Many dogs become skilled thieves, they know how to steal food off worktops, tables or out on walks. It’s often not exclusive to food, it could also be socks, tissues or all manner of random and disgusting items. It’s such a common, frustrating, and potentially dangerous problem, yet it’s also one of the most challenging behaviours to change.
When a dog has successfully stolen food, the habit will be well-established and more difficult to change, so strict management is an essential part of the training. Every time your dog successfully steals something, or even gets a reaction from you when he puts his paws on the kitchen counter, he will want to repeat this behaviour again. In these situations, negative attention can still be reinforcing, so even if you shout ‘NO’ or ‘LEAVE’, he may still find this reinforcing enough to repeat the behaviour. Many dogs are skilled attention seekers and they learn quickly how to gain attention, whether it’s good attention or not!
In order to change bad habits of counter surfing or stealing items, you need to have a consistent plan of training and management in place. No amount of ‘leave’ training will make a difference if you don’t manage your dog carefully. You can’t expect him to resist the cake on the table while you leave the room for 5 minutes, even if he has the best response in the world to ‘leave’, if you’re not there to give the command, then it’s fair game!
Management is ALWAYS Key
You should never underestimate the importance of good management. It may seem restrictive, it may be hard work and it may even require you to adapt your house or your routine, but it’s essential in order to change those unwanted behaviours. Management is often the things we know we should be doing but we forget to do, or we get lazy with and then before long, the dog has stolen something dangerous and it’s cost us a fortune in the vets (or worse still, done your dog some serious harm). There are some simple, but effective ways to create good management strategies:
- No unsupervised access to areas where there are tempting items. If your dog is a counter surfing food stealer, don’t leave him alone in the kitchen unless there is absolutely nothing he can try to get hold of. If there are items he might try to get, then make sure he’s securely in his crate or another room where there’s nothing to steal. This applies even if you briefly leave the room because just a few seconds will be enough for him to practice that unwanted behaviour!
- Keep tempting items out of reach. If he’s a sock stealer, get into the habit of safely keeping these out of reach. This applies for any items he may steal; it may not always be easy to remember but you won’t improve the behaviour unless you can stop your dog practicing it. Puppy-proof your house again so he can’t access anything he likes to steal.
- Have a short house-lead on him at all times. If he does put his paws on the side, you can use the lead to gently move him off and take him to his bed. The lead means you don’t have to talk to him or physically intervene (both of which will reinforce the unwanted behaviour), you can calmly use the lead to guide him away with minimal attention from you. It can also enable you to intervene if he’s trying to get other items or if he fails to come to you after he’s stolen something. Chasing your dog around the house with a sock in his mouth is probably his idea of brilliant fun, while you’re left frustrated and fed up. Using a lead will mean you can avoid these types of games and instead calmly bring him back to you in order to exchange the stolen item for something more appropriate.
- Use a tether. The tether idea isn’t suitable for everyone so it depends on the set-up in your house, but you can attach the lead to a secure table or chair leg so your dog can’t reach the kitchen counters or table while you’re not supervising him. The benefit of the tether is that you can pop out the room briefly without having to put your dog somewhere else if there’s food out.
Alongside the management, you also need to work more specifically on training around food or other items. The management strategies mean your dog won’t be practicing unwanted behaviours while you’re training new ones!
Train for the Situation
- Teach a reliable ‘leave’ cue. Once your dog has a basic understanding of ‘leave’, you can set-up more realistic scenarios by deliberately dropping some treats on the floor or leaving them on a kitchen counter. Bring your dog into the room, on a lead, and be ready to say ‘leave’ as soon as he approaches the food … reward him heavily when he responds to you! Practice this lots every day and keep making it harder and more realistic for him.
- Work on impulse control. Teaching good impulse control in general will help your dog think better when faced with a tempting situation. Impulse control could include ‘leave’ training, wait/stay exercises with toys or food, or simple day-to-day behaviours like waiting before going through doorways and waiting before eating his meals.
- Teach a good ‘drop’ cue. For dogs who like to pick up random items, ‘drop’ is an important command to work on. You can use ‘leave’ before your dog has an item in his mouth, and use ‘drop’ when you need him to release an item. You should never chase your dog or force an item out of his mouth (unless it’s a very dangerous item), instead work on him willingly giving the item up in exchange for something even better (e.g. tasty treat or a favourite toy). Swapping and exchanging is important in order to avoid any guarding occurring and to teach your dog to enjoy sharing things with you rather than running away or eating them.
As with all dog training, there is no magic way to stop your dog stealing things, it takes time to change habits and it requires consistent work from you. These behaviours are so quickly reinforced, either because the dog successfully gets food when he jumps at the kitchen counters, or because he gains attention. Without putting management strategies in place, this reinforcement will continue to happen, regardless of how much training you do, so always start with MANAGEMENT and use this as a solid base from which to begin your TRAINING.
Consistency is always important. Everyone who is around your dog must be on the same page. It’s no good if you work on management and training every day, but your children feed the dog when he puts his feet up on the table! All your hard work could be undone instantly if you have certain family members of visitors who don’t stick to the rules.
At Adolescent Dogs we know how hard it can be to break these habits and we’ve worked with many dogs and their owners to find effective solutions to resolve these behaviours.