Possessive behavior in dogs and how to correct it

My dog is a beagle cross and because of the beagle in him, he has some possessive behavioral traits. He likes to steal things (like socks, clothing, food, baby’s toys you name it!) and some of the things he steals I can get off him easily with a treat but some of the things that he “values” a lot, he will not give away, no matter what I try.

To understand my dog better and to come up with solutions to help with his possessiveness, I decided to look into possessive behavior in dogs and how to correct it.

My own experience as the owner of a possessive dog

The first time I realized my dog had possessive tendencies was when he was still quite young, maybe 6 months old. He stole a pair of my socks and ran underneath the bed. I was trying to reach out to him to get the socks back (mainly because I didn’t want him to wreck them) and as I was trying to get to my dog he suddenly ate one of the socks!

I was horrified as my dog was still quite small and the sock was relatively big compared to his size. I knew the sock wouldn’t be able to pass through his gastrointestinal track so my husband and I had to induce vomiting using table salt and we managed to get our dog to throw up the sock. Thankfully everyone in the family remained unharmed.

After this incident, we established a strict rule to never leave any socks lying around.

We’ve managed quite well to keep our dog away from socks, but he still steals other things. His favorite things are pieces of clothing or fabric items such as scarves and baby muslin wraps. If the item has human scent on it, our dog will value it even more and it’ll be harder for us to get the item off him. I would say our dog steals things on a daily basis.

dog with tasty bone

The reasons behind possessive behavior

So where does this possessive behavior stem from in dogs? As dogs are individuals, every dog regardless of the breed, can have possessive tendencies. Beagles, however, are a good example of a dog breed that tends to be possessive over things. Some dogs also exhibit possessive tendencies over their owner, but I will not refer to that in this article.

The reason why a dog steals something is because it sees it as valuable. In the dog’s mind this isn’t stealing by the way, it just sees something valuable someone has left lying around so it decides to grab hold of it. Adding to an item’s value is the owner’s reaction: if you react in an extreme manner such as yelling “NO!” and running after your dog, this shows your dog that the item is very valuable.

As I mentioned earlier, my dog is the most possessive when he gets his teeth around things that smell like human, such as pieces of clothing or socks. Although he’s not possessive over his food and standard chews, he can get possessive over extra tasty bones. That’s why we never give him bones that trigger possessive behavior.

Fear and aggression

The problem with possessive behavior is that it triggers aggressive behavior. This aggression generally stems from fear: fear of losing the item or fear of you the owner if you aggressively come after your dog. That’s why possessive behavior should be dealt with to reduce aggressive behavior.

You as the owner play a key role in eliminating fear and aggressive behavior. It is important that you don’t feed your dog’s aggressive behavior by being aggressive towards your dog. The best way to manage aggression is to eliminate possessiveness all together, which we will discuss below.

Elimination and ignoring

The key step with a possessive dog like with our beagle cross, is to not leave any items lying around that the dog might be possessive over. With our dog, this particularly includes pieces of clothing.

We have also found that our dog’s possessiveness is partially caused by attention seeking. For example, if we give our baby a lot of attention, our dog will steal something and bring it in front of us to show he has stolen something. If we ignore our dog and the item he’s stolen, he usually loses interest in the item in a little while. However, the ignoring only works with mild possessive behavior.

Other examples of elimination include modifying the environment so that it doesn’t stimulate possessive behavior. For example, if your dog is possessive over his food (such as when there are children or other dogs around), allow your dog to eat alone in a space where there are no distractions that can induce possessive behavior.

Correcting possessive behavior

It is good to spend some time correcting possessive behavior, especially if this behavior is a daily thing and affects the dog’s and the owner’s lives. Obedience training, such as teaching your dog to give or leave the item are key commands to help retrieve stolen items.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, we are usually able to exchange stolen items into a tasty treat. We offer our dog a tasty treat (quite often it has to be tastier than a standard treat) and say “give” and our dog generally lets go of the stolen/possessed item at this point. In a way this is trading the stolen item into a treat.

It is also possible to teach a dog ‘drop it’ or ‘leave it’ commands, where your dog lets go of the stolen item even without an exchange to a treat. We have tried this with our dog, but in our case trading the stolen item into a treat works better. I guess our dog is too smart to not give away anything without a treat!

When extra help is needed

Sometimes the aforementioned tips don’t work for possessive behavior and extra help is needed. If your dog shows constant possessiveness towards his food, toys or even you the owner, and this is accompanied by aggressiveness, re-training of the dog’s behavior is usually needed.

Contacting a professional dog trainer is usually the best option to correct complicated possessive behavior. It’s important to not let your dog get away with possessive behavior for too long, as it will likely get worse over time. React to this behavior sooner rather than later!

I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below and I’ll be happy to get back to you.

To many happy barks & walks,