Everybody loves to surround their dogs with lots of dog toys, but what if you must take a toy away from your dog? It’s important to follow certain guidelines when taking toys away from dogs so to prevent the onset of potential resource guarding problems. If you own a puppy, it’s best to practice these guidelines early, so that your puppy learns from the get-go that you are trustworthy and that there’s nothing to worry about when you approach him while he has a toy. If you have recently adopted a dog of unknown history or own a dog who shows signs of aggression when you’re taking toys or other possessions away, it’s best to err on the side of caution and make safety your top priority. Consulting with a behavior professional in cases as such is highly recommended.
From a Dog’s Perspective
There is a concerning belief that dog owners should be able to take their dogs’ toys away and the dog should allow it without batting an eye. Often, this belief is based on the outdated idea that dog owners should be the “boss” or the “alpha” and that they should be able to always take anything away from their dogs or do anything to their dogs. This is ultimately dangerous information that can lead to a bite.
One other hand, there may be dog owners who may assume that dogs don’t mind having their their toys taken away just because they don’t react, but from a dog’s perspective a toy can be as valuable as bowl of dog food or a bone.
In many cases, dog owners may miss subtle signs of resource guarding that are less noticeable than the signature “this is mine, go away” serious warning growl. A dog may also not seem to mind having his toys taken away for a while, but after a repeated number of times of having them removed, he may end up getting progressively more and more defensive about it.
It’s important to remember that dog behavior is never static, it tends to change and this can go both ways: in developing desirable behaviors and the not-so-desirable ones.
“People routinely believe that they “should” be able to take toys from their dogs. This is a subset of the belief that we “should” be able to do thing to dogs because we are humans and they are dogs. Such thinking is outdated and dangerous and leads to inhumane treatment of animals.” ~Karen Overall
A Matter of Trust
How would you feel if one day, as you are shopping at a busy market, you feel somebody slip your wallet out from your pant’s pocket or somebody pulls your purse off from your arm? Most likely, you would be very upset about it.
Dogs care less about losing money or identity theft, but they are sure concerned about losing access to certain resources they particularly cherish such as food, toys and favorite sleeping areas. Sure, dog owners are no strangers to dogs, but wouldn’t you still feel upset if you had $20 sitting on a table and a friend or somebody in your household would take it away from in front of your nose without even asking?
Dog owners often take for granted that a dog shouldn’t mind having a toy taken away from them, but this action, done repeatedly, may make dogs become progressively more and more distrustful.
Resource guarding, a dog’s tendency to act protective of certain items he perceives as valuable and worthy of guarding, indeed is often a matter of trust. These dogs have learned they cannot trust their owners, as often when they approach, negative things happen, such as swooping their toys away from under their noses, or even worse, chasing them, cornering them and forcing them to relinquish the item.
Instilling Trust in Dogs
So should dog owners totally avoid taking a toy away from their dogs? Absolutely not! Dog owners may often find themselves in situations where they must take a toy away from their dogs as in the case of a toy being broken apart and the dog potentially ingesting parts or a dog stealing a toy from a child.
It’s therefore important to know how to do this as safely as possible, and as mentioned, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so best to start teaching dogs early so that they don’t end up growing up perceiving us as big party poopers who steal toys from under their noses making all the fun stop! So how can we take a toy away without making us resemble a Grinch, ruining Rover’s festivities?
Easy, we teach the advantages of fair trading.
Trading for Treats
How would you feel if somebody tried to steal something you just purchased at an auction? Most likely, awful, and if you could, you would probably even feel compelled to grab the person’s arm to get it back or you might call the authorities, but what if, this person instead asked you to trade what you won in exchange for 100 dollars? Most likely, you would be like: ” Sure, here you go, thank you very much!”
Ah, ha! Same goes with dogs. However, there are some important guidelines to follow, here are a few pointers:
- Start early! This means start when your dog is a puppy and keep on rehearsing these exercises periodically throughout your dog’s life.
- Learn how to recognize some of the the most subtle signs suggesting resource guarding in dogs. Some subtle signs may include lip licking, whale eyes, yawning, stiffening, keeping the head lowered over the toy, placing the head over the toy, lips pulled back just to name a few.
