A Scientific Approach Can Help You Solve Many Types of Possession Aggression, Part 2: Other Dogs

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By Dr. Sophia Yin

Last time we looked at how to use a science-based approach (use of counterconditioning) to dealing with dogs with food bowl aggression and saw that by approaching the problems systematically the solution was pretty straightforward. So how do we tweak that approach to the case where the dog is food aggressive only towards other dogs?

For instance, “Puzzled in Pittsburg” writes,

I accidentally left my treat bag on the hill at a park with a friend and her dog went to sniff it. Rosco attacked him and made him bleed! Yesterday I was playing fetch by the water and another dog came by to investigate the toy I was throwing and Rosco attacked him (They had been playing together so nicely until I made the mistake of getting his throw toy out of the car).

As with the last example, we want to approach this in a systematic manner. Here are the questions that I generally ask myself:

  1. What he’s afraid of having stolen and by whom (people or other dogs).
  2. Then think, how can I help him to feel good about these people and dogs approaching his stuff (Classical counterconditioning). How can I make him feel that their approach predicts a jackpot of prizes for him?
  3. How can I do this safely so no-one is at risk?
  4. How do I know when he’s learning what I hope he is?
  5. How many people (or dogs) and situations should I practice in before I can completely trust him?

Compared to this, dealing with food bowl aggression towards people is easy because it’s easy to control the situation. So how to we control the situation when it relates to two dogs?

Once again, we’ll make sure we work on the leave-it exercise so Fido learns that the only way he gets food objects on the floor is to wait patiently. But besides this, we need to train him that when valuable food items are around and other dogs approach, the approaching dogs are no longer a threat, rather they are a cue that good things are about to happen.
How will you do this safely and can you do it on your own? Because, realistically, how likely is it that the rest of the family will be there to help you on a regular basis? One way is using the Treat&train® remote controlled treat dispenser. First follow the program for training your possessive dog to lie down calmly on a rug using the Treat&train®, because doing so will really speed the possession aggression program up. Then once you’re through this short and simple training, you can start the possession aggression behavior modification.

Start with the possessive Fido lying down on the rug facing sideways to the direction in which you will have the practice dog approach.

The Treat&Train can be at the edge of the rug where you want Fido’s head. You will lay down treats or something else your Fido would normally be possessive over a couple of feet away from his head on the side that’s closest to the location from which the practice dog (such as Fido’s housemate) will approach. The treats can be in a bowl or plate. For safety’s sake, be sure Fido is tethered via leash to something stable so that if you make a mistake and he leaps towards the item he would normally guard he can’t reach the practice dog you’re using in training. Also make sure that the Treat&train has yummy rewards that are as tasty or tastier than the treats that are on the ground.

Now you’re ready for the first session. Start with the practice dog across the room and ideally visually out of sight behind a chair or counter (or even just outside the room). Then walk out from behind the visual barrier and approach Fido. As soon Fido sees the practice dog, dispense treats from the Treat&Train continuously  (every 1-3 seconds) so that he associates the appearance and approach of the practice dog with yummy treats. Only approach to a distance where you know that Fido will remain focused only on the food rewards from the Treat&train rather than turning towards the practice dog out of concern that the practice dog will take the treats that are lying on the floor. Then within 5-10 seconds of starting to approach,  turn around and walk away to head back behind the visual barrier. As you walk away, stop dispensing treats from the Treat&Train. Repeat this step at least 3-5 times to the same distance successfully before you decide to start moving a little closer. Practice in short sessions (5 minutes) and always stay below the threshold where Fido might act possessive (e.g. hovers over the food item that is on the plate that the practice dog is approaching). Wait behind the visual barrier for at least 5-10 seconds so that Fido has plenty of time to wonder what makes the treats dispense—“Oh approach of another dog towards my treats causes the Treat&Train to give me treats.”

If you’re doing this correctly, then within several sessions, as soon as Fido sees the practice dog approaching him and the treats on the ground, he should turn away from the treats on the ground and look at the Treat&Train expectantly. This tells you that he understands that the other dog’s approach towards his valued item is a cue that he’ll get even better treats from the Treat&Train, so he need not be possessive.

Once Fido showing signs that he thinks the practice dog’s approach towards his treats brings him great luck and even more treats from the Treat&train, you can work closer to him (but still out of leash range). Systematically approach more closely or spend more time in the area of the plate with treats or have the practice dog move around more excitedly in the area of the treats (but make sure Fido doesn’t have to worry that the practice dog will jump or step on him since that could scare or hurt Fido and cause him to regress). Even get to the stage where the practice dog eat the treats that are on the plate.

Once you repeatedly find that Fido no longer cares about the practice dog approaching the food item, you can practice in slightly different situations—Different rooms, different practice dogs, outside instead of inside.

