How to tackle possessive behaviour in your dog

Why do some canines become overly possessive about food, toys and even people? And how do you help them modify this behaviour? Follow our expert tips on how to help your dog learn that it’s OK to drop it!

Posted: 07 November 2017

How to tackle possessive behaviour in your dog


There’s a certain side glance your dog can give you when they’re chowing down on a special treat that you know is telling you ‘it’s mine, hands off’. And, while being protective over things that are seen as a valued resource – whether that’s food, toys or people – is quite normal for dogs, it’s important that overly possessive behaviour is nipped in the bud.

With a puppy, you can start sharing training right from the off so it becomes second nature. If you have taken on an older dog, this behaviour may be deeply embedded, and will take time and patience to address.

Being overly possessive may stem from a previous experience that resulted in something ‘precious’ being taken away. A dog in possession of something he or she values may become uneasy in situations where there is competition from other canines or they anticipate that an approaching human is going to take their prize away, which can lead to growling or snapping.


While each dog is an individual and some are just grumpier about sharing their goodies than others, possessive behaviour usually stems from insecurity.

Dog training expert and presenter of TV’s It’s Me or the Dog, Victoria Stilwell notes: “Guarding resources is usually a manifestation of the dog’s deep-rooted insecurity and inability to cope well in a social situation, even with people and other dogs he knows.”

The key to addressing it is to build up trust and confidence, while working on changing a dog’s learned expectations about what is going to happen when they are in possession of something that matters to them.

What you should never do is physically force or snatch a toy or treat away. Not only could you risk being bitten, all you’re doing is helping to increase the levels of possessiveness the next time your dog is in a similar situation. Rather than intimidating your dog into give something up – which will confirm to the dog that these scenarios mean conflict and loss – you need to work with them so they can understand that sharing can have positive outcomes.


One of the best ways to do this is to teach your dog that nine times out of 10, they will get a resource back if they give it up. In the early stages of training, practice with low-value items, but as the routine is established, higher value items – such as a favourite ball or toy – can be tried. A slow, steady approach will also help your dog avoid feeling defensive, as they won’t be apprehensive of conflict.


If your dog growls when approached while chewing, for example, a rather boring rawhide strip, teach them that if they drop it they could get something better. When they give up the item, surprise them with a smelly, extra tasty treat and then give them the rawhide treat back again. Over time, you can teach your dog that even if they have something they value highly – such as a favourite tuggy toy – it’s not really a big deal to give it up because they’ll get it back and may even get something even better.

Always move at your dog’s pace – tackling possessive behaviour is all about making a dog feel more comfortable in situations that he or she is worried about. Trying to push them into giving things up will only heighten their anxiety and make them more reactive.


Good manners go a long way in the human world, and for dogs it’s no different. For example, a ‘sit’ is a way for our dogs to ask permission for something and they quickly cotton on to the fact that being asked to ‘sit’ usually means something good will happen – such as going for a walk or getting a treat. Teaching your dog to ‘sit’ as a way of asking ‘can I have my precious please?’ is a great technique. With plenty of patience, praise and treat-based positive training, it is possible to transform a reactive guarder into a happier, more relaxed sharer, However, for very reactive dogs, always seek professional help from a qualified canine behaviourist to guide you through the training process.


Find an Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors member near you.

Find an Association of Pet Dog Trainers qualified dog trainer in your area.

Try the RSPCA’s top tips for taking a preventative approach to food guarding

  • Measure your dog’s food into a separate bowl and place it out of reach. Ask your dog to sit, and place the empty dinner bowl onto the ground. Your dog will look at you, wondering where his or her dinner is. This is a positive step as, rather than wanting us to ‘get away’ from their dinner bowl, the dog is instead inviting us over.
  • Next, place a few pieces of kibble in the bowl. Once again, the dog will look up, wondering if more is to come. Repeat this for the remainder of their dinner, putting a few handfuls in at a time. Already, the dog’s perception of someone approaching their food bowl has changed – they are asking their human to come over and fill it with food. Keep approaching and then backing away so that the dog learns that the approach of someone while they are eating can only mean good things, as food is always dispensed into their bowl.
  • Varying the delivery of their meals can drastically reduce your dog's guarding behaviour, so start delivering food in different ways such as in a variety of Kongs and feeding them in different places at unexpected times of the day.

FIND OUT MORE about building the perfect canine/human partnership here >>

FIND OUT MORE about the rewards of praising your dog here >>

FIND OUT MORE about how to manage lead aggression here >>

FIND OUT MORE about caring for your dog here >>