercise is to train the dog not to touch an object until you instruct it to do so. Place your dog in a sit/stay position, for example, with a food treat or toy just out of reach. Say, "leave it!" as the dog maintains its position. Release the dog from this position with a command such as okay. You may incorporate this training as a daily ritual at each meal time. A dog will bite to guard its valued object and should not be challenged. No matter how secure you feel with your dog under normal circumstances, do not risk injury to yourself by putting your hand or face in biting range. It may be necessary to leave the dog alone until it loses interest in the object, even if the dog may be in some danger. If your dog steals something before retraining is completed, 2 responses are advised:
If the object is of no danger to the dog, ignore it.
If the object is an obvious hazard to your dog's health, do not panic. Calmly and without directly looking at the dog, find something of equal or greater value to the dog, such as a special food treat or even its leash. Call the dog to come to you and away from the object. Give no hint of anger or concern in your voice. When the dog begins to approach you, give it immediate encouragement even before it arrives at your feet. Put your dog in a sit position and give it a reward.
In some cases it may be effective to simply stop what you are doing and leave the room. The dog's curiosity in your activity might exceed its interest in guarding. Be sure to remove the object, hazardous or not, as soon as possible. Place it in an inaccessible location or discard it.
Young children must never be left unattended during a dog's feeding time or allowed to approach a dog when it is enjoying a favorite toy or treat.
These can only be considered temporary solutions, particularly for a very aggressive forms of guarding. Continue retraining in the form of play, teaching your dog to relinquish possessions of increasing value, as described above. Objects that are intensely guarded should be made unavailable as long as your dog exhibits exaggerated interest.