Possession aggression or the potential for it can be defined as:
Freezing, growling, lunging, nipping or biting whenever a person or dog (cats too) come close to something the dog regards as their own possession.
Important Note: It is important to note that some dogs are vocal when they play. You may play a game of Tug and even following all the rules your dog may growl whenever you play. We have seen many dogs that play tug and growl while playing but never ever escalated to any kind of aggression later in life. Often times people can be unsure when they hear a growl and not know if it is aggressive in nature or not. Being that a dog will tug at all with you is a sign that your dog will test you. If you are uncertain about the growling you can play tug long enough (average of a week) to teach the rules on how to "drop it" on command. Then you can switch to training fetch and not play tug anymore.
The only cause for Possession Aggression we have seen is a result of Dominance.
Possessions fall under Pack Structure Rules. The rule for Possessions is that a higher ranking pack member has the right over all possessions over a lower ranking pack member.
You may see several dogs playing with toys and one dog will go round up all of the toys from the other dogs. Even if the toys are all identical, one dog may take all of the toys and keep it for themselves. This is one way for a dog to show that they are higher ranking than other pack members.
This is why you only get Tug of War out of Betas or Alphas as they have desire to be higher ranking. You cannot get a low ranking Omega to play Tug of War with you. They will never want to challenge you for a toy.
Possession Aggression Dogs vs People
Possession Aggression is most commonly seen between other dogs. It doesn't happen very often with people and if it does this is usually a dog with a high desire to be Alpha. Dogs like this have a very low probability of ever becoming good with everyone. They usually have to be managed with caution since every new person they meet, they will assume that person is lower ranking and will often set out to show those people that they are lower ranking and force is often used.
In the article about Food Aggression we talked about a dog that had sent his owner to the emergency room 3 times. This dog would lunge and bite his owner if he walked near his food or a dog toy.
More commonly you will see dogs that can be aggressive over possessions to other dogs and have zero aggression toward people over possessions. Younger children are the most susceptible to a dog showing aggression over possessions towards people.
Early on it is good to teach a dog they cannot take a child's toy. If they do, this is a way for a dog to show they are higher ranking than the child. Some dogs just like the toy and will chew on it and never show any aggression but it is good to stop it because of what it can escalate to. Better safe than sorry. Further down in this article will explain how to stop a dog from taking kids toys.
Methods You May Have Heard to Stop Possession Aggression
1. Say "No!"
Being that Betas and Alphas would be the only one to have an inkling to show aggression over Possessions a Beta that is at the low end of testing may respond to a verbal correction when you say "No!". This would be more likely to work with a younger dog. Some dogs when you say "No!" will become more aggressive over the toy. They see you escalate so they will escalate. In the dog world one dog would then end up telling the other dog off enough until they submit and order is restored. This is why you may see some dogs go from playing tug and then escalate to a fight. Both wanted to be boss and neither backed down from the challenge so a fight ensues.
This would be managing the situation. You never let it escalate but you also never train the dog to know the rules.
If the dog steals something you don't want them to have they may act aggressive if you try to take it back. Some trainers may advise you to trade the dog for a treat. Often we find that this encourages that behaviour. Core Rule: -
A force based way of showing you are boss. Some dogs will respond to this correction and others may escalate to a much more violent response. As an example, let's say a 140 pound guardian dog is growling at you when you walk near them playing with a toy or bone. It would be unwise to your health to try and alpha roll that dog. Not to say we haven't heard of people doing it and succeeding but if it goes wrong it can go very wrong. If it were a 7 pound Pomeranian then odds are you would win.
We once worked with a 7 pound Pomeranian named Teddy. This was Grandma's dog and the parents were phoning because of their concern for Teddy's aggression. We are pretty sure Teddy could have eaten one of Grandma's grand kids and Grandma would have just said "Oh Teddy is just being silly". Teddy was a female and out on walks she would lift her leg like a boy dog to mark territory every 5 steps. Teddy would submit to any dog even the same size as her but with any person she was going to let them know they were lower ranking. Being that Teddy was little I put a glove on and held Teddy on her back and let her kick and fight for about a minute and then she submitted and then Teddy and I were best of buds and training went great after that.
