Dealing with Dog Possession Aggression + Children
About six months ago (August of 2020), Alex and I adopted our puppy Ghost. Ghost was about four years old when we got him, which may disqualify him as a puppy at this point but we call him our puppy still. Plus, he is probably about 65-70 lbs – so kind of massive for a puppy! According to Alex and I’s mutually agreed upon test, he is part Huskie & part German Shepard. We both had dogs growing up, Alex had a beautiful white lab and Pyrenees mix named Jake, and I had Sweetie, a Collie/Golden Retriever mixture (I’m guessing). I think it’s safe to say our parents did the heavy lifting in terms of taking care of the dogs, and for the most part, these dogs were outside dogs. We keep Ghost inside and this is basically our first experience in raising a dog on our own. Luckily, Ghost has been amazing and brought our family a new fun energy and joy filled moments. But that isn’t to say that we haven’t had a few “uh oh” moments where we take a step back and remember that we really don’t know what we’re doing raising a puppy – especially one that is also a rescue (which is really important to note here!). These moments have helped us realize that we need and want the help of a trainer for a few reasons. Some examples are he tends to get overly excited when new people come over and immediately jumps on them (he’s a big guy and we have a lot of babies in our family so its incredibly unsafe), and he basically loses it when we are on a walk and he sees another dog, mostly larger ones. But the biggest concern we have is his possession aggression.
When someone is talking about possession aggression in dogs, they are referring to their dog showing some form of aggression, like getting in a defensive stance, growling, or barking when other pets or people approach the dog when it is in possession of something. The dog could be in possession of a toy, a treat, a bone, or even a random thing they haven’t been exposed to very often. Alex and I have taken Ghost on a walk and he will come across something in someone’s yard and not want to drop it. I’ve tried to get him to drop it and he immediately gets upset.
Savannah is just over 13 months old and she is quickly developing new skills and abilities. She has learned how to open drawers and cabinets, and just today she used a towel hanging from a pull-out closet door to open the door and then darted inside the closet. She has never done anything like that before so she is leaning quickly! She is also showing signs of excitement when she is doing something she knows she isn’t supposed to do. A BIG part of me loves that because I can see myself in her when she is being slightly mischievous, however another part of me worries she could hurt herself. She almost got her finger smashed in a folding door the other day and Alex saved her just in time.
With Savannah learning a few new tricks, I am beginning to wonder what is going to happen when she is no longer restricted by a baby gate and her and Ghost’s play areas become one. Right now, Ghost and Savannah are separated except during supervised visits. I don’t even want to think about what could happen if Savannah was trying to play with Ghost and he became protective over a toy or a bone. Ghost truly becomes a different dog at times when he is being protective, especially with bones. He almost doesn’t even want us in the same room with his bone. Thats why it is imperative that we take some initiative and tackle this problem head on! I am going to learn along with everyone today and share some of my findings on how to deal when your dog starts to develop possession aggression with a toy or object.
Preventing Possession Aggression
Here is a great article on preventing possession aggression and what to do if your dog is showing signs. Of course, it isn’t perfect. This one, like a lot of other articles I’ve found, suggest starting to train your dog when they are a small puppy, or they give suggestions that would only work if your dog was literally not that big. Ghost is already four years old and at least 70 lbs. He has massive teeth. It’s just not as simply as taking something away from him.
One exercise we can try with Ghost is using treats to distract him long enough to leave behind the object he is trying to protect. This is great if let’s say you don’t want your dog to have the item at all. Maybe it’s a piece of garbage and you don’t want your dog to eat it.
Another suggestion posed by this article is to start practicing with items your dog seems to have possession aggression with, but to a lesser degree. For example, Ghost does get possessive over a treat, or even his ball. I have been trying to train him to drop the ball at my feet and then telling him he is doing so good every time he drops it since he often times doesn’t want to drop it. When he is not wanting to drop the ball, he is still being pretty well behaved. He doesn’t growl or nip at me. He just holds onto the ball. Rawhide bones are the other extreme. He absolutely does not want me anywhere near him when he has a bone. I can’t pet him or really even approach him at all. So, for now, it’s better to stay away from giving him a rawhide bone at all until he can show some signs of improvement.
How to Tackle Possession Aggression
Trading one item your dog already has for another item your dog wants is one tactic. If your dog has a chew toy, try holding up another toy or a treat they prefer and then swapping out the two items. Again, this would work with Ghost if it was a ball and we were playing fetch. I am not convinced it would work with a rawhide bone. Either way, make sure you are always trading something your dog prefers over the items the dog already has in their possession.
Practice the “drop” command. I have actually already started this and now that I’m reading about it, I think I just need to stick with it a little longer. Some of this is initiative. This article suggests starting with one of your dog’s least favorite toys and enticing him/her to play with it. Then use the “drop” command followed by positive words once the toy is dropped. Finally, reward your dog with a treat. Then repeat.
Apparently, dogs like their own space. We have a kennel for Ghost that he sleeps in, although part of me is interested in researching if dogs should sleep in kennels or not. If you have any suggestions, please leave us a comment below. But I have read that dogs like to have a safe zone and a kennel is a good idea to at least own. We don’t kennel Ghost during the day since I work from home and Alex is home with Savannah. Using a crate or a kennel as a safe zone when you want to let your dog have a toy or bone that you know they are going to be possessive of is a safe way for your dog to enjoy it away from any children. If your dog is kenneled, hopefully your children won’t be able to get too close. This also teaches your dog that you aren’t going to bother them or try to take away their item. In fact, giving your dog space while they are protecting their item is important. You don’t want to try and snatch an item away from your dog if he/she is really upset. You also don’t want to try and chase or punish your dog. Try unlocking your kennel and letting your dog leave the toy when they are ready. Then you can separate your dog in another room and remove the item.
We still have plenty of time before Savannah and Ghost are playing together. She hasn’t quite figured out how to scale over the couch just yet thank goodness so we can still have them separated for now! This is also preventative in nature. I am trying to think of the worst case scenario and avoid it. Right now, the only item that really worries me is a rawhide bone We bought for Christmas and have only recently given him. For now, we only give it to Ghost when he is in his kennel and after Savannah has gone to bed, but he is learning pretty quickly that if he leaves the bone for a second, we will take it back and he does not like that. I will keep up with the “drop” commands and see if we can make some progress until we can safely hire a trainer to take us through some exercises on how to manage this. If you have any tips, please share with us. We would love to hear your experiences. Thank you for reading and Happy Parenting!