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Just drop the ball (resource guarding toys/items)

How many of us wish our dogs would just willingly drop a toy when we’re trying to play with them? If you have to chase your dog, wrestle it out of his mouth or walk away and say ‘fine I won’t play with you’, you probably feel pretty frustrated at times. You’re just trying to do something fun with your dog by playing with them, and they turn it into a pointless, irritating game by not giving the toy back.

It might not just be toys that are an issue with your dog, they might do the same thing with items they shouldn’t have, like socks, bits of rubbish, or anything else they deem a worthy possession.

What can seem like a bit of a silly game, can actually be a sign of the beginnings of a much bigger problem.

Resource guarding is often associated with dogs ferociously growling, baring their teeth or biting, we think of it as something very obvious and rather nasty.

However, guarding behaviours don’t usually start out with big scary signals, they start with the subtle ones which we tend to ignore until the dog snaps.

If your dog is hesitant to drop a ball for you or he likes to run away with stolen items, this is something to take seriously and deal with before it becomes a bigger problem. This might sound scaremongering and dramatic, but it’s not an issue to take lightly or one to ignore.

Where Do You Draw the Line?

It’s all fun and games until it’s not. For many dogs who have developed resource guarding issues, it will have started subtly when they were younger and the behaviours will have been unintentionally reinforced. What can start out as a game, can develop into a big problem

For example, take a young dog who has a tendency to steal socks, he likes to grab them and run off with them so his owners chase him and when they catch him, they remove the sock from his mouth.

This might seem harmless, the dog didn’t grumble or protest, he let go of the sock and maybe even got a treat in return. But then a few months later, he’s grabbing socks and running off with them, when his owners come to catch him, he starts growling and tries to swallow the sock.

His owners take offence to this growling and get concerned by the attempts to swallow things so they try to grab him faster and force the sock away, then a week later the dog bites them when they reach for the sock in his mouth.

This storyline is more common than you might think. It happens with stolen items but it can also happen with toys, we think we’re doing the right thing by taking the item away and giving a treat in return, but we don’t actually consider how the dog might be feeling and the associations they are creating.

When a dog runs away with an item, especially when they’re trying to avoid an approaching person, it’s a clear sign they don’t want to lose the item they have. For some dogs, a game of ‘catch me if you can’ is a genuinely enjoyable and positive game, but it can also turn negative if handled in the wrong way.

Resource guarding behaviours stem from fear. The fear of losing something deemed important. The dog wants to keep hold of the smelly sock or he doesn’t want to lose his precious ball.

There can also be an element of attention seeking in some guarding behaviours, but that doesn’t mean fear isn’t also contributing.

For example, a dog may learn that it’s fun to grab a sock and run off with it because people chase him and it gets lots of attention. However, if items are repeatedly removed in a negative way, this attention seeking behaviour can quickly tip into a fear of losing these items, or perhaps a fear of how humans react in these situations. We are often prone to losing our tempers and we might shout at the dog or physically reprimand him for stealing things he shouldn’t.

What Are the Early Signs

The early signs can be incredibly subtle but if you can catch them early and handle situations in a positive manner, you could save you and your dog from future conflicts.

  • Running away with items, especially when approached

  • Reluctance to approach people when holding a toy, choosing to take it away instead

  • Turning head away when holding an item (e.g. you reach for it and the dog turns his head)

  • Trying to grab an item before you can pick it up

  • Reluctance to let go of something, even if offered a tasty treat

  • Dropping something for a treat and then rushing to pick it up again

These are all signs that suggest a dog is hesitant to share items and is keen to keep possession of them. A dog who is relaxed about sharing items and doesn’t feel worried about losing them, is more likely to happily approach people when holding an item, release it willingly and be in no rush to get hold of it again. They may choose to pick it up again but it’s unlikely to be a competition of who can grab it first.

How to Create Positive Associations

Once we understand that fear is behind these behaviours, we are in a better place to handle them appropriately and help our dogs out.

It’s important to approach these behaviours in a way that minimises conflict and allows our dogs to make good choices.

Choice is the best way to build confidence and teaching our dogs how to make the right choices will go a long way to improving guarding behaviours.