This is why we like doing Food and Possession Aggression Prevention with small puppies as they are easy to manage. Teach them the rules when they are super little and carry them throughout their lives and you will often never have a problem. If they want to put up a fight, let them, just hold them on their backs until the fight is out of them. Have other people repeat it and the puppy often learns it is a huge fail any time they tried so they will stop trying. However we have worked with a lot of dogs where clients would hold them on their backs and once they let go the dog would come right back at them (the dog is thinking “Is that the best you can do?!”). This is Bank Robber Principle. A squirt in the mouth with Bitter Apple spray often stopped that problem.
So this largely depends on the size of the dog and the ability for the dog to escalate.
In the event that the Alpha Roll didn't work a person would often escalate to a grab of the scruff and enough of a shake to make the dog yelp which usually means they have submitted. This is based on the idea that if a dog doesn't submit when another dog pins them to the ground, the dog correcting would bite by the neck enough to get the other dog to submit. This method can be effective but it could also backfire with a larger dog that is in turn going to go after you with even more force.
People may use the tactic of pretending to go for a walk, meal time, someone at the door, another fun toy, etc. The dog stops what they are doing and runs over to the other thing they find exciting.
This method can work in a pinch but dogs are excellent at understanding patterns. They can learn that they can predict something good to happen by doing something bad Core Rule: Training Every Second -
Best example we can think of was a lady we worked with that worked with another trainer before hand. Her dog was bad for biting her and the other trainer instructed her to take a toy out and distract the dog with that. This lady said she didn't think the method worked well because at home now, when the dog wanted a toy, the dog would come over and bite the lady expecting a toy. Rule #4 Training Every Second -
Force based method for correcting the dog at a bit of a distance. Has worked for many dogs and some it can make them lash out even worse.
This allows you even more distance to correct the dog. Some people would do it up close. The correction can be pretty intense with some remote collars. This could be enough to back the dog off the toy. Tends to be one of the harshest corrections when used at a high level. It is fairly effective. If you are dealing with a high level Alpha you will need to follow through on all other Pack Structure rules and provide that dog with a job for a mental and physical outlet.
Will My Dog Ever Be Good Around Possessions?
Being food aggressive is one thing. The dog thinks you are trying to take a resource so they are preserving their life by guarding food. That can be worked on with great success. Being possession aggressive is a sign of a dog really wanting to be Alpha. If it is a puppy you can sometimes get this out of the way right away. However we find that most dogs would show the more serious bad behaviours at around 18 -
To Clarify -
These types of dogs often require a close eye their entire lives. They are more suited for people who follow rules consistently and are not afraid to use force based corrections when needed. In families that don't follow rules or wouldn't use physical correction it can get really out of hand with family members taking trips to the emergency room.
We have heard it said many times by older trainers and farmers: "There are too many good dogs out there to spend any time on a bad dog". You also hear many times people say "There are no bad dogs just bad owners". The first is implying Nature over Nurture and the second is implying the opposite Nurture over Nature. We used to be of the opinion that all dogs can be trained. While there is still the possibility that can hold true we have found certain dogs are excellent at certain things and not so good at others, just like people. A dog that is highly aggressive over their possessions makes an excellent junk yard dog but not a great pet.
Nurture plays a roll in training definitely but Nature trumps all. Ask a farmer what happens when you breed a small cow to a small bull. You likely end up with another small cow. If you breed a big bull to a big cow you will likely get another big cow.
So when you hear someone say "There are no bad dogs just bad owners". The person saying that should make sure they walk a mile in the other person's shoes first. We have had clients come hear before where they had two dogs. The first one was a super good dog. They themselves said they thought they were excellent dog trainers, naturals. So they decided to get a second dog. Unbeknown to them the second dog was a much more difficult dog. They then say they were wrong and figure they just got lucky and now they feel like they know nothing about training dogs.
