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It's irresistibly tempting for our dogs to steal food from the dinner table or assume human food on the kitchen counters is an open invitation for counter surfing.
It's also the number one motivator we as dog owners and dog trainers use to teach dogs new skills.
Some dogs are intent on stealing food from the trash when left unattended, where others prefer to lick the dirty dishes clean. And for new parents, if your dog loves stealing food that can be a challenge around high chairs and snacking toddlers. So if our dog steals food what can we as pet owners do to stop it from becoming an issue?
Step 1: Manage your environment to make it hard for your dog to steal food
The first step, of course, is management. Management means managing the environment so dogs aren't able to engage in destructive behaviors and "break the rules," like stealing food.
A few management tips if your dog steals food are: keep the dogs out of the kitchen using a baby gate or x-pens when you're preparing food, place food in trash cans with lids or stow it in closed cabinets, use gates and pens to separate kids and dogs when eating at the table during meal times, and remember to not leave food lying around on kitchen countertops. If we want a dog's instinctual behavior to steal food to go away, as the dog owner we HAVE to make sure we aren't making it easy for them to steal food and their behavior isn't being reinforced!
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For some pet owners, using management to stop a dog from stealing food is all that's needed. If you're not worried about having safety gates up, this can be a fine solution. However, if you'd like to be able to reduce management, let's teach your dog a game to remove their focus from eating the deliciously good food they are dying to steal and bring your dog's focus back to you instead.
Remember, always avoid punishment if you catch your dog stealing food. Your dog is giving you valuable information. Food is one of the best things ever and you've made it easy for your dog to access it. Of course they're going to steal it if they can from the counter! If your dog isn't able to steal food, they won't steal it. Simple as that!
Get into the habit of checking your environment when food and your dog are involved. Is the food pushed back enough from the counter edges so your dog can't reach it if he/she decides to go counter surfing? Set your dog up to not fail. Make stealing food impossible for your dog.
Step 2: Teach your dog this game to make you more interesting than stealing food
This game is called "It's Yer Choice," and was originally developed, I believe, by Susan Garrett. You can find a LOT of videos and tutorials on this game online from dog behavior experts, but the more time I've spent training with these games, the more I've tweaked it to reduce frustration.
If your dog steals food, teach this training game instead:
- Take a handful of food items or treats. I tend to start this game using something that is at least palatable to your dog but NOT super high value, so dog food like kibble is a good starting point for many dogs. This is part of where reducing frustration comes into play - we want to make it easy for the dog to succeed! Starting with their favorite treat is going to be too hard.
- Present your closed fist with the food/treats enclosed. Hold your arm in a comfortable position. Allow your dog to approach and give it a sniff. Keep your arm as stationary as possible as your dog explores your hand with their nose.
- As soon as your dog moves their snout back, away from your hand, for even a tiny split second, click and remove one treat (with your other hand) and treat to reward your dog. To reduce frustration it's really important that we keep these first clicks as quick as possible. We are not waiting for our dogs to show "restraint" - at this point they have no idea what the game is about. It's our job to show our dogs what the game is about by clicking for those initial (often accidental) movements away from the food hand.
- As the movement becomes more deliberate and your dog learns to start moving back intentionally, you can begin slowly adding in a little bit of duration. Withhold the click just a half second or so at first, and begin building up from there. Treat and reward.
- When the duration becomes easy, see if your dog offers eye contact instead of staring at your hand. One subtle way to "prompt" this choice is to take a deep breath. Treat and reward.
- The next step is to begin opening your hand - again, just slightly at first. Even cracking your hand will release more of the food smell and make it more challenging. This is a version of increasing distraction, so reduce your criteria for duration (in other words, stop withholding the click for a few seconds, just begin clicking as soon as you get that movement away from the hand or eye contact back to you). Treat and reward.
- Begin building up to opening your hand more fully. Treat and reward.
- Once your dog is easily redirecting their focus from your open hand to your face, you can begin to re-introduce duration to this behavior.
Note: These steps will likely not all occur in one training session. Break it up into little sessions to keep it fun and easy. If your dog begins to backslide, or exhibit other frustration behaviors like whining, pawing, yawning, etc, give them a really easy rep and end the game for now. When you come back to it, make it much easier. Frustration is NOT our goal. Success is our goal!
Step 3: Don't get greedy with your training!
Let's talk a bit about the video below - this video is about two years old and is far from perfect. This was when I just started teaching this game with Beau (he was a doggy daycare/train and play dog). At the beginning, I do a fairly good job of clicking him for his mostly accidental movements away from the hand. But I miss one HUGE opportunity to click! About 45 seconds in, you can see Beau really "get it." He offers a sit! But I don't click - instead I get greedy and attempt to open my hand and Beau immediately leans in and nudges my hand some more. Clicking that sit would have been a MUCH better choice. And additionally, in watching it now it's super clear to me that I could have slowed the hand opening process waaaay down.
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I point this out for a few reasons - first, because I want you to learn from my mistakes! Second, because I want you to recognize that no one is perfect, and that we are ALL constantly learning all the time. And third, because even though mistakes were made, Beau did an amazing job of learning in spite of them! Check out this video from only a few days later.
What does this have to do with stopping your dog from stealing food? A lot!
When you open your hand, your dog is looking at the food and eventually at you. If they are getting anything (be that a treat or praise) when they look back at you, then they want to turn their focus away from the food and onto you. They love what you've got - and they want YOU to give it to them.
So give it a shot, let me know how it goes, and ask any questions in the Community discussion in the Manners Channel on Dogly here.
Next up in Food Manners on Dogly
Now that your dog won't steal food when presented with it, you're ready to move on to step two of three in our food manners training. The next guide in Food Manners here on Dogly will teach you how generalize what you just learned to stop your dog from stealing food in all sorts of scenarios and settings. Go there next or if you'd like more personalized training we can always work 1-1 together.