- Never try to forcibly take a toy from your dog such as grabbing it from his mouth or prying it open. This will only reinforce resource guarding behaviors.
- If your dog shows signs of resource-guarding seek the assistance of a qualified professional using positive methods.
- As a general rule of thumb, the item you trade should be higher in value than the toy taken away. So if your dog has a toy he really likes and you must take it away, you may want to skip kibble for the exchange and look for treats that are higher in value.
- Careful with new toys, new toys are higher in value than regular ones your dog is used to seeing every day.
- If you rotate toys or find an old toy that was under the couch for some time, consider that when you re-introduce it, it may become valuable in your dog’s eyes, almost or equally as a new toy.
- Now, with these guidelines in mind, practice approaching your puppy when he has a low-value toy. Have several smelly treats in your hand, let him sniff them and get interested in them, then plop the handful of tasty treats in front of him and, as his mouth is busy eating, pick up the toy. Let him eat them before putting the toy down again. After practicing some time, put the behavior of taking the toy on cue, by saying “Trade!”right before you place the treats on the floor. You know you have trained well when, upon hearing the word “trade,” your puppy drops the toy immediately and looks for treats even before you show them.
- Correct timing and technique is important, especially in the initial stages! If you happen to reach for the toy before offering the treats, you risk being bitten! Have a professional help you out.
- Always practice with low value toys first and then build up gradually with toys that are more valuable (while accordingly increasing the value of treats)
- A time may come as mentioned where you will have to trade the toy and not give the toy back. What to do in this case? If the toy is one of those long-lasting flavored chew toys your dog loves to chew on for minutes at a time, consider exchanging it with another long-lasting toy such as a stuffed Kong. We have noticed some owners exchanging long-lasting chew toys or bones for a small treat that’s gulped down in a second and the dog is then pacing around in search of the chew toy. Not a fair exchange. These dogs may decide one day that trading is no longer worthy.
- Tossing several treats opposite the dog, offers the opportunity to retrieve the toy while the dog is at a distance. It’s often best though to offer a stuffed Kong or a bully stick that is more likely to keep the dog occupied and forget about the toy. Some dogs may gobble the treats and then rush back to the toy right when the owner is there about to pick it up, which can lead to problems if the dog is resource guarder.
- There is really no 100 percent complete safe way to remove a toy, but here is a safer version than the traditional exchange many dog trainers suggest. If you are giving a chew toy or other toy that you must at some point take away, simply have the dog enjoy the toy in a room where there is a door nearby. A Kong is then stuffed nearby the door with smelly, high-value treats (make sure your dog sees you doing this and you catch his interest) and then toss it out of the door. When the dog leaves the toy and is out of the room to get the Kong or bully stick, the door is shut close and the toy is removed safely.
- Karen Overall suggests to ask the dog to sit, provide the dog with treats and feeding them while moving away from the toy (and perhaps also clipping on the leash for extra caution) while a helper retrieves the toy. She warns though to avoid doing this if the risk in taking the toy is higher than the risk of the dog having the toy.
- Some dogs who love to fetch can be prompted to leave a particular toy if another one is tossed at a distance that allows for safe retrieval of the toy.
- Looking for alternatives to trading ? When you need to take the toy, have a helper do something the dog is interested in. Like opening the door to the yard and letting the dog out or grabbing the leash so the dog hopefully leaves the toy upon seeing the leash and goes out for a walk leaving you the chance to pick up the toy in the dog’s absence. Alternatively, you can coordinate toy-giving with meal times. Simply provide access to the toy some time prior to meal time so that you can then collect the toy while your dog is actively eating. Replace it with another better one, so that your dog doesn’t see a pattern of eating and losing access to his toys and actually has a pleasant surprise when he comes back.
Disclaimer: this article is not meant to be used as a substitute for professional behavior advice. If your dog is prone to resource guarding, please consult with a qualified professional using positive methods.
- Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats, by Karen Overall, Mosby; 1 Pap/DVD edition (July 9, 2013) .