You can also switch to doing this with 2 people where one person handles the practice dog and the other gives treats to Fido instead of using a Treat&Train. Then, it’s important to be sure that if you’re not sure how Fido act in a real life situation, always be ready to counter-condition (change his emotional state and his feelings of possessiveness in that situation) by getting his attention and giving treats while the other dog approaches and then repeat until you know Fido consistently looks to you (or the Treat&Train) for his reward instead of acting possessive. And remember to pair this with a really good leave-it that means, “Hey if you come over here you’ll get something way better and maybe even get the treasured item too, but only on my cue.”

So, that’s it for case 2: the dog who is possessive of his food bowl with other dogs. Can you go back and see how we considered all of these questions in our plan?

  1. What he’s afraid of having stolen and by whom (people or other dogs)
  2. Then think, how can I help him to feel good about these people and dogs approaching his stuff (Classical counterconditioning). How can I make him feel that their approach predicts a jackpot of prizes for him?
  3. How can I do this safely so no-one is at risk.
  4. How do I know when he’s learning what I hope he is?
  5. How many dogs and situations should I practice in before I can completely trust him?

Ok now it’s your turn. What if you have a dog who is possessive when dogs come up to you because he’s guarding for your attention or guarding you because you have the bait bag? And what if that dog is the other dog in your household? Submit your suggestions below while trying to make sure you cover the questions 1-5 listed above. We’ll give you the answer in part 3 of this blog!

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13 responses to “A Scientific Approach Can Help You Solve Many Types of Possession Aggression, Part 2: Other Dogs

  1. Hello Sophia! I have two spanish water dog males. The older one (4 years old) started to behave aggressively towards the younger (1,5 years old) dog. I gave him painkillers and behavior changed. We went to vet, take x-rays and there we saw something that might have cause the pain. He is in good care now, not stressed nor in pains and he`s behavior would be ok unless.. The younger didn`t overcome afterwards. He is still scared that the other one could snap and growl at him. The younger keeps moving slowly and stiff around other dog, not turning he`s back to older one. And he growls, and then older dog growls back and it just doesn`t get over. They are ok when we are outside, running free. I keep on feeding them outdoors, from my hand (we don`t use food bowls at all) and mostly they can stay relaxed together. Troubles start when we get inside the house, narrow small places and doors are worst places. They have had two serious fights, when I thought they would kill one another, I got bitten when i went to separate them and both of the dogs were bleeding too. I don`t want to ever get into that situation again.. Now I keep them on leash inside. Other one on the other corner of the room, other one in other corner. There is a sofa between them, so they can`t see each other constantly. Few times a day I move the sofa (they growl and launch at first) and reward them when they stop growling, turn their heads or give other calming signals. I can still keep them off leash outside and reward there as well when they are together nicely. I hope this aggressive behavior would stop soon. This situation has been going on two months now. Sometimes they have been ok off leash inside, but if one dog gets near me and other one wants my attention too, growling starts again. If I`m on the sofa, one comes to me and other one walks near by, growling starts. Then I put them on a leash, start all over again. I`m not going to give up, I keep trying, but I need some advice and courage to continue. I hope we can some day live peacefully together again, as we used to. Thanks for your blog, it has been very useful to us smile

  2. Disappointed that this whole method relies on a product which I am not willing to purchase because of the ethics of the company that makes it. Look forward to part 3 (which is of most relevance in our particular multi-dog household) but hope it is not similarly reliant on the Treat & Train.

  3. I have had this exact situation with my two dogs (older jealous of younger one). The older would start the fight. The younger, while frightened of the older is bigger, tougher and stronger and finished the fight. Blood, wounds and vet visits. Fights occurred in my presence, or occasionally if the younger resource guarded food too. Fine outside together on their own.
    Work with Jade Fountain while she was here. A lot of work was done with dogs side by side, but tethered. Rewarding one for being relaxed and happy while other was getting attention/having training.
    We made a lot of progress until the older tore his cruciate this year. They have had to be separated again (3 operations in total over 9 months).
    The body language etc is good now after I introduced the manners minder post operatively. Rewarding for being calm while the other is inside, walking past etc.
    As a safety measure both are tethered inside. They can see each other and wag as one comes and goes. But I don’t want to undo the good work by having the older one growl at the younger if he is being particularly exuberant.
    The older dogs muscle tone will take time to come back (he runs etc but not up for rough active play). Now we are 12 weeks post op number 3 I have separated the back yard into two so they can both run and sniff but can’t make physical contact (as rough play has ruptured a previous repair). They run and play along the fence and wag at each other but can’t injure.
    I hope with time they can be reintegrated. But it’s now a physical thing rather than behavioural.
    It’s been a long 18 months working on their resource guarding of me. Tough with many tears shed at the thought of having to rehome one (which would upset the older one despite his crankiness). It has been and still is hard work, but it’s going well. I just have the added physical problems to manage.
    I don’t think I will ever be convinced we are problem free. But we have come along way.
    Could not have done it without Behaviourist and Veterinary Behaviour Specialist.

