Most people who have more than one dog have run into an issue with a dog who refuses to share his toys. This kind of resource guarding behavior can range from the odd lifted lip or air snap in response to another dog attempting to steal a toy, to an all-out bloodbath.
So, how do you train a dog to share his toys? Dogs should be trained to share through positive reinforcement by desensitizing dogs to other people or animals in their reaction space, teaching item release commands such as “leave” and “give,” and through counter-conditioning. Punishing resource guarding can lead to increased aggression.
Dogs that refuse to share can lead to some severe discontent in a household with multiple dogs, and can increase the likelihood of violent dog fights or bites to humans. Keep reading to find out more about the resource guarding behavior that leads to dogs refusing to share toys, and how to correct it.
Teaching Dogs to Share Toys with Humans
Teaching dogs to share toys with humans is even more important than teaching dogs to share toys with other dogs. The main reason is a safety-related one – you cannot risk a dog that refuses to share toys with humans, because his behavior can escalate into aggression towards people. This is especially dangerous around small children who are most likely to try and steal a treasured stuffed animal from a dog, and are at a perfect eye-biting level height.
Here is how you can teach your dog to share his toys with humans:
- Teach dogs to exchange a toy for a treat. Most dogs value actual food over a toy, so using an attractive, heavily scented treat such as cooked chicken or bacon can be enticing enough to distract a dog long enough to take away a toy without provoking resource guarding behavior. The goal is non-reaction. Eventually, you get the dog to the point that they must relinquish their toy before getting a treat reward. This treat system can eventually be tapered off.
- Reward dogs for letting people and animals be near them when they have a high-value object. Teaching a dog to be tolerant of humans in their space while they have a toy they deem to be high value, is part of a training process called desensitization. This is a form of positive reinforcement that teaches a dog only good things happen when people touch their things.
- Associate toys with training. Another desensitization training method to lessen resource guarding is to use toys as motivational tools during training. If a dog becomes used to surrendering their high-value objects as part of a training exercise, they will be less sensitive to having that object taken in other contexts. Dogs should see giving up toys as a positive thing.
- Teach item release commands. Not only are item release commands such as “give it,” “leave it,” and “drop it” useful if your dog gets a hold of something he is not supposed to have, but an item release command also allows you to safely take any item away from a dog without having to worry about the dog lashing out aggressively at you out of a resource guarding instinct.
- Be sensitive to high-value items. You should know your dog well enough to know which toys are his most prized possessions – these are also the toys your dog is most likely to fight for. While it is a good idea to gradually work your dog up to the point of being able to painlessly part with these comfort objects, it is also okay to allow dogs to have items that belong to them alone. You do not have to tolerate resource guarding over the object, but you can allow your dog to give it priority over other toys.
Teaching Dogs to Share Toys with Other Dogs
Even though it’s not quite as important as making sure a dog who refuses to share his toys doesn’t bite a person attempting to take one, it’s also crucial that you make sure your dog has a good understanding of how to interact and share resources with other dogs positively. This includes not just other dogs in the household, but dogs outside of the household as well.
Not only does preventing resource guarding among dogs prevent dog fights within a household, but it can also decrease the likelihood of a dog fight breaking out with a neighbor’s dog, the dog of a visiting guest, or dogs at a dog park or doggy daycare center. Teaching dogs how to share their toys and behave generously with other dogs – even dogs they don’t know well – is an integral part of socialization.
Here is how you can teach your dog to share his toys with other dogs:
- Promote taking turns. When distributing treats and toys to a group of dogs, be sure to switch up which dogs receive their items first. It may seem petty, but dogs are overly sensitive to hierarchical exchanges and become resentful and resource insecure if they feel there is a lack of fairness in the distribution of resources.
- Teach them to physically give their toys to other dogs. Teaching a dog to give a toy to another dog is a more advanced training behavior than training a dog to surrender an item to a human, but it can be one of the ultimate control cues. A dog that is trained to deliver high-value toys to other dogs as a play invite is not likely to resource guard.
- Use positive reinforcement. When training a dog to share his toys, you must saturate each training session with enthusiasm, praise and treats. This reinforces your bond with the dog, and makes him more eager to listen to you during training sessions. Your dog should associate other dogs with rewards, not resource insecurity.
- Use safety measures to prevent dog fights during share training. If you have a dog that is reactive or has strong resource guarding issues around toys, be sure to use safety measures such as leashes and pet gates to create distance between dogs during share training exercises. A dog fight during training can significantly set back a dog who is resource guarding.
Teaching a dog to share his toys with other dogs can be a challenge, especially if it is an ingrained habit of resource guarding or resource-based aggression. Still, with consistent and positive training, this behavior can be significantly lessened and eventually stopped altogether.
High-Value Toys vs. Low-Value Toys in Dog Training
It is necessary to recognize out of your dog’s possessions which items hold the most value for him, as these are the “high-value” toys that are:
- Most difficult to get away from your dog without triggering resource guarding behaviors
- The toys that are most motivational in training
In contrast, “low-value” toys are toys that your dog still likes and is still motivated in training to work for, but are toys that are less interesting to them and therefore less likely to trigger a resource guarding episode than a coveted comfort object such as a favorite stuffed animal are bone.
