- Have you ever chased your dog when he has something of yours?
- Has your dog ever gulped something down to avoid giving it up to you?
- Does your dog think it’s fun to grab stuff and then play keep-away from you?
If any of those sound familiar, you’re going to like this month’s newsletter. It’s all about teaching your dog to give stuff up politely and easily. We’ll go over the reasons dog steal, the most common mistakes people make with their dog, give you some strategies to prevent the stealing in the first place, and give you step-by-step instruction on how to teach your dog to reliably offer up what’s in his mouth when asked.
Why Do Dogs Steal Stuff?
Sometimes the dogs aren’t stealing, per se, they’re just exploring the world the only way they can – with their mouth. Our reaction to this exploration sets the stage for what happens next. A gasp and sudden reach toward the dog is sometimes enjoyable for the dog – they like our reaction to their exploration! And then, when they skitter out of reach, you get up and chase them. Holy moly, that’s even more fun! In just one quick instant, your dog has learned that stealing stuff is valuable in more way than one: (1) they get something they wouldn’t usually get and (2) they get you to play with them. From their perspective, this couldn’t get any better! They aren’t stealing to spite you, be stubborn, or annoying. It simply works out well for them more often than not.
Avoid These Pitfalls
From this day forward, thou shalt not:
- Chase the dog when he has something you want. Unless, of course, you want him to learn how to get your attention quickly and predictably.
- Yell at the dog for having it. Yell at yourself for leaving it where the dog could get it, if you must yell at someone.
- Punish the dog after you get the item back.
- Leave stuff where the dog is able to steal it. (Would you really be mad at someone who took the $100 bill you left on the seat of your car with the window down? Or would you berate yourself for being so careless?)
Smart No-Stealing Strategies
From the moment a new dog or puppy comes into our house, I manage his environment so it’s really hard to get in trouble. The harder it is for that dog to get in trouble, the less trouble he’ll be in. Make sure your house is dog-proofed. Close the doors to bedrooms and bathrooms. Pick your clothes up off the floor. Put your shoes in the closet. Never (ever) leave food on the counter – your dog WILL steal it, I promise!
Plan what you’re going to do before your dog steals something. Even with the best dog-proofing and planning, your dog will eventually get something you don’t want him to have, it’s just a fact of life. In my house, I do nothing when I see the puppy with something she shouldn’t have. I keep my poker face and calmly call her to me. Or I might grab a toy and start playing with it. She bounds over to me, dropping whatever she has along the way.
Teaching Your Dog to Give Up Stuff
You now know how to avoid the pitfalls, and you know how to implement the strategies. Now it’s time to teach your dog what to do in the event he steals something. You’re going to need a toilet paper cardboard core (or paper towel core will do, too) as well as some pea-sized pieces of chicken or other delectable human food. Why toilet paper rolls? Here’s why: (1) they’re free, (2) they won’t hurt your dog if he steals or eats them and (3) most dogs like cardboard, but will willingly give it up for something better.
Before you start, choose a word or phrase to use when you want your dog to give you whatever he’s got. If you’ve had less than pleasant interactions with your dog and his “treasures” in the past, choose a completely new word. You can choose any word or phrase you’d like; here are a few suggestions: give, drop, thank you, please, out, yuck, whatcha got.
You want to initiate this game with your dog, meaning you want to actually give him the thing first, then ask him to give it up.
Step 1: Show your dog the empty paper towel roll. While holding onto one end, offer the cardboard core to your dog. You may need to wiggle it around to make it more enticing.
Step 2: Once your dog has the cardboard core in his mouth (and you still have hold of it, too), put that really yummy treat directly in front of your dog’s nose, even touching the treat to his nose if you need to.
Step 3: At the same time, say your word (I’ll use “give” in this article, but your word can be different) in a pleasant voice. Don’t tug on the cardboard core.
Step 4: Hold the treat at your dog’s nose until he spits the core out and takes the treat.
Step 5: As you are delivering the treat, reach down and pick up the paper towel roll.
Step 6: After your dog has finished the treat, offer the paper towel roll again in an excited voice.
You’ll repeat these steps several times, always giving the dog a treat for giving up the paper towel roll and also giving him the paper towel roll back.
The dog is learning that giving up stuff is pretty fun – he gets a tasty goodie and gets the “thing” back, too! It’s a win-win! The key to this exercise is that you initiate it. If you only pay attention to the dog and trade him when he initiates the game, you are teaching him to grab stuff so you’ll trade him.
Word of Caution
Never ever hit, scare, or threaten your dog in order to get something back from him.
If your dog growls or shows any aggression, STOP immediately. Call a positive-reinforcement training professional right away.
The steps outlined above will also work for the dog who won’t give up the ball when playing fetch. If your dog doesn’t drop the ball, you can’t throw it for him again. Don’t chase, beg, or plead with your dog to give the ball up. This is his game – if he won’t give the ball up, you won’t throw it again. Period. He can’t throw it for himself, so if you go and sit in a chair (instead of chasing him), he’ll learn pretty quickly that his game of keep away isn’t much fun at all.
This is an easy skill to teach your dog. It shouldn’t take more than a week or two to teach your dog that giving up things is a really fun and rewarding thing to do!