So there technically are no bad dogs, they just excel at something. The dog that kills any small animal makes a terrible pet but an excellent vermin exterminator. Put that dog in an area with rats and consider those rats gone.
So if your dog is possession aggressive don't feel like you are a bad owner. You can always learn more. You may have also been planning on having an excellent family pet but this dog is not suited for that job. They excel at another job.
What Are the Best Methods for Overcoming Possession Aggression?
1. Pack Structure -
2. Tug of War Games -
3. Correction -
4. Consistently follow the rules.
Pack Structure shows the dog you are boss based on their own natural rules.
Tug of War -
We had clients here that had a Pit bull they wanted to play tug with. He would never drop the toy and they couldn't pry his mouth off the toy. They decided to out-
When he came here we did some leash walking and he followed a bit and then started to bite the leash and tug me around the room. I gave him a squirt in the mouth with Grannicks Bitter Apple Spray. He dropped the leash immediately. We walked a bit further and he tested again. Another squirt and he dropped the leash. He never bit the leash after that. A short while later we went to play Tug. I told him to drop it and he wouldn't so I pulled the Bitter Apple bottle half way out of my pocket and he dropped the tug toy. I call Bitter Apple, Kryptonite for Pit bulls. They hate that stuff. That method works almost always. I haven't seen a time it hasn't worked for me yet but I know there would be cases where it wouldn't.
Follow the rules -
1. Pick up the kids toys.
2. Alternate the dogs toys.
3. Correct the dog for taking kids toys.
4. Toys in your possession -
Just by picking up the toys and never giving the dog the chance they may never develop the habit.
Alternating your dogs toys will keep them more exciting. You may have certain toys for certain days so each day brings something fun and exciting.
Correcting the dog for taking kids toys can be something as simple as saying "Ah" and give them a squirt in the mouth with Bitter Apple. Doing that several times can teach the dog to stay away from kids toys. Some may find a grab to the scruff when the dog takes the toys can also work. Many dogs need some kind of a consequence otherwise Bank Robber Principle takes effect.
Toys in your possession -
How to Stop a Dog from Possession Aggression with Dogs
1. Tie your dog to the side.
2. Always control possessions.
Teaching your dog rules on their toys by tying your dog to the side while you play with another dog with a toy can help a dog understand you are in control of all possessions. They have no say in who gets what or when they get it.
This can work very well whenever you are around other dogs.
We have a German Shepherd that places very high value on possessions. One day I was doing a tracking exercise with her where she had to sit back and wait. Another dog wanted to play fetch for the first time so I did that with him with the tracking toy. Our Shepherd would whine and bark and was very upset. As soon as she quieted a bit I would let her fetch the ball. We repeated this and she got the idea that if she was to get the ball she had to be quiet first. We focused on this for several days. It quickly got to the point where I could have our Shepherd stay and wait 3 feet away from another dog I would play fetch with another dog and she would remain quiet.
Always control possessions -
You could try spying on your dog and correcting them with a remote collar which can either work well or trigger an even worse fight. This depends on the likelihood of the dog backing down when a correction presents itself. Mid level Betas to Low level Alphas it will often work. Mid and high level Alphas likely not. The remote collar allows you to correct the dog without you being present so a dog can learn there is a consequence even when you are not around.
Again it is good to remember this type of dog doesn't make the best buddy buddy family pet, they excel at claiming what is theirs. This is what makes junk yard dogs so good at what they do.
We had a tractor we dropped off at a diesel repair place and I parked the tractor on their lot and asked where I should put the keys. They said just leave them in the tractor. I said, wouldn't somebody steal the tractor? They said the dog would eat them first. When we picked up the tractor it was parked next to the guard dogs enclosed outdoor run. He wasn't happy I was taking my tractor back because as far as he was concerned that was his tractor now. I have no worries about anyone stealing anything off that lot. He wouldn’t have been the most trust worthy pet but he was excellent at guarding property.