Possessiveness

Sometimes people ask me, “Are your dogs perfect?” And my honest answer is: no. In large part, this is because there are things I just don’t care enough about to put in the training time. But another large part is that nothing stays the same, including dogs.

For instance: I think Lily’s losing her hearing. For a long while I thought she was just being stubborn when I called her to come, but now I’m not so sure. I’m not tuning up her recall because, well, what if she can’t hear me? So her recall is failing and until I know one way or the other, I’m just not going to worry about it.

Another for instance, and the point of this particular post: Doc got possessive. I’ve had him for a year and a half now, which means any issues he’s still dealing with probably don’t have to do with him being a rescue, they have to do with him and me. (Note: this is a rough rule of thumb, with a lot of exceptions.)

He’s never shown signs of possessiveness before, but about six months ago he started getting possessive of bones with Lily. He tried some growls and snaps, and he got in big trouble for it (poked by me and chased off, his bone given to Lily), then rewarded for tolerating her (praise and pets when he had his bone and he wasn’t being a bully to her while she was wandering around/sniffing it, etc.). The praise worked better than the poking with him, so I used that a lot more once I noticed, and he got over his issue in a couple of weeks.

Skip to six weeks (or so) ago, and he’s trying to be possessive of ME, with Cash. Mostly when we were snuggling or I was petting him, and Cash would come up to say, “Me too!” Doc would growl and try to nose Cash away, and went as far as snapping at him a time or two. Because I was standing right there, I’d push Doc away (to the other end of the couch, or chase him off a few feet if I were standing), then pay attention to Cash, THEN call Doc back over and love on him, too. Again, when Cash came up and I could see Doc wasn’t happy about it – turning his face away, ears pinching along his head, whites of the eyes showing – I would praise Doc for tolerating it. After a week or two, that went away as well.

Skip to two weeks ago, and it’s popped up again: this time being possessive first over Patience (my sometimes-helper and the dog trainer in the East Bay I refer people to), then Margo (my assistant) and finally Quin (my honey). In each and every case we did the same thing: push Doc away, love on Cash, bring Doc in and love on him. We also added a couple of things:

For Patience, since she’s also a dog trainer, I asked her to start making Doc calm down and think. One thing I’ve noticed about Doc is the more wound up he gets, the less he thinks overall. Now, it’s normal for a dog’s brain to turn off when they’re super wound up (with either excitement or aggression or anything else), but his brain turns off even when he’s not wound up, if he’s spent a lot of time wound up. Things that wind him up: not exercising enough, some of my playful boarders, fetch, the wild peacocks, squirrels. It’s a full time job keeping him centered! Getting a wound up dog to pause so they can think again (and guiding them gently but firmly through what to do until they CAN think) is key. So I asked Patience to get him thinking around her, adding in little brain-working things like sitting and calming down at doors before he goes out to play, sitting to get petted, things like that. That calmed him so his possessiveness also dropped.

I asked Margo (who does some minor training for me, but firmly insists she’s not a dog trainer!) to use a squirt bottle if he got possessive of her. It’s a good consequence: not emotionally very powerful, certainly not painful, just distracting and annoying.

With Quin, we put Doc in time out when he got possessive, in an x-pen in the house. After twenty minutes (which I judged to be enough time for his brain to wander off his possessiveness), he re-joined us. He was put in time out a couple of times before he got the point!

In all instances, when he became tolerant of Cash or wasn’t possessive, he got rewarded with lots of love and pets. Ex: I petted Cash, Doc watched but didn’t come over to push Cash away, so after a minute – before he lost his patience – I turned and loved on Doc. Repeat ad nauseum! For every time he got busted for naughtiness, I want at least five rewards. If I’m busting him too much, that’s my signal that I’m asking too much of him. I need to reward BEFORE he puts himself in trouble, so he knows what it is I’m looking for, not just what I don’t like.

It took a couple of weeks for him to cycle through everyone and figure out no one was going to let him get away with it. I’m still praising and loving on him when other dogs butt into “our” space to get pets, just to reinforce his good behavior.

During his possessive phase, I used different techniques for different people, depending on how he reacts to the people in question and what they were more comfortable with/capable of, and what worked best for him.

No dog is ever perfect. Even when a dog trainer owns them, even if I spent all my time making them perfect to everyone’s standards, living animals are always changing! I wouldn’t have it any other way. 😉

Jenna