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Dealing with Dogs that Steal Food

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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A lot of dogs steal food from countertops, storage cupboards or even out of the hands of slow moving children. Stealing food is just one of the things that dogs are really good at and are driven to do by powerful internal urges. It's as if they're always on a seafood diet – see food and eat it, that is.

Actually, 'steal' is rather a strong word. It implies some kind of unscrupulous behavior or moral turpitude. However, it's far less complicated than that where dogs are concerned. They detect some tasty food, it beckons to them by means of its odor, and they seize it and devour it without guilt. Dogs that have been punished for stealing will not usually steal food in their owner's presence but that's because they are avoiding punishment, not because they think that what they are doing is wrong. So, if dogs have no conscience about stealing and they enjoy food, what can a poor dog owner do to protect their barbecued offerings or Thanksgiving feast? Is punishment and constant policing the only answer? Not really – there are a few other things that can be done to help.

How To Prevent Dogs Stealing Food

  • Keeping the food out of the dog's reach this is a simple but effective solution. If you have a Thanksgiving turkey cooling down before carving, don't leave it out on a countertop as an almost irresistible temptation for your dog. Leave it in the oven with the oven door partly shut or you may wind up the turkey.

  • Keep your dog well fed. Powerful motivation is at the root of many commando-style hit-and-run thieving missions by dogs. Motivation is a double-edged sword: There's the drive from within (hunger) and the lure from outside (the attractiveness of the food). Hunger can be assuaged but good food is always good food. It helps to feed your dog a robust meal before you have friends over for a barbecue if you want him to be less inclined to be mooching vittles. It's much harder for him to get worked up over a hot dog when he's got a belly full of kibble.

  • Train your dog to "leave it" when it comes to food. this is best accomplished in a non-confrontational manner using a "doggy Zen" approach. Start by holding a piece of delicious food in your hand and showing it to your dog. Say "leave it" and slowly lower the food to the ground. If he sits and looks calmly at the food in your hand as you lower it to the ground, reward him with a click (see Clicker Training) and give him the food. If he rudely nudges forward and tries to grab the food from you, simply close your fist and deny him access to the food. You can open your fist again later when he has stopped the pushy behavior. Bottom line: he learns what "leave it" means and understands that if he restrains himself he will be rewarded. He learns what you want him to do, not what you don't want him to do. No active punishment is involved in this technique. There is one caveat: This is not a good technique for (some) dogs that are food aggressive. For these characters a leadership program conducted by the owners should be engaged first (see Dominance Aggression).

  • Remote punishers. Devising some unpleasant consequence associated with stealing food can work well in some dogs. Whether a motion sensitive ultrasound generator, a booby-trap (e.g. black thread attached to a stack of shake cans) or a surreptitiously sounded foghorn, a sudden acoustic surprise of any nature may have a profound and lasting anti-pilfering effect on some dogs. The most susceptible candidates are young dogs and dogs that are somewhat nervous, especially those that are afraid of sounds. But don't bother trying this trick more than three times. It either will work right away or won't work at all.

    (Note: A shake can is an empty soda can with several pennies inside and the opening taped shut so that the pennies don't fly out).

  • Prevent the dog's access to food-laden areas. This is a seemingly obvious piece of advice but it's surprising how many people don't restrict their dog's access to a cooking or eating area by means of a crate or lead. Of course, simply tying up your dog and forcing him to watch humans pigging out is somewhat heartless. Firstly, you should arrange an appropriate location to sequester your dog, and secondly, there is no reason why he shouldn't be entertained while he whiles away the time. Be generous! Give him a food- filled Buster cube or peanut butter stuffed Kong toy to gnaw on while you are gastronomically occupied. He may even voluntarily submit to incarceration if the culinary stakes are suitably high. Benign confinement will prevent accidents involving young children who insist on running around, dog height, brandishing half-eaten hot dogs like they are Jedi swords. This situation is temptation impersonate and might push even the most angelic dog over the brink of reasonable manners. Be proactive: Childproof your dog by delivering him from such temptation.

    Conclusion

    That a dog will be attracted to a delicious piece of human food is a given. It's our job as dogs' friends and leaders to teach them good manners and acceptable behavior. Reward-based training is the best way to accomplish this. A well-trained dog is a happier dog and is a more welcome dog. In this long run, our training his restraint will permit him more freedom and thus more enjoyment. All he has to do is resist the forbidden fruit!

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