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When I run communication classes, owners are not allowed to bring food in the field, and yet they are allowed to take toys with them. This is pretty upsetting for someone. “I have been told that I should never have a toy with me, give a toy or play with my dogs, if there are other dogs around”. The reason people think toys are so dangerous is quite simple: they have seen dogs challenging, threatening or even attacking other dogs for the possession of a resource.

And dogs surely can consider a toy as a resource.
Is it true?

how to avoiding aggressiveness in dog plays

I have my own idea, about it. I think there is nothing like a dog that would risk a fight, and injuries, for a piece of plastic. Toys are not biologically significant, for dogs.

So, why are dogs challenging and threatening other dogs (and people) for a toy? A good reason is to get to know each other, in a competitive but still communicative setting:
the control of a resource can be a great strategy to define the terms of a relationship.

“Am I strong enough to keep the toy?”
“I want the toy, can you please leave it to me?”
“Ops, I dropped the toy, will you dare to take it?”
“Ops, I dropped the toy, will you dare to take it?”
“Try me: chase me and try to take my precious.”
“Don’t you dare to take it.”
“If I take the toy and leave it somewhere, will you stop bothering me?”
“I have mine, but I want yours.”
“I want your toy... Look, I have a better one!”
“I only want that toy if you want it too.”

how to a dog control a resource
“Ops, I dropped the toy, will you dare to take it?”

Since toys are not really significant for dogs, the focus can be on the communication and the interaction: the information a dog sends and receives, and how it changes the behavior or both dogs. This is such a rich and complex context, that allows dogs to give information about themselves, and to learn about others, with a minimum risk. If something turns bad, there is always the chance to drop the toy, and avoid a fight.

If a toy is just a piece of plastic, nothing a dog should risk to defend, why are there dogs ready to fight?

I have my own idea also about this. We usually think of control in terms of power, “dominance”, imposition. If I control something/someone, that means I am mentally/physically stronger than you.

In my experience resource guarding most often arises not as an imposing behavior, but as a coping strategy. Coping strategies refer to different actions and behaviors that an individual can display in order to cope with, reduce or recover from stress. I use facebook as a coping strategy, or chocolate, or a walk in the woods with my dogs.

Whenever I see a dog that shows an intense guarding behavior, I look for a source of social stress. In my experience resource guarding and social stressors are strongly connected. Competition itself is a common element of play, and it certainly can cause social stress, and boost the guarding behavior.

Guarding a toy (or anything the dog might consider as a resource in that context), is an attempt to get some control over the social environment.

I often explain it as shipwrecked who’s holding on a piece of wood to survive the sinking.  
How dangerous would it be, to try and take away that piece of wood?

dog stress and coping behavior

This is why resource guarding, even of a piece of plastic, can lead to a serious aggression. The dog is not playing, and the resource is just the tip of a bigger and deeper social conflict (involving dogs or people).

In 26 years of practice, I have been threatened and attacked more often during play than during any other activity. Even if I allow toys and play during communication classes, I take playing quite seriously...

How can we decide wether it is safe or dangerous to give our dog a toy when other dogs are around, or to take a toy away from our dog?

The answer is: know your dog. If you don’t trust your dog, and your judgment, seek the advice of someone who is really skilled in dog’s “reading”. Remove the toy is a poor alternative to knowledge.

Text and article photos Alexa Capra 19 april 2019

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