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I have a serious question today, and I am hoping that the answers will reflect the seriousness and use sources to back up their information, this is something I don't want to mess up.

My 5-8 month old puppy loves other people and dogs. He is over-friendly and very silly. He is definitely well-loved and is always kind, loving, and gentle back... but there's a small catch.

He can be extremely aggressive when it comes to certain things, especially little things. As an example, one day we were out walking on a street, and there was a small piece of trash. My dog got it into his mouth and would not let go. It was in the way back of his mouth, so nothing was sticking out. The sad thing is, my puppy seemed possessed by something. He was not himself - aggressively biting (occasionally drawing blood) when I tried to pry his mouth open, and barking at me (which he never does). Unfortunately, I did not have many treats on hand and I was far from my house. There was no option to try and "train" him and make it a teaching moment, it was more of a desperate situation. For just under half an hour stressful minutes we stood there, battling it out, until finally, I just shoved fully shoved my hands into his mouth and grabbed it, ignoring the biting.

This was the worst scenario that we had gone through, but not the first. It also has happened with other little things (e.g. plastic, masks, etc...), luckily, most of the time, we have treats on hand and are able to bribe him into letting go of the said item.

This is pretty upsetting to me. He is mostly a good dog (there are a few other things we have to train out of him, but we're working on it and he's getting better, after all, he is a puppy) most of the time, this is the only big problem we're having.

I also fear for when he is full-grown and still doing this, as he will grow to be huge, and this is definitely not acceptable for a big dog, as that will hurt a lot more than tiny puppy teeth to get something out of his mouth.

We have done training classes, and are thinking about hiring a trainer (for this and several other things), but I am hoping I can get some advice here first.

Here is my question(s):

  • Is this normal for puppies and is there any possibility it's just a phase he'll grow out of?
  • How can we train this out of him (long-term)?
  • What should've been done in my example situation if I didn't have treats on hand (short-term/immediate emergency situation)? Was trying to pry his mouth open the right strategy (for my example situation) or should I have let him have it?
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  • Only a thought: Maybe it would be beneficial to define "treat" in a more broader way, so voice and excessive petting would be included into it. With regular change of the treat while training, you maybe have the win, to have always a treat with you, even if you forgot/emptied the tasty ones. – Allerleirauh May 31 at 6:20
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Is this normal for puppies?

In general, yes. He found something exciting and you were trying to steal it from him. He tried to defend his toy/food.

It can also be that he was the biggest or bravest puppy of the litter and managed to push his litter mates aside to secure the most food for himself. That taught him that resource guarding is a very rewarding pastime.

If he deliberately bit you (and you didn't just bleed because a pointy puppy tooth got you by chance) then it's a problematic behavior that might become very problematic as he gets older.

Is there any possibility it's just a phase he'll grow out of?

Unlikely but not impossible. It depends on whether he was just excited or is possessive in regards to his toys or food. If he has possessive tendencies, it's more likely to worsen as he gets older.

What should've been done in my example situation if I didn't have treats on hand?

The most important rule is to keep calm. Don't yell at your dog, don't try to rip an object from his mouth, don't chase him, don't hit. He won't understand your words anyway, but he will understand your body language. Hectic body language means that you're either playing or doing something you're not allowed to do. Hitting him (especially on the nose) is painful and outright rude and he might retaliate.

If you instead grab the object (I know in this specific instance that wasn't easy) and just hold on to it without moving your hand, you signal to him that you claim ownership and want him to drop it. You must not pull the object (because that signals play) and you must not let him pull the object away because then you let him claim ownership.

How can we train this out of him?

First you should test if a certain category of objects (toys or food are the most common) makes him possessive. In 2 separate training instances, give him his favorite toy and a long treat (like a chewing bone) respectively. Let him have the object for a few seconds, but don't let him run away and hide (you might want to have him on a leash for the training).

Then give him a command like "give me that" in a calm way. This makes him aware of your presence and the next step less of a surprise. Then grab the object and make your hand an unmovable object. Don't talk with him.

Reaction Meaning
He lets go after a few seconds He is not possessive of this object and reacts beautifully to the cue
He lets go but whines and licks or paws at your hand He wants the object but accepts your claim of ownership.
He starts chewing the object He doesn't want to let go and might get possessive. You should train to avoid future possessiveness.
He tries to run away from you or constantly turns his body so the object is as far from you as possible He is clearly possessive but avoids confrontation. You can (but don't have to) train to make him calmer in such situations. You may also decide to live with this level of possessiveness (it's quite common).
He starts growling and/or wrinkling his nose and/or he showing teeth He is clearly possessive and you should not attempt to train with him without professional help.

If you can, take the object from his mouth, look at it for a single second, then give it back to him. That teaches him that you aren't possessive either and that giving you something won't have negative consequences.

Training instructions

The ASPCA has a very comprehensive guide on their homepage. I tried to shorten it as much as possible, but it's already very much to the point and I didn't want to delete any important information.

This instruction centers specifically on the food bowl of your dog and is intended to treat food guarding. You can replace "bowl" with "favorite toy" to treat object guarding.

The treatments used for food guarding are desensitization combined with counterconditioning. They’re highly effective but fairly complex and detailed.

The exercises described below are done in stages. After doing the exercises in one stage, you can progress to the next stage if your dog is relaxed and shows no signs of aggression. [...] Signs of aggression to watch for while you’re doing exercises include standing stiffly over the bowl, gulping the food, tensing or freezing, growling, staring, snapping, snarling, biting or chasing people away. If you see any of these signs, stop immediately and contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist [or other type of] Professional Dog Trainer. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate one of these experts in your area.

