Most dogs have a fascination with food and any object that smells like food. They also have predilection for items by which they can exercise their powerful jaws by chewing on them. And then we have our very naughty pups that love to steal an item and show their owners how smart and cute they are as they run away from them hoping for a fun game of chase.
There are other circumstances in which me must remove an item that can potentially harm the dog, if swallowed. Either scenario, the best way to deal with all these situations is to teach the dog how to surrender an item voluntarily. The idea is to teach the dog that when he surrenders something that the dog is now holding in its mouth and under his possession, he will be reinforced for it. In other words, he will get something of HIGHER value for his efforts and compliance.
Time and time again, I meet with owners who have taken by force an item from the dog, only to make the dog now more resistant to giving up what he has and to mistrust that the next item will not be removed by force as well. This can turn into a slippery slope!
The best analogy I can give you is someone telling us that we must surrender our warm ready-to-consume meal because they want it. Or analogous, having someone constantly reaching into our meal without even asking if they can sample before they are diving in with their fork! I don’t know about you, but when this happens I make sure the person digging in knows that I do not like people messing with my food!
The motivation for dogs holding on to stuff is the same. They found the item valuable in some way. Now, if I have someone ask me first if they can sample my food, I would be much more inclined to agree. The same again is true for our dogs.
Dogs are genetically wired for survival (like the rest of us) and as such, they are inclined to hold on to any consumable item. For some dogs this extends to items they are not going to consume, but they like because they can play with them, engage with others (as in the case of the testy dog hoping for a hot pursuit) or even holding on to an item because it gives them a sense of safety. One of my Springer Spaniels – Chaco, loved to walk in town holding in its mouth a small carton of cream. Whenever he found one, he would pick it up and proceed to strut in delight as a passerby would asked me how I taught him that. I never did, he just decided that walking and holding such an item in his mouth felt good.
My recommendations is to practice exchanges with your dog so that when the need arises your dog will know what to do. Here is how:
- Begin by giving your dog an item that he likes but not his super favorite toy, ball etc.
- After a couple of seconds of your dog holding the item…
- Say “drop it” or whatever verbal cue you want to use.
- Wait for 3 seconds and then present your dog with something so delicious that he cannot resist having it. In order for your dog to eat this, he will have to open its mouth and by defacto drop the item.
- Give the dog the treat.
You have, in essence, set things up so that your dog learned that dropping when asked produces something he also wants. After a few successful trials like this with a so-so object, begin to introduce in this same session or at another time, a more coveted item and repeat as above.
If you teach this to your young puppy, you will be so glad you did! However, this is one behavior that all dogs can learn at any point. The idea is to practice with enough items of different value for the dog so that the behavior generalizes.
Do know that the longer a dog is holding on to a precious item, the harder it is for him to surrender. Also, if your dog is in any way showing signs of aggression such as growling (when not part of play in chasing, for example) sneering, or stiffness as you try to “negotiate” a surrender it is best to diffuse the situation and not force the dog in anyway to give up the possession. This is most likely resource guarding and it can turn dangerous very quickly.
Resource guarding is normal dog behavior, but one that we must manage like ç or engage in behavior modification where we teach the dog in a more orchestrated manner with some safety mechanisms in place that surrendering is actually a good idea and that it will not be taken for granted.
Last, if you enjoy playing chase with your dog – which I do, I suggest you put it under stimulus control. Which means, that you will *ONLY * chase when you say the verbal cue for this game prior to the chasing. Your dog will learn very rapidly that his efforts in acting super cute with an item will not necessarily give way to chase.
Working with valuable exchanges is a good way to accommodate our dog’s needs and desire for keeping what they like and surrendering when the item it is not safe for them to have or when they should not have a particular item. As always, remember that our dogs must be reinforced for behavior. When reinforcement is not part of the equation, the behavior will go into extinction. That simple.