  4. What he’s afraid of having stolen and by whom (people or other dogs) “My does not want any of his things stolen ie his treats, his toys, his rawhides.”

    Then think, how can I help him to feel good about these people and dogs approaching his stuff (Classical counterconditioning). How can I make him feel that their approach predicts a jackpot of prizes for him? “I need to find something that he likes better….the only thing I think he likes better is other people…when he sees men, especially, he acts like her just walked into disney world!”

    How can I do this safely so no-one is at risk. “He needs to be kept under control until he can control himself via a leash”

    How do I know when he’s learning what I hope he is? “he wont act like he wants to kill his best friends when they find a hidden treat in my yard!”

    How many dogs and situations should I practice in before I can completely trust him? “oh… I missed this part in the lesson, but i would say LOTS AND LOTS AND LOTS!”

    My baby has undergone tons of training since he was a wee baby, it wasn’t until after his mom (me, the guilty one) let him run free in the yard one day and he chased after his favorite neighbor and got hit by a car, that is when all this aggression started. He used to share just great, loved daycare and everything…hes like a different dog now, I believe you that there is hope, I got your book and will try the treat and train… Im happy you are in my life xoxoxox

  5. Jane:

    Actually you can have a second person acting like a treat &train; if you want. Once you know the principles it’s easy to adapt the the situation.. It’s just not convenient.

    Also unfortunately there are no other similar products that can replace the function of the Treat&Train;. In fact no other dog product company has put in the type of clinical research into a product that has been put into the treat&train; (research funded by the sharper image and performed by me). However I do know that that the Netherlands military has engineered their own dispensers for training of their military dogs, but the dispensers they have engineered are not commercially available. They also use the treat&train;.

  6. Hi Dr. Yin,
    My husband and I have a 1 year old dachshund who is very rambunctious. We recently adopted a 3 year old Chihuahua from a rescue organization and both dogs are females. They play together nicely most of the time but when the Chihuahua gets tired she starts getting more aggressive, which makes the younger dog want to pick at her all the more. Both dogs sleep with us and a couple times they have had a fight in the middle of the night just because the dachshund moves around a little bit and the Chihuahua thinks she’s going to start picking at her. How can I correct this behavior?

  7. hello, My name is Minnei and I find this blog very helpful and interesting. I think you are doing a great job to helping other people by sharing this information. I have same problem about my puppy that My puppy gets more aggressive when he didn’t find a fresh and tasty food. I have a single pet so he felt alone. So i have tried other dog food and also take him to grooming shop. This helps me a lot. I hope you’ll also find it helpful.

  8. I have a fear reactive dog and I’m working on some of his issues regarding people and dogs coming into his space but he’s also possessive of me and I’m not sure how to deal with this. He was loose and I was training with another person who walked towards me holding out her hand for something. He came from behind me and jumped up at her pushing her but not attempting to bite. 3 times he has jumped on dogs that were running towards me in a friendly manner. Afterwards he associated with them as normal. I’m keeping this as short as I can and I’d be grateful for any suggestions. How useful is the treat and train for behaviour modification training?

  9. Hi Dr. Yin,

    Possession Agression defiantly is a problem among some dogs. You mainly cover food in this article, but obviously toys are another possession problem – just like the fetch example with Rosco you used.

    I was just wondering, Jane, what the ethical issues with the producer of the Treat & Train are?

  10. my 11 year dog is aggressive and possive with things she takes such as tv remotes ,phones,anything she is not supposed to have. she will attack us if we try to take them away. she is a small dog. at our wits end

  11. I have a rescue dog that is part golden retriever and part golden shepherd. He looks like a retriever but his personality is golden shepherd. I got him when he was about 7 weeks old. He weighed 7lbs and had about 200 ticks on him and 3 different kind of worms. When he was 4 months old I noticed when he was laying in the kitchen while I was cooking when I got close he growled. His growling has gotten worst as he has gotten older. No one but me can get around him when he eats and sometimes he will growl at me. He goes to his corner or room when he sleeps and if anyone gets close he growls. There have been times when I know he would bite but he will listen to me and go to his room. It took him almost a year to trust me. As he has gotten older he has become more aggressive to bite. He can be so loving and the next minute he can be growling at you. I want to keep him because I love him but he’s very hard to handle. I would appreciate any help I can get.

    1. Hi. What you have going on there is called “resource guarding” and is fixable with some work. You need to find a certified behaviorist, preferably a Veterinary Behaviorist, so that they can set up a safety plan, a plan to try to help & usually medications are needed. Check with your nearest College/University Veterinary Medical school as they may have a program that can help.

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