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Teach your puppy to give you things they've stolen

Puppies love to steal things: your clothes, shoes, pieces of paper, the kids’ toys…if they can move it, they’ll take it.

Getting chased and wrestling over the object is half the fun. But having their treasure pried out of their jaws isn’t fun. If you repeatedly do this, it could cause problems:

  • Puppy could get defensive about having hands near their face. This will make it hard to clean their teeth, or to help them if a piece of stick gets wedged in their upper jaw (this has happened to two dogs of mine, and it really helped that my already freaked-out dog was happy to let me stick a finger in their mouth to dislodge the stick).

  • Puppy could learn to go off and chew up the thing in a private place.

  • Some learn to swallow it as the ultimate means of defense. I adopted a shelter dog who swallowed socks and I promise you do NOT want to live with this habit.

Solutions for puppy thievery:

  • The best solution, of course, is to keep an immaculate house and put everything away out of reach of puppy. But most of us aren’t that diligent – certainly I’m not.

  • Also, make sure puppy has a variety of dog toys that are legal to gnaw and shred – these are normal, built-in behaviors for many dogs.

  • The next best solution is to teach puppy to enjoy letting go of their treasure in exchange for a treat. I’ve found that once they learn this trick, they often don’t even want the thing any more when you offer it back to them.

Some people worry that giving the puppy a treat for letting go of a thing is rewarding them for stealing it in the first place. Dogs do learn chains of “do the bad thing to get a treat for stopping.” But guess what – that thing they’re holding (plus any attention you give them as a consequence) has already rewarded them for stealing it. The treat you give is the reward for giving it up.

I like to start teaching this with a toy, or with something safe such as the cardboard tube inside a roll of paper towels or toilet paper. The accompanying video demonstrates the process:

1. Get the puppy to engage with the item by tugging on the toy, or tossing the cardboard roller for them to chase and pick up.

2. Once they’re in possession, say your cue (in a friendly, upbeat tone of voice).

3. Stick a smelly, tasty treat in front of their nose.

4. Say “yep!” the moment their mouth opens.

5. Place the treat on the floor so they turn their head away from the item

6. Pick up the item while they’re eating the treat.

7. When they’ve swallowed the treat, give them back the item. This is important. We’re creating a win-win situation here: they get a treat, AND they get their loot back.

I find that often they lose interest in the thing if there’s no struggle over it, but as long as the stolen thing isn’t dangerous or fragile, I always do a repetition or two to maintain the expectation that I’m not going to swindle them out of a treasure.

Creating this positive expectation is like making deposits into a bank account. You’re building trust towards the day when you really do have to confiscate the carving knife your adolescent dog swiped off the counter (preventing and stopping counter surfing is a conversation for another day – if you’re diligent and fastidious about keeping tables and counters clear we won’t have to have it).

If you'd like coaching, or even for us to come do the training, we're happy to help.

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