When training a dog to gradually learn how to share toys with humans and other dogs, it’s a good idea to start training off with very low-value toys so that there is less chance of triggering guarding behavior, and a better chance to successfully get the toy away from the dog with positive reinforcement.
Once the dog gets used to having lower value toys taken from them, it becomes easier to work up to relinquishing those high-value toys.
Generalize the Context of Sharing Toys
When training a dog, it is crucial to start training with a particular context (i.e., The dog will be rewarded for surrendering a specific item to a specific person). Gradually build the dog up to different but similar contexts, such as surrendering different items and surrendering items to different people or different dogs.
This is because dogs can have difficulty in generalizing behavioral context. While you might teach a dog that he should surrender a specific toy in training, that concept won’t necessarily click with regards to any other toy the dog owns unless the training has been generalized to include a variety of toys.
It is also vital to incorporate other cooperative training strategies for multi-dog households, such as waiting for turns or surrendering items to any human who asks for them without question, so the dogs in your household feel confident under your leadership. If your dogs feel that resources are plentiful and you have the group well under control, there will be a lot less tension in it.
Why Teaching Dogs to Share Is Important
There are many reasons dogs should be taught to willingly share their toys and other household resources, not only with humans but also with other dogs. Here are some of the reasons why it is important to teach dogs to share their toys:
- Prevent injury: Dogs that can resource guard may escalate the behavior into overt aggression, and this can lead to injury between dogs if resource guarding ratchets up into a full-blown fight. This is especially dangerous between dogs of differing sizes, as a large breed dog resource guarding against a smaller dog could potentially kill him very quickly in the process.
- Harmony in the household: Not only does nobody want to listen to a house full of dogs snarling and bickering with each other over their toys, but this kind of tension over sharing resources can also lead to increased incidences of fighting over other minor spats. Encouraging sharing motivates dogs to be affectionate and generous with each other.
- Prevents escalation: If dogs are actively taught to be generous with their toys with other dogs and with people, this makes them less reactive over a wide variety of group behaviors that might otherwise set them off against another dog.
- Transference behavior: Resource guarding is a feral behavior, and a dog that is allowed to do it to other dogs freely may transfer that behavior to resource guarding against humans as well, since dogs have difficulties distinguishing between different contexts when it comes to guaging the appropriateness of a reaction.
Luckily, just a little extra training can ensure all dogs in the household share with one another.
What is Resource Guarding in Dogs?
In dog behavior, resource guarding is when a dog displays an aggressive flash of body language to signal to other dogs that it will not tolerate his high-value object being taken away from him.
Insecure dogs may posture with resource guarding behaviors even when there is no threat to their toy from other dogs (this is especially common in small dogs, who sometimes feel the need to overcompensate).
Resource guarding is a common behavior in wild dogs and feral domestic dogs, which means it is a deeply ingrained aspect of canine behavior. Depending on the individual dog, this instinct can be very strong or very mild. A scarcity of resources can also bring out resource guarding activities. For example, if only one high-value item is brought out and three dogs are present, there is a higher likelihood that a fight will break out over it.
While some dogs are naturally stronger resource guardians than others, a significant factor that influences resource guarding is upbringing. A stray dog who lived on the streets has a much higher likelihood of displaying resource guarding behaviors, as it is more likely a stray dog has had to use these behaviors in a wild group scenario against other feral dogs, or to defend a meal from wildlife.
Toy Stealing Behavior in Dogs
Stealing of toys and food can be a trigger that can set off resource guarding in dogs, and if you have one dog who resource guards and another dog who is tempted to steal, this can lead to an unsafe situation as the two go head to head.
Some dogs steal for fun and out of a sense of mischief, but this is a behavior that has its roots in wild behaviors – to survive in a larger group with scarce resources, dogs will steal from each other and risk minor battles with other pack members to obtain an item they want. In feral dog culture, stealing the most prized bit of a carcass from another dog if you are bold enough is acceptable behavior.
Stealing toys (and any other items) is a normal behavior in dogs, both when they are playing and when they’re eating around other dogs. Many people have seen a group of dogs happily playing keep-away. But not only can stealing behavior aggravate a dog who refuses to share his toys to begin with, but it can also lead to a dog learning to steal the toys of both other dogs and humans for attention.
Why Do Dogs Resource Guard Toys?
There are many different reasons why dogs resource guard their toys, and not just their food or treats. Here are a few of the causes of resource guarding toys:
- Natural behavior: Resource guarding is a natural behavior in dog society, and has species-distinct rules. Therefore, dogs almost universally display the same general body language when resource guarding their toys or other objects. It should always be kept in mind that dogs don’t naturally share, and displays of ritualized aggression in resource guarding are typical.
- Possessive behavior: Like humans, dogs are emotional animals and can develop sentimental attachments to certain toys and comfort objects – these are toys like your dog’s favorite blankie or stuffed animal. If another dog tries to take this high-value comfort object, this can easily lead to a fight.