If you’re unsure about your dog’s reaction to the exercises, tether him to something sturdy. That way, if your dog moves toward you, he will be restrained by the leash.

Before you start any of the exercises below, cut a number of special treats into bite-sized pieces for your dog. You’ll need to use something your dog absolutely loves and doesn’t get to eat at other times, like small bits of chicken, beef, hot dogs or cheese. The idea is to convince your dog that it’s wonderful when you approach him while he’s eating because you might bring him something much better than what he’s got in his bowl.

Stage One

  • Stand a few feet away from your dog while he eats dry kibble from a bowl on the floor. Do not move toward your dog.
  • Say something like, “What have you got there?” in a conversational tone and, at the same time, toss a special treat toward the bowl. Continue to do this every few seconds until your dog finishes eating his kibble.
  • Repeat this exercise each time you feed your dog until he eats in a relaxed way for 10 meals in a row. Then you can move on to Stage Two.

During your exercises, if your dog leaves the bowl and moves toward you to ask for more treats, just ignore him. Wait until he goes back to his bowl and starts eating again before tossing more tasty treats.

Stage Two

  • While your dog eats dry kibble from a bowl on the floor, say “What have you got there?” in a conversational tone. At the same time, take one step toward him and toss a special treat toward the bowl. Then immediately step back. Repeat this sequence every few seconds until your dog has finished eating.
  • Each day, take one step closer to your dog before tossing him the special treat. Continue at this stage until you come within two feet of the bowl. When your dog eats in a relaxed way for 10 meals in a row as you repeatedly approach and stand two feet away and give him a treat, you’re ready to move to the next stage.

Stage Three

  • While your dog eats dry kibble from a bowl on the floor, approach him saying “What have you got there?” in a conversational tone. Stand next to your dog’s bowl and drop a special treat into it. Then immediately turn around and walk away.
  • Repeat this sequence every few seconds until your dog has finished eating. When he eats in a relaxed way for 10 meals in a row, you’re ready for the next stage.

Stage Four

  • While your dog eats dry kibble from a bowl on the floor, approach him saying “What have you got there?” in a conversational tone. Stand next to your dog, holding a special treat in your hand. Bend down slightly, holding the treat out just an inch or two in your dog’s direction. Encourage him to stop eating the food in the bowl to take the treat. After he eats the treat from your hand, immediately turn around and walk away. Repeat this sequence every few seconds until your dog has finished eating.
  • Each day, bend down a little more when you offer your dog the special treat so that your hand moves an inch or two closer to his bowl. Stay at this stage until you can bend down and hold your hand with the treat right next to your dog’s bowl. When your dog eats relaxed for 10 meals in a row as you repeatedly approach to bend down and offer him a treat next to his bowl, you’re ready for the next stage.

Stage Five

  • While your dog eats dry kibble from a bowl on the floor, approach him saying “What have you got there?” in a conversational tone. Stand next to your dog, bend down and touch his bowl with one hand while offering him a special treat with your other hand.
  • Continue to do this every few seconds until your dog has finished the food in his bowl. When your dog eats relaxed for 10 meals in a row, you can move to the next stage.

Stage Six

  • While your dog eats dry kibble from a bowl on the floor, approach him saying “What have you got there?” in a conversational tone. Stand next to your dog, bend and pick up his bowl with one hand. Raise it only six inches off the floor and drop a special treat in the bowl. Then immediately return the bowl to the floor so that your dog can eat from it.
  • Continue to do this every few seconds until your dog has finished all the food in his bowl. As you repeat the sequence, raise the bowl slightly higher off the floor each time until you can lift it all the way up to your waist and stand upright.
  • Repeat the sequence, but when you pick up your dog’s bowl, walk over to a table or counter with it. Then put a special treat into the bowl, walk back to your dog and return the bowl to the same place on the floor.

Stage Seven: Making It Work for Everyone

  • The last stage is to have all adult family members go through stages one through six. Each person needs to start at the beginning and progress through the steps the same way, always making sure that your dog continues to look relaxed and comfortable during exercises. Don’t assume that because your dog is okay with one person approaching his bowl, he’ll automatically be comfortable with another person doing the same thing. He has to learn that the rules work the same way with everyone.
  • The entire treatment program above is gradual enough to help your dog relax and anticipate the special treats rather than feel threatened and become aggressive when people approach him while he’s eating. Through the exercises, your dog will learn that people approaching his food bowl bring even tastier food—they’re not coming to take his food away from him.

Treatment Troubleshooting and Tips

  • If you can’t feed your dog kibble for some reason, just make sure that the treats you offer by hand during exercises are more desirable to your dog than the food in his bowl.
  • If you can feed your dog kibble but prefer he eat something else instead—such as a raw diet, homemade food or canned food—do all the exercises with kibble first but then go through the steps again using the more exciting food in your dog’s bowl. Again, just make sure what you offer by hand during exercises is still better than what your dog already has in his bowl.
  • If your dog eats so quickly that you have few opportunities to offer better food during treatment exercises, buy a commercially available dish designed to slow down his eating.

You can find a lot more instructions online by searching for "dog resource guarding", but I find this one to be the best in terms of details and safety. If you attempt a desensitization training like this but misinterpret the body language of your dog, you may actually increase the guarding behavior.

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    Thank you Elmy so much! This answer is exactly what I was looking for! (I will wait to accept so anyone else has some time if they are answering, but this will get accepted if no one answers in the next 12 hours.) – Nai45 May 31 at 15:03

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