Possession and Obsession | Dog Psychology

by George Barrett

George Barrett of Dalesman Dog Psychology writes about dog training

I have been inviting readers to send in problems associated with their dogs and a lady has written: “My Staffie has an unhealthy obsession with sticks. He will snatch them from other dogs’ mouths, my hand and more worryingly out of children’s hands.”

She describes it perfectly as an ‘obsession’ but what we must realise is these things do not occur over night.

This lady no doubt loves her dog and has naively played with him allowing him to ‘rehearse’ bad habits. Sticks will have been thrown initially as a means of play and exercise the dog will have been allowed to ‘possess’ and carry the sticks and no training will have been done to develop a ‘leave-it ‘command. Sticks are something many people use to exercise their dogs but are a poor substitute for a dog toy. They can even cause really bad injuries. I can give general explanation and advice but this is not a substitute for professional individual help.

A big proportion of dogs use this kind of behaviour to reinforce their status both with other dogs and people.

A good leadership rule of ‘nothing is ever given free’, whereby all motivators have to be earned, works wonders because it rebalances the status of the owner and dog to teacher/pupil.

Many people are of the impression they are the only ones with this problem and they have some kind of ‘devil dog’ as some dogs can appear to change their nature completely when in this state.

They go from being a calm family-loving dog to an aggressive growling animal that you don’t recognise. This behaviour is described collectively as ‘resource guarding’ and virtually any breed can display it. Some dogs show signs from day one and will try and guard food, bowls, toys, socks and often especially anything dead, like rabbits/pheasants etc, the smellier the better. So why does it occur and what can we do to prevent it and cure it?

It occurs purely as an instinctive behaviour and is just a hard-wired genetic survival pattern. Basically they think you are going to take something they need to survive. The worst thing we can do is reinforce this instinct by punishing the dog for its actions. This makes the dog have to guard the object even harder next time or take it away somewhere more inaccessible.

Even if a dominant member of the family makes the dog drop the object the next one who tries may not be so lucky. If the dog perceives them of lower status it will growl and eventually bite and the whole saga starts again. So how can we prevent this happening?


Condition to release easily

Although any breed can display these behaviours please research and educate yourself about your breed’s particular problems and make sure you and your lifestyle suit the breed.

From day one, get your pup or new dog used to exchanging a toy for food and crucially giving the toy back eventually you will be able to take anything away with no problems.

All my own dogs including the two Rottweilers will bring toys etc and release them.

This has been an everyday ‘conditioning’ process that is now an ‘automatic’ response from the dogs.

The problems always occur when a dog has been allowed to ‘rehearse’ a certain behaviour and so therefore get conditioned to an ‘automatic’ response we do not want.

The toy training info below is the correct way to start with a dog and develops a ‘healthy’ obsession which you then have control over.

Toys and Training

Toys can be used to replace and replicate ‘prey instinct’ or for a dog that loves retrieving to help it fulfil what it was actually bred for.

Whatever type of dog you own you need to develop an ‘obsession’ to retrieve or rag link this to interacting with YOU.

At first the toy can be used to bribe/distract etc but ultimately must end up as a ‘reward’ for the correct behaviour/completion of commands.

Recall is an easy one to use a toy for and can really help to build a ‘rock solid’ recall.


Start retrieve early

Many people make the mistake of giving the dog the toy to play with on its own. This cuts YOU out of it; it must be an interaction between you and the dog.

YOU need to control the toy and ultimately ‘possess’ the toy.

If you are trying to train a dog to retrieve ONLY then do not start out by letting it rag the toy or try to kill it like a terrier would do.

I always start with the old ‘rat on a stick’ which allows you to really make the game exciting and develop some interest.

It is always best to start early in a confined space so racing around with the toy does not become a habit.

Teaching ‘leave-it’ or ‘drop’ from day one is essential with difficult possessive dogs. Using the exchange method with food initially is the best.

When a dog starts ‘resource guarding’ it is because it thinks you will take whatever it has so it must be conditioned to understand ‘leave-it’ means it gets an exchange but can still get the object back.

If this is done enough times objects just become unimportant and will not be fought over.

Ultimately if good ‘leadership’ is followed this never becomes a problem.

Either/Or for Your Dog

Valentine’s Day is all about love, but what does love mean to your dog? An extra helping of food or keeping a healthy weight and a long walk in a new place.

Another new toy to play with by himself or a game with him and you with the old toy

Being kept on the lead because he won’t return to you or teaching recall so he can have freedom to enjoy running

Being protective with other dogs and not letting him mix or teaching him to socialise with his own kind

Pamper and give in to his every demand or giving him correction and reward at the right times, affection for the right reason, thereby creating respect

The above will result in either:

Behavioural problems, health problems and anxiety and stress for you both or authority, respect and happiness for you and him/her.

Between a millionaire’s dog and a street person’s dog, it is usually the latter whose dog is the happiest and most balanced. Your dog doesn’t care what he looks like or whether he has the most expensive toys on the market; he does care that he gets the right food, exercise, health care and training.