My Dog Obsessive / Possessive – Phoenix Scottsdale AZ Dog Training – Dog Trainer – Behaviorist
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Let’s say you have a dog that guards a toy, bone, or food bowl. Is such a dog obsessive or possessive? What is the difference? And is it OK to play tug of war with a dog? Does tug of war make a dog aggressive? And what about dogs that guard toys, food bowls, and such? Are they obsessive or possessive?
Obsessive: an abnormal fixation on an object or situation. The focus would be persistent to the point of being considered neurotic. We refer to such a condition in humans as an Obsessive – Compulsive behavior, driven by anxiety, worry or fear. Oftentimes, the behavior is characterized by a repetitive, non-stop, compulsive rituals. In humans, we treat it as a medical condition. The behavior isn’t for survival purposes, but is often either an indication that something is medically wrong with the dog, or the stress in the dog’s life has gotten to a point where the behavioral system of the dog is breaking down and it is coping the only way it “knows” how.
Possessive: a normal drive to dominate and own. Thus, a Lion will guard a dead animal it is eating against other competitors. Animals guard prey for survival purposes.
I have worked with dogs that were obsessive, and I’ve worked with dogs that were possessive.
For example, I worked with a Golden Retriever that was obsessive about grabbing and eating grass while on a walk. If you walked him on a sidewalk, and there was a grass lawn on either side of the sidewalk, or growing up between the cracks, he would lunge for the grass and eat it. And eat. And eat. Even the smallest sliver of grass would cause him to lunge and try to eat. The dog was not hungry. This dog was very stressed out.
I have worked with many dogs that were possessive of a dead animal, such as a squirrel, or a meat bone… or their food in their bowl. Like the Lion, they will aggressively guard their prey if you come near or try to take it from them. Some dogs will possess toys, too. When a dog guards a toy, that toy has enough prey like characteristics to that dog will view it as real prey and guard it. None of these dogs were stressed out.
Dogs that are obsessive are acting abnormally. They are not doing a behavior that is purposeful and directed towards a survival purpose. Dogs that are possessive are acting normally, even though we may not be happy that they are oftentimes using aggression as part of their behavior to control the object.
Obsessions are treated differently than dogs that are possessive. A good dog behaviorist can distinguish between these different situations and can usually come up with a solution. With the Golden Retriever, the home life of the dog had to be sorted out, along with teaching the dog how to relate properly to the people, and the people learning how to properly relate to the dog. With dogs that are possessive, it is important to manage them differently when around prey objects, and there are methods that can be used to lessen the potential for you or an an animal getting injured.
Play: Dogs that play tug of war are not obsessive or possessive. They are playing. There is no anxiety, and there is no serious intent to own the object and keep it from competitors. It is play. On the other hand, there are dogs that do possess tug of war toys, and with those dogs, it can be dangerous to do tug with them unless you know what you are doing. Many protection breeds will do tug of war, but to them, it isn’t a game. That doesn’t mean the dogs are abnormal. In fact, that is very normal. But, there is also a danger point in the tug exercise with a dog like that. These dogs are not really pets. They are working dogs. Such a dog, for example, might be required to guard a briefcase. The dog is trained to not let someone approach the briefcase or steal it. Some dogs will naturally guard their Master’s things, without training, but it is pretty rare to see such a dog these days. Old style Chesapeake Bay Retrievers and German Shorthaired Pointers were also possessive of game. They would not let a poacher take the dead game, and would stand guard over it until the Master came and got it. That was considered a good thing. But, if you get one of these breeds, and put them in a situation where the are guarding prey objects or toys, you have to realize they are not being obsessive. They are being possessive, and they are not doing anything abnormal. They are doing what they were bred to do.
Get The Proper Diagnosis: I hate it when behavior terms are tossed around frivolously. The terms “obsessive” and “possessive” are often exchanged as if they mean the same thing, and they aren’t. I have seen this with TV dog trainers, for example, and it has caused a lot of harm. Dogs that are playing are confused with dogs that are working, and the working dog is often deemed as being somehow defective. Dumb dog trainers warn people not to play tug of war with their dogs, to prevent them from becoming aggressive, not really understanding the difference between a dog playing and a dog working. People that are not behavioral experts shouldn’t be giving out behavioral advice. Because in more cases than we might care to know, a lot of innocent, but poorly managed dogs, have been put to death for doing totally natural behaviors, such as guarding prey objects. And other dogs, with obsessions, haven’t been properly treated for their issues, and they have been injured in the process or put down, too.
Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.
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