For over 30,000 years, dogs have been our best friends — and for good reason. Loyal, affectionate, and protective, our canine companions brighten our lives, and they can even help us while we work. But what happens when your dog's protective instincts transfer to their food bowl or their favorite toy? While protecting his precious resources is essential to a stray dog's survival, your family pooch doesn't need to fight to defend his puzzle treats. If your dog snaps, snarls, bites, or lunges when you attempt to pick up his tennis balls or stand too close to his favorite stuffed toy, you have a potentially dangerous situation on your hands. For pet parents with multiple animals, toy aggression in dogs can lead to a vicious fight. Have you ever wondered how to train a dog to share toys? Here's what you should know.
Toy aggression in dogs is also called resource guarding or possessive aggression. When your dog behaves aggressively toward you or other pets while he is playing with a toy, you’re witnessing toy aggression. While it may strike many pet parents as odd that their pup is so protective over toys instead of food, guarding possessions is an innate survival skill that dates back to your dog’s earliest ancestors: wolves. Your pup may live in the lap of luxury where all his needs are met, but his instincts tell him that resources are scarce.
According to Jean Donaldson, author of Mine! A Practical Guide To Resource Guarding In Dogs, some pet parents believe that toy aggression is a sign that their dog is too spoiled, while others assume that resource guarding is a sign of dominant aggression. However, denying Fido access to any toys while you’re teaching him to share can make things worse. Similarly, attempting to assert dominance to quell toy aggression may frighten your pooch, leading to additional problems in his behavior. Let’s look into a few ways you can help curb your dog’s toy aggression without inadvertently encouraging the behavior — or worsening it.
Just like people, dogs have distinct personalities, so not all canines display the same signs of aggression. Your beastie may show aggression only when you attempt to take his favorite toy, while another dog may display aggression in connection with everything he considers his. Here’s what you should look out for:
- Growling, snapping, or biting if you attempt to take his toys.
- A guarded stance over his food bowl.
- Growling, snapping, or biting if you approach his food.
- Fighting with other dogs over food or toys.
While it’s common for dogs to feel possessive of food or toys, resource guarding can encompass a variety of objects. Some dogs may never progress beyond the occasional growl or snarl, but others may bite you if you try to approach them during mealtime or play. Your dog also may transition from snarling to biting unexpectedly — all the more reason to stop toy aggression in its tracks.
Before getting a handle on possessive aggression, you’ll want to ensure your dog can understand and complete basic commands. A well-trained dog is far likelier to respond to your attempts to quell toy aggression. Here are a few ways you can put a stop to your dog’s toy aggression without risking a bite.
Step 1: Control your dog’s access
In the early stages of training, it may be best to control your dog’s access to his favorite toy. If you have a spare room in your home, you can turn it into a puppy playroom. Allow him to play with his toy freely in his playroom but leave the toy behind when you let him out. If you crate-train your dog, try leaving the toy in his crate. This teaches him that his toy is safe, but it prevents toy aggression from occurring outside a controlled space.
Step 2: Train your dog to drop their toys
According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), training your dog to drop something in his mouth centers on trading one item for another. Start by giving your dog a toy he likes but doesn’t love, and then offer him his favorite toy or a treat in exchange. Tell him to “drop it” and hold out your hand until your dog releases the item. Give him a treat or his favorite toy, teaching him he’ll be rewarded for obeying your command.
Step 3: Redirect his attention
Dogs respond much better to positive reinforcement than to punishment. Instead of taking away your dog’s favorite toy, try distracting him with a treat or a new toy. A joint study conducted by the University of Giessen and the University of Lincoln found that dogs overwhelmingly prefer new toys. The presence of an unfamiliar toy should be enough to persuade him to turn over his current obsession. Tell your dog to drop his toy and offer him the new toy in its place.
Step 4: Don’t be afraid to seek professional help
Behavioral changes don’t happen overnight, and some dogs are more difficult to train than others. If you’ve tried behavioral conditioning exercises at home to no avail, it may be time to contact a professional. Modifying your dog’s behavior can be tricky, especially when it’s instinctive. Professional trainers can help your pup learn to follow commands, using positive reinforcement techniques.
Everyone in your household deserves to live in a peaceful environment, your dog included. With time, patience, and proper training, you can help your pup overcome toy aggression. Start your training sessions using short increments, around five to 15 minutes at a time, be consistent, and reach out to a professional if you get stuck along the way.
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