  • Management: this is always step 1, without this the dog will continue to practice the behaviours and we will continue to end up in conflict with them. This may mean removing all tempting items, using a longline on walks to stop them finding things, or stopping toy play temporarily

  • No more conflict: to build confidence and teach new behaviours, we need to no longer let our dogs feel threatened. If they have stolen something and it won’t harm them, let them have it and don’t try to take it away forcefully

With good management in place, you can begin teaching some new behaviours.

Drop Never Works

People will often complain that their dog doesn’t listen to ‘drop’, but usually that’s because they’ve never taught it properly, or they made a good start and then poisoned it by using it when the dog was never going to drop. Our dogs aren’t born knowing what ‘drop’ or ‘leave’ mean, we have to teach them!

To begin with, you need to dissociate ‘drop’ with any items or the act of dropping something, it doesn’t need to start off by meaning ‘let go of that thing’, it simply needs to be a fun cue to signal positive things.

If you have previously been using ‘drop’ then you may be best choosing a new word so you can create a better association (e.g. release, give, mine, thank you … whatever sounds right to you!).

This new drop cue is going to remain a pressure-free, conflict-free, happy cue, never to be used in anger or in association with forcing something from your dog.

1. Say ‘drop’ and drop some treats on the floor, do this loads and loads until your dog consistently hears ‘drop’ and instantly looks for food on the floor

2. Give him a boring item (this will vary for every dog), he doesn’t need to hold it or be particularly interested in it, but when he looks at it, sniffs it or holds it, say ‘drop’ and drop the treats on the floor. Repeat loads!

3. Give him a slightly more interesting item, repeat the above step … and note, through all this, you are simply saying ‘drop’ and dropping treats, you’re not touching the item or going near it. You can put your dog in a different room before you pick it up

4. Give him an item he likes (preferably a toy, since we don’t want to encourage him to pick up other items), encourage him to play with it, say ‘drop’ and drop some treats

a. If at this point he doesn’t drop it, don’t repeat the cue just walk away a few steps and let your dog work it out, it might take a minute but wait for him to let go and eat the treats

b. He will probably pick the toy back up, at which point you can say ‘drop’ and drop more treats, walk away and let him eat the treats

c. Repeat this many, many times!

d. With enough repetitions you should find your dog is starting to hear ‘drop’ and look to you for the treats, he should also be dropping the toy more quickly each time

5. If he’s happy and relaxed at this point, you can start to say ‘drop’, drop the treats and calmly pick up his dropped toy, give the toy back to him and let him hold it before repeating the process. If he resists dropping it again at any point, you need to go back to step 4 and not pick it up

6. If your dog is now dropping toys reliably and happily, you can start to use the cue when he’s stolen something he shouldn’t have. Ideally your good management should avoid opportunities to steal things, but if you’re practicing regularly with positive ‘drop’ sessions with toys, you can apply the same method when your dog has that pesky sock

It’s important to always make sure your dog has made the choice to willingly drop the toy, you shouldn’t be forcing it or repeating ‘drop’ multiple times. Just wait it out and walk away if needs be until he’s dropped it and eaten the treats.

It’s also key that he is allowed to pick the toy up again, he might need to drop it and pick it up 10 times before he’s relaxed about you picking it up before him.

If he rushes to grab the toy before you, take a step back and work through ‘drop’ some more, this rush to grab it is a clear sign he’s uncomfortable and not confident with you taking it. It means you need more time before you can pick the toy up and share it with him. Even with stolen items, if it’s safe to do so, you could allow your dog to pick an item up after ‘drop’ and repeat it a few times before you remove the item.

It's all about choice. When your dog feels confident that he won’t have items taken away from him or fearful of your reaction to him, he should be able to willingly drop things and let you pick them up too. Knowing he can pick an item up again after dropping it is often key to building new associations and the addition of good rewards helps reinforce this behaviour further.

We are talking here about dogs who are showing early warning signs of guarding or those who are a little hesitant with dropping items. If your dog is showing more advanced guarding behaviours or has been practicing it for a long time, then it’s always best to seek professional help.

Guarding can be a complex and dangerous behaviour, it often spreads into different areas and it’s not unusual to experiences setbacks when working through it, so having the guidance and support of an experienced trainer is highly recommended

Written by Naomi White

At Adolescent Dogs, we can make faster progress with resource guarding issues via our Residential Training Stays. Some dogs benefit from a fresh environment and associations to help build new habits and behaviours, ready to then transfer back home. Get in touch with us today if you'd like to explore training options with us, either via residential training, one to one lessons or our online academy


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