Toys are a necessity for your dog’s well being and can also be useful in dealing with behavioral problems. But, sometimes dogs can become too attached to them and will start guarding their toys using aggressive behavior such as barking and snarling and snapping. This is resource guarding and the resource can be their toy, food, bed or even you. It is actually normal dog behavior.
Dogs have inherited programming from their ancestors to protect whatever they consider is valuable to them from other animals. Guarding their resource (food) was crucial to their survival as it would often be in short supply. Whilst toys are not food, it is still an item that the dog considers to be his and important to him. Resource guarding should not be labelled as an act of dominance and should never be treated as such using the dominance calming techniques. It is not a bid for power. It is more important to teach the dog not to guard his possessions and reward him for doing so.
Do not be tempted to engage in a game of chase to take the object in question off him. That only shows we have an interest in it. Pick up something else and play around with it and make it interesting. A tasty morsel of food would be a good distraction. Whatever the dog has in his mouth or guarding, will become devalued and you can then ‘trade’. When he has ‘traded’ after a short time, give his toy back to him so he understands that giving up his possession is not a bad thing. This is a good tip when your dog runs off with your slippers or item of clothing. Very often you can ‘trade’, make him sit and drop and reward with a treat. Always use a key word such as ‘drop’, ‘give’ or similar. This will need to be practiced often giving the resource back each time so he learns that a human approaching and handling his food or toy is a good thing. Getting him to understand that another dog approaching his resource is a good thing, is a little more tricky!
If you are a two dog family, get in the habit of offering a treat to each dog in turn, each time reversing the order you give it out. It makes them learn that good things can happen if the other dog is around. If one dog has a toy that the other dog is about to pinch and his body language is saying keep off, make the approaching dog sit or stand between them if there is too much anxiety. Offer a treat and then offer the dog with the toy a treat. Choose something really tasty like sausage or chicken. Keep the dogs at good distance to start with and gradually lessen as they get used to the treat exchange. The toy can be retrieved and put to one side, but later make it available again for play. This exercise is changing the dog’s emotional response when another dog approaches. So instead of feeling protective, he is thinking, yes, come over and we’ll get chicken! Repeat this exercise often even when there is no aggressive signal.
Dogs love balls and Spaniels in particular can become tennis ball obsessive. Keeping other dogs in the park away from pinching balls can be difficult. Always have a spare ball with you, so if another dog does approach and runs off with your dog’s ball, you can lure your own dog away with a thrown ball and he has not lost anything. Better to lose a ball than have an injured dog from a fight.
It is important that the dog is never physically punished for guarding what he considers to be his. All you will do is confirm his thinking that he was right to protect his toy and all humans are not to be trusted!