There are some simple methods that can be integrated throughout your dog's puppy months that can ensure that they are gentle creatures as they get older, and for their lifetimes. This type of training has everything to do with teaching your dog the appropriate reactions to different physical stimuli that people may introduce, and that your puppy may not readily or naturally understand.
Begin with simple approaches. Handling of your dogs ears, fur, and tail, including gentle tugging and pulling all over, is a great place to start. Do this while at the same time treating your dog with their favorite treat or a tasty bone to ensure a positive overall experience. This kind of touch desensitization should be done over weeks and months throughout the puppy stage of your dog's life. What this does is associate potentially unwanted physical actions upon the dog (tail or ear pulling, hair pulling) with getting a treat, so that they will react with expectation, rather than aggression, fear, or anxiety.
This kind of training and desensitization should also extend to what they hold most dear – their food, toys, bones, and even their favorite place to curl up and rest. This too begins and ends with positive associations regarding the approach of humans to these areas and things.
Start with hand feeding your puppy some of his or her food. If the dog shows any discomfort with you being close to the food, switch to feeding entirely by hand. This associates your presence with the enjoyment and reward of being fed, and that hands being near his food bowl is a good thing. You will want to do this consistently for a minimum of two weeks.
Next, begin to treat your dog away from his or her food bowl while eating. This will encourage the dog to leave his or her regular kibble for something special, and teaches that it is a good thing to move away from the food when someone comes near, as opposed to jealously or aggressively guarding it. Step two involves putting treats directly into the puppy's food bowl while eating. After a week of this desensitization routine, begin to put your own hand into the bowl with the treat itself. Whatever you do, never take away the food bowl and then return it to your dog. This causes confusion, and will only inform your dog that he or she must eat really fast because the food availability is unreliable.
When it comes to toys and possessions, practice regular exchanges. You can use other toys for this, or a high value treat of some preferred kind. Sit with your dog in his or her favorite space and and offer toys or treats in exchange for whatever is of interest at that time.
These general rules will serve your puppy throughout his life, ensuring that he or she is happy to share no matter what the situation, and much less likely to become a defensive dog later on.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.