IMG_2100The puppy barreled towards me. As he caught a glimpse of the toy in my hand, he was barely able to keep his own massive paws from tripping him as he threatened to plow into my knees, the promise of play dangling in front of him.

I had only known him for a short while, but one thing was certain – this dog LOVED his toys.

He leapt through the air, trying desperately to rip the tug toy from my hands, and as his excitement peaked, I threw it across the yard, the toy bouncing off the far wall and landing firmly in the grass below.

The moment it was thrown, the puppy was on it. Like a bullet, he launched for the toy, just barely missing it as it left my hand, and as it traveled through the air with speed, it seemed he was only inches behind.

As he raced towards the wall, he didn’t slow. Instead, he skidded at the very last moment, waiting until he had the toy secured in his massive jaws before sliding to a stop, bouncing off the concrete as gracefully as a puppy could.

The prize was his!….And now that he had won it, he wasn’t about to let it go.

Toy in mouth, he proudly paraded to a corner of the yard, tail rigid and erect, his steps more of a victory prance than a trot. Collapsing in the shade he enjoyed his prize, guarding it diligently.

As I approached, he retreated to a new spot, effectively evading my attempts at re-engaging play for fear that I would steal his newly acquired tug. It was his, and he didn’t want to share. 

Some dogs retrieve naturally, the game of fetch and return hardwired into their genes and barely breakable. Others LOVE toys but tend to be a little more selfish. Instead of being natural retrievers, these dogs prefer to “own” their prize. The reward of winning is all they seek.

Believe it or not, being selfish can be both a learned behavior as well as a genetically inherited one. In a litter of working puppies for example, each pup can have a drastically different play style, some naturally loving to retrieve while others preferring to retreat to a shady spot after winning their toy. On the other hand, I’ve seen many young puppies as well as adult dogs learn to be selfish as a result of some inadvertent mistakes their handlers make in their training.

Are you teaching your dog to be selfish?  

If you find that your dog values winning the toy and retreats with his prize rather than bringing the toy back to continue the game, you might be reinforcing selfish behavior.

When playing with your dog, here are some questions to ask:

  • When your dog brings the toy to you, do you take it from them to throw it again? – For a natural retriever, this isn’t so bad. But for a selfish dog, taking the toy can seem like a punishment. They are sharing their prize with you, and all you are doing is taking it away and making them work even more. How dare you!
  • Do you find yourself constantly taking things out of your dog’s mouth that he picks up? – If so, you might be teaching your dog that you are a threat to those yummy things he finds so valuable. If every time you approach, you take away the things he loves, he’ll be more likely to hoard his stash in the future.
  • Do you engage in the keep away game? – Some dogs love to be chased. If your dog has a toy and you think it’s cute to chase him around while he has it, you are absolutely promoting selfish behavior.
  • If you reward with toys, do you throw them, or do you play games with your dog? – By throwing toys, you teach the dog that the game is with the toy. This can be valuable in some instances, but if you are trying to combat selfish behavior, you’re better off playing with your dog as a reward. This teaches the dog that the reward is playing with you – not playing with his toy on his own away from you.

Combating Selfish Behavior

If your dog already displays selfish behavior, whether learned or inherited, here are some techniques you can use to combat the behavior.

  • Don’t take toys from your dog. – Instead, praise and play with your dog when he has toys in his mouth.
  • If your dog runs, don’t chase him. – Chasing him will simply reinforce selfish behavior. Instead, try making an excited fuss and running away. If he follows, you can pet, praise, and play with him.
  • Let him win…OFTEN. – When a selfish dog brings you something, play with him for a short time, and let him win, immediately re-engaging him when he does by running backwards or praising heavily. If he thinks he always wins, and you aren’t “tough enough” to steal his toy, he’ll be more likely to bring it to you in the future.
  • If you have to take something from your dog, trade him for something better. – This way he won’t see your presence as a threat.
  • Learn the proper way to play with your dog. – By mastering the mechanics of play, you will stand a far better chance of having a dog that WANTS to play with you.

IMG_3130Whether your dog has learned to be selfish or the trait is inherited, you can absolutely turn a selfish dog around.

The puppy in the story was actually my own puppy on the day I brought him home. He showed me his selfish side the instant he walked in the door, taking on a “what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine” attitude towards anything and everything he found valuable. His selfish behaviors weren’t random – they were learned from exchanges with inexperienced handlers who were always “stealing” his prized possessions. But with a little TLC, a little reprogramming, and a lot of patience, this once-selfish pup now approaches play in an entirely different way.

If you met my dog today, you’d see an engaged puppy who wants nothing more than to play….with me. He wants to share, because bringing me toys results in games that he enjoys, games that are far more interesting than chewing on the prize in the corner of the yard, games that are more fun than running away with no one chasing behind. The games he makes on his own pale in comparison to the fun we have together and because he knows that now, not only can we more effectively use toys and games in our training to maximize our engagement, but we have a far better relationship both on and off the training field.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    4 replies to "Sharing is Caring: Are You Making Your Dog Selfish?"

    • Diane Bentley

      Thank you so much for telling me “good girl” Just joking but I have been trading with my Ivy. I was told this was reinforcing bad behavior. Ivy is very toy driven and my things driven. I trade toys for my things. She is 11 months old now and is getting more reasonable.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Keep up the great work! Yes, trading is sometimes misconstrued by other trainers as a reward for bad behavior. But at the end of the day, its hard for dogs to tell appropriate toys from inappropriate ones, and expecting them to know the difference is unreasonable. For that reason, punishing a dog for picking up an inappropriate toy becomes unfair in my book and does nothing more than create conflict. Instead, I try to lavish my dog with attention and praise when he has an “appropriate toy” and I disengage and ignore when he has an “inappropriate toy”. Instead, when he has something I don’t want him to have, I simply tell him to “Out” (his command to let it go) and reward heavily with play with an appropriate toy. It doesn’t take him long to realize how much fun the appropriate toy is and, when given the opportunity to pick up a number of items, my laundry included, he’ll always go for the toy that gets him the most praise, play and engagement!

    • Rebecca

      Perfect timing.
      A dog in my level one obedience class displays exactly this behaviour at home apparently. A chronic underwear thief!
      I will link him to this article with your permission. His owner has asked for some tips on properly playing tug. Thanks

      • Casey Wood

        Feel free to share our articles with whomever you think will benefit from it.

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