Teaching your puppy to share – preventing possession issues

I was commiserating with a client last week over the number of ball-thieving dogs out there whose owners are unable to get the ball back. I admit, it’s mildly amusing to watch them chase their dog around in vain before shrugging helplessly, but mostly it’s annoying for those of us who rely on retrieving activity to tire our dogs out. Even more importantly, I have to wonder what dangerous items these dogs might pick up that no one is able to retrieve from them.

Teaching pups to share with humans is a critical early lesson, right up there with good socialization. It isn’t just for the benefit of those of us in the park who would like our ball back but for the safety of both dogs and humans alike. Not doing so means at best a lifetime of being on the losing end of the Keep-Away game and at worst, a dog who will growl, snap and bite anyone who tries to get between them and their stuff.

Many of the clients I meet understand the importance of this but I’ve come across some common misconceptions and misguided approaches in doing so and share those here:

  • Taking stuff away from their pup to show that they can. Let’s say you love ice cream. Now if every time you are enjoying your favourite flavour I come and take it away from you, you are probably going to start to feel a little anxious whenever you see me approach you and your cone. You might start trying to avoid me but if I persist you will be forced to speak up and if I still persist you might even get physical. Your pup is the same. Teach him to look forward to your approach. It’s easy to do – approach him while he is eating and drop tasty tidbits into his dish before walking away. Offer him something yummy while you take his ball then return the item to him when he’s done chewing. Many pups just learn to spit things out in anticipation at the mere sight of a human approaching.
  • Starting to work on it AFTER your  dog has started to growl at you. Teaching your pup to share prevents problems. By the time your dog is growling at you, you need a certified professional. And PLEASE don’t punish the growl. By doing so you are taking away his warning system and he may be forced to proceed right to biting.
  • Using kibble as rewards. Don’t let his fondness for toilet-bowl-water fool you into thinking he doesn’t have any tastebuds! Make sure what you’re offering Rover is better than kibble. Try cheese, hot dogs, liver snaps, dried herring, chicken breast. Find out what makes your pup go coo-coo for cocoa puffs. Even the most undiscerning labs I know have clear preferences.
  • Using intimidating tones and death-ray stares. This is meant to be a friendly exercise. You are teaching your dog to want to share with you, not teaching them to be afraid NOT to share with you. There is a big difference.
  • Punishing Rover for not sharing with other dogs. Even if your dog is happy to share with humans, he may not be keen on sharing with other dogs.  It’s perfectly OK for Rover to give another dog a ‘Get-Your-Own-Bone’ growl.  It is  not OK however, for Rover to continue to bully a dog who has already backed down. Learn what is acceptable communication between dogs and when intervention is warranted.

The following video from respected UK trainer Chirag Patel puts it all into picture for you (I especially love the ‘bone security guard’):