- Boredom: Sometimes dogs will develop a habit of resource guarding out of lack of stimulation. Dogs are intelligent animals, and if left cooped up with each other with limited resources to entertain themselves, it can lead to bickering as quickly as it does among human children. Providing plenty of enrichment activities can help alleviate boredom-related bickering in dogs.
- Tension in the household with other dogs: If two dogs in a household are already aggressive towards each other because of conflicts unrelated to resource guarding, this can lead to increased spats over a variety of things from shared toys to walking past each other in a doorway.
- Insecurity and fear: It is important to remember, a dog who is resource guarding isn’t acting out of dominance. On the contrary, a dog who is resource guarding is acting out of insecurity.
Dogs that have lived on the mean streets and are adapting to life indoors with other dogs, should be treated gently during the share training process if they show tendencies towards resource guarding behavior. Always keep in mind, this behavior is natural and feral dogs are more inclined to do it out of instinct. It is not malicious or mean-spirited behavior, and should not be treated as such.
How to Correct Resource Guarding
While resource guarding and refusing to share toys can be corrected by training exercises, it is easier to prevent resource guarding issues in adulthood by training and socializing dogs properly when they are young. The right methods for correcting resource guarding are through teaching dogs to share, desensitizing them to triggers that set off resource guarding, and reinforcing non-possessive behavior.
Physical punishment such as spanking or slapping should not be used to correct resource guarding or any other behavior you would like to change, nor should yelling at your dog. Not only does this teach your dog to distrust you, but it also makes the dog feel even more insecure and can cause aggression related to resource guarding to escalate.
A dog should never be punished by having his object taken away and given to another dog or stolen by a person and not have the toy given back. Many people mistakenly believe that this teaches the dog to regard the human as dominant when, in reality, it just teaches the dog that it can expect to have its things taken away so it should be even more desperate to guard them.
Dominance-based training methods should not be used to correct resource guarding. Resource guarding is not a dominance-based behavior, but rather a behavior-based behavior caused by tension and nerves.
Keeping Dogs Safe from Resource Guarding
If you have a dog that you know shows aggression over sharing toys or food, you must take safety precautions when that dog is around other dogs to make sure that violent fights do not break out. Preventing the triggers for a resource guarding incident can be much easier than trying to stop a fight after it is already started.
Here are some tips for preventing resource guarding problems:
- Only give out high-value treats under supervision. Dogs are more likely to try to steal and test ranking in the pack when a human is not present. Make sure that each dog receives a treat and doesn’t try to steal from the others.
- Do not leave toys (high-value or otherwise) out until dogs are trustworthy against resource guarding. A toy left on the floor is a temptation to battle for two bored dogs. Dogs who are middle rank in the pack or have had their pack hierarchy disrupted by the addition of a new dog are more likely to engage in this kind of shin-kicking social behavior.
- Feed dogs in separate areas. Food is more likely to trigger resource guarding behavior than toys in many cases, so to prevent fights over food, keep a resource-aggressive dog away from other dogs during meals to prevent problems.
- Do not force dogs to share their favorite toys. Keep in mind that sharing is a human concept and that most dogs will not willingly give an object to a dog outside of their social circle under normal circumstances. While it is essential to make sure dogs will safely surrender toys to people or other dogs, it’s also vital to respect the dog’s possessions.
- Make sure there are plenty of toys to go around. There should always be way more toys, treats, and food to go around for the number of dogs you have. Lack of food or toys can trigger impulsive resource guarding instincts, especially in dogs who have dealt with resource scarcity in the past, such as former strays.
Since training a dog who has already learned how to be possessive over toys can be a long and gradual process, it’s crucial to ensure that the dogs in your household (and the people) remain safe in the meantime until the behavior is corrected.
What Does Resource Guarding Look Like?
To know how to train against and correct resource guarding with a dog that refuses to share his toys, you have to know what resource guarding behavior looks like. Here are some of the body language signals you should look out for to anticipate resource guarding behavior in your dog:
- A stiffened, tense posture
- A hard glare into the middle distance
- Leaning in close to a toy, hunkering over it
- Growling or snarling
- Raising the upper lip
- Air snapping (biting the air near another dog but not making contact)
While resource guarding can look violent and aggressive to humans (we aren’t used to our best friends showing us their teeth!), it is a highly ritualized social exchange between two dogs, and most of the aggression shown in resource guarding is just that—for show.
However, the danger with resource guarding is that if a dog’s guarding signals are ignored, and another dog goes to steal their toy anyway, this can lead to a serious dog fight. Therefore, dogs have to be actively taught that there is no resource scarcity and that aggression between mates will not be tolerated.
You should keep in mind that the majority of resource guarding behavior is not aggressive. These social cues are not apparent to humans except when closely observing dogs, but there are many smaller gestures of non-violent (but threatening) body language that a dog uses to confront another dog before a fight breaks out. Most spats over resources within a pack remain minor.
Dogs Refusing to Share Can Be Challenging
It can be difficult to get a dog over his inclinations to resource guard with toys or food, especially if he has a checkered past. It is a lot easier to start with puppies and train them to share willingly from a young age. However, with proper socialization, training, and lots of patience, even the most insecure dog can eventually be won over to share his toys at any age.
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