Teaching a dog to share isn’t easy. Unlike children, we can’t explain to our dogs that sharing is caring. And in the “real world,” it’s not common for a non-related animal to share its food or resting space with others.
In today’s “Ask a Behavior Consultant,” we’re tackling the tricky problem of what to do when your dog gets aggressive when it comes to sharing.
Our reader writes,
My boy max will get dog
agressivewhen it comes to sharing. He is loves everyone at dog parks. but he will get very physical when it comes to shareingwith the other dogs in the house. from food, toys, people, And attention. how can i stop this?
– Sincerely, Caring but not Sharing
In the rest of our reader’s intake form, she noted that the aggression is getting worse. Her dog has ripped another household dog’s ear open. The owners say that they’ve been scolding the dog and putting him in time out for 15-20 minutes, but the aggression is getting worse.
Step 1: Get Help.
My first recommendation is to hire a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant for more help. Treating aggression between dogs who share the same home is difficult, and you need a professional to help guide you. The safety of the dogs (and of the people who might try to break up fights) depends on this.
Hire a trainer. Please.
In less serious cases, you might be able to teach your dog to share without help. But because this dog has already gotten into multiple fights, some of which have drawn blood, it’s time for professional help.
Step 2: Keep Everyone Safe.
In the meantime, the owners are already doing some things right: they’re muzzling the dog to prevent him from causing damage to the other dogs. This is great! While a muzzle won’t teach your dog not to be aggressive, it helps keep everyone safe.
After calling a trainer, your next job is to prevent any further fights. This is called management, and it’s a must-do step in teaching your dog to share. This will include:
- Muzzling the dog as needed. Use a comfy basket muzzle (I like Bumas for custom muzzles or Baskerville for most others).
- Separating the dogs as needed using crates, doors, exercise pens, and baby gates. For example, our writer should feed Max behind a closed door while the other dogs eat or when they’re unsupervised.
- Clean up items that cause conflict. If your dogs fight over bones, stuffed toys, beds, or spilled kibble, those items can’t be left out! That’s like putting one cookie in the middle of a preschool classroom and expecting there to be no arguments.
- Mitigate what can’t be removed. Some dogs will get into fights over attention or resting spaces. If this is a common problem for your dogs, you’ll need to use more muzzles and more separation to keep the peace. Don’t tempt fate by cuddling one dog if the other dog will get upset about that.
Step 3: Behavioral Wellness
It’s also a good idea to reevaluate the relationships between the dogs at this point. If your dogs are constantly tense around each other, it’s hard to make good progress.
Go back to the four steps of behavioral wellness here to make sure that your bases are covered. It’s amazing how many dogs will cease resource guarding when they feel more relaxed and confident in other areas of their lives.
This means that you’ll need to spend some time ensuring your dog is getting adequate exercise, enrichment, nutrtition, and communication.
This is not optional.
Exercise: Your dog needs good exercise every week in nature – not in a dusty dog park or marching around on six-foot lead in a concrete jungle. Even a long line and a soccer field will do for urban dogs.
Enrichment: Your dogs also should be fed out of puzzle toys every day. Give them things to chase, pounce on, paw at, and shred. Since the main problem here is that the dogs fight over food and toys, puzzle toys will have to be served up in separate rooms or crates. Give your dog delicious stuffed Kongs every day while you’re at work (again, while they’re separated).
Nutrition: Dogs with upset stomachs are more likely to be aggressive. Gut bacteria and behavior are more linked than we realized, and it’s imperative that you speak to a nutritionally savvy vet to ensure that your dog’s diet is truly the best it can be.
Communication: We’ll talk about this a bit more in steps 4 and 5, but another way to improve communication with your dog is to learn to read canine body language and to use SMART x 50. I recommend the Dog Decoder app for learning more about canine body language. This will help you catch early warning signs when your dog is upset or uncomfortable, but isn’t aggressing yet. SMART x 50 will help you catch your dog being good throughout the day. Read all about SMART x 50 here.
Step 4: Cease Punishment for Not Sharing.
One important note here is that we really, really want to avoid the problem. Old training methods relied on putting the dog into a situation where he’d screw up, then punishing him for that behavior. We don’t want to do that.
Instead, we’ll help teach the dog coping mechanisms separate from the situations that upset him, then gradually put it into practice.
Resource guarding (getting into fights and not sharing) is not a sign of dominance. A dominant dog possesses the resources and can repossess them at will, without aggression.
If your dog is constantly starting fights over resources, it’s actually because he is insecure. He’s worried that other dogs (or humans) are going to take his stuff away, so he’s defending it overzealously.
Taking away his food, yelling at him, or trying to let the other dogs eat first will only teach him that yes, in fact it is dangerous to let others near his food. He’ll only defend his resources more desperately next time.
Punishing an insecure dog will only make him less secure. That’s why punishment often seriously backfires when you’re trying to teach your dog to share.
Step 5: No One is Going to Take Your Food, Buddy.
The next critcal component of helping teach a dog not to get aggressive over food is emotional. Right now, Max is constantly petrified that other dogs will take his stuff away. His people, his toys, his bed, his food.
We have to teach him that he can actually possess those items safely.
This is where it’s SO important to have the help of a good dog behavior consultant. The training process here is tricky, and safety measures are important. I’ll give a basic outline of a treatment plan here, but keep in mind that this blog post is NOT a replacement for getting one-on-one help.
Many trainers (myself included) will work with people online if they have no other option – so you’re not alone.
Let’s focus on Max’s fear of sharing toys with his housemate dogs. Here’s an example for how to solve that:
- Teach Max and his housemate dog (we’ll call the housemate dog Rover) to lie on training mats.
- Teach all dogs in the household a solid leave it and hand target. You can use these cues to call your dogs away from food to avoid conflict. The hand target is an excellent back-up: it’s a different cue with the same result. Sometimes, your dog won’t listen to one cue but will respond to another.
- Use tie-downs and muzzles to keep the dogs separate. Put them on their mats on opposite ends of a large room.
- Give Max a toy while Rover is in the room. If Max gets upset about Rover being in the room, the dogs are too close and you’ll have to get creative with a new, larger space.
- Reward Max for noticing Rover without aggressing. We can do this using a variation of the engage/disengage game (see that in action here). Every time Max glances at Rover and then looks away, Max gets a treat.
- Repeat, only with Rover having the toy. Reward Max for disengaging from Rover while Rover has the toy.
- Gradually, slowly over time, move the dogs closer together. Keep tie-downs and muzzles in place to keep everyone safe!
That’s a broad overview. Training should look and feel boring – there should be no conflict or discomfort from the dogs. Remember, our goal is to help Max feel less defensive of his food – not to “put him in his place!” Be liberal with rewards and praise, and take breaks if you feel yourself (or your dogs) getting tense or frustrated. Most training sessions will be less than 10 minutes long.
Teaching your dog to share isn’t really the point here. We’re actually trying to teach your dog that he doesn’t have to preemptively defend his posessions from other dogs.
Some dogs will require lifelong help to deal with their resource guarding, especially if you’re unable to work with a skilled local trainer.
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, and as a private dog trainer. When not working on Journey Dog Training, Kayla works at Working Dogs for Conservation. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her dog Barley.