Teaching a dog to stop stealing food, clothes, TV remotes or anything else that they like to pinch can feel like an uphill battle — but by coming at it from a different angle, you can mend your dog's thieving ways. Expert dog trainer Ben Randall explains how.
We might find it amusing and — depending on what your dog has swiped — deeply embarrassing, but stealing food, TV remote controls and clothing (especially socks and pants) is a common problem. Not least as dogs often see this as a great game and will run off with their loot and, at worst, swallow the item (remember some of our foods, such as chocolate, onions and grapes can be poisonous, too) when you try to retrieve it from them, which leads to them having to have foreign bodies removed at the vets.
That’s the problem that faced this week’s reader, C.D. from Dumfriesshire. ‘How do I stop my dog cheekily stealing all manner of things,’ writes C.D. ‘She doesn’t only sneakily swipe food from my plate, she also nicks knickers, socks and my mobile phone. I’m worried that she might chew or swallow these items, but I don’t know how to teach her to have better manners — help!’
To tackle this, the ‘leave’ command must be firmly established. Your dog must understand that, when that command is used, all — and I do mean all — negative behaviour must stop immediately. In these dog training articles I’ve covered things including recall training, stopping a dog barking at the door and how to teach a dog to sit, but ‘leave’ is one of the biggest weapons in my training arsenal.
I’ve been honing my BG (Beggarbush) foundation methods for nearly 20 years now — you can see more at @beggarbush on Instagram, or ask me your own question by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org — and I can safely say that this command is one of the most important instructions that I give my dogs.
It’s something that I instil from day one, from when they are small puppies. I use it to curtail all undesirable behaviour and in place of the stream of reprimands that people tend to give their dogs, such as: ‘No’, ‘stop’, ‘down’, ‘get off, you silly/naughty boy’, ‘leave it alone’, ‘give it back’, etc. To solve the problem of stealing, you must ensure that you teach your dog the ‘leave’ command. Here’s how to go about it.
Six steps to stop your dog stealing your supper (and your socks)
1. Start with food: if your dog can leave that, it can leave anything
The quickest way to teach the word ‘leave’ is around your dog’s meal times. The very basic start of this process is to get your dog to sit, while holding a bowl of food in your hand, then allowing him or her to eat the food on your command.
As they’re eating, give the ‘leave’ command and immediately remove the bowl while keeping the dog in the sit position.
2. Get your dog to ‘leave’ without you removing the bowl
Repeat the same process as before, but, this time, do not physically remove the bowl — just give the ‘leave’ command. If you’ve practised the first step enough times, your dog should automatically remove its head from the bowl when you say ‘leave’.
3. Work up to getting the ‘leave’ command with the bowl on the floor
Place the food bowl on the floor and, with the dog in the seated position, tell it to eat. Then, after a few seconds, give the dog the ‘leave’ command and ask it to sit. Always make sure you pause and wait for a calm and patient response between each command.
4. Build up your dog’s patience by calling it past its food bowl
Ask your dog to sit, and place the bowl on the floor, to the side of the dog. Then walk a few yards away, give the ‘leave’ command and ask your dog to come to heel — while ignoring the bowl of food — and to sit by your side.
There are various ways of perfecting this, but please try this one. Now, go to collect the bowl of food yourself, put it to one side and calmly reward your dog with some kibble from your hand — and not, at this stage, food from the bowl.
5. Use a clock face to perfect the ‘leave’ command
Again, sit your dog up, for example at 12 o’clock on an imaginary clock face, then place the food bowl in the centre of the clock face and you go and stand at 6 o’clock. Give the ‘leave’ command and recall your dog past the food bowl.
Ask the dog to sit next to you, go to collect the bowl yourself, then reward your dog with calm praise and a stroke on the head or a piece of kibble from your hand.
6. Increase the temptation with a higher value item
Now the ‘leave’ command is established, we’re going to change the food to something that is of higher value to your dog — it might be a sock, a slipper, a kitchen towel or anything else it loves to steal. Then simply repeat steps 1 to 5 with this object.
A great little trick I use with my dogs to make sure this is really working is, without the dog knowing, to randomly drop something (whether it’s a sock or some chicken) on the floor and, when the dog goes to get it, I stand between the object and the dog, then give it the ‘leave’ and ‘sit’ command. I then pick up the object — keeping the dog in the sit position — and, once they’re relaxed, calmly reward them with some kibble from your hand (not the food you dropped on the floor) or some praise.
And finally, keep at it
This process will try your patience. Dogs that jump up, grab food and pinch things are usually those that have not had the correct foundation training — they’re often quite frantic and impatient, have little respect for their owner and find it difficult to behave in a calm manner.
But if you didn’t start this process when they were a puppy, fear not. With consistency and a bit of work on your part, you can soon resolve and correct this naughtiness.
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