If you’ve ever chased your dog through the gauntlet of your house while their slobber infiltrates your favorite pair of socks and they shamelessly taunt you with their superior agility, this article is for you. You are caught in the endless cycle of your dog’s FAVORITE game – Keep Away. For many of you, this game may just be an annoyance, but for some whose dogs are actually swallowing things, this game can be severely dangerous.
WHY does my dog do this?
Dogs are very motivated by your attention. Getting your attention leads to affection, outings, food, play etc. They learn quickly that every time they pick up a prohibited item, they get your attention, and they get it quickly! Some will even learn which specific items will get your attention the fastest. It could be one item (just your shoes), a specific category (like shoes, glasses, phone cords) or they could learn to test the waters and attempt to pick up anything and everything just in case it might strike gold! In addition to getting your attention, some dogs are also getting a game. Maybe it’s just the game of “chase me” or MAYBE you’ve managed to get your hand on the item they’ve taken so now it’s a full-on game of Tug-of-War. YOU aren’t playing… but THEY are having a blast! The bottom line is this – attention and games are rewarding.
If you continue to reward your dog when they steal things, they will continue to steal things to get the reward.
Step 1: Consider Their Health
If your dog is not getting the proper amount of physical or mental exercise, they will have extra energy to expend in inappropriate ways, like Keep Away.
The amount of exercise your dog needs varies based on age and breed. Try increasing your pup’s activity level by incorporating more walks (or maybe runs, if they are old enough), doggy daycare, or canine enrichment games like treat puzzles, or snuffle mats.
Step 2: Control What You Can
Clean off those countertops! Tidy up the living room! Close the door to the kids’ room!
By managing the environment, you will have an easier time modifying the behavior.
The only thing worse than a game of Keep Away with your dog, is an impromptu game of Keep Away when you are completely unprepared and have somewhere important to be. If you control their access to the inappropriate items, you will have control over when they play Keep Away and can therefore make sure you are ready for the practice session. If your pup is specifically stealing items from on top of your counters, fix this first with the steps in the Counter Surfing Article Coming Soon.
Put Treats in your pocket first thing in the morning and make sure you have little treat caches easily accessible throughout the house. Your pup currently thinks the best thing AND the most LIKELY thing they can get in exchange for the item in their mouth is a game of Keep Away. That’s probably because the first few times they stole something, they caught you unprepared. You don’t have a treat on you, so instead of attempting a trade, you tried your luck at snatching. It didn’t work, but the damage was done. They were introduced to the game of Keep Away and haven’t looked back since. Putting treats in your pocket at the beginning of the day means you will ALWAYS be prepared for a Trade.
CUT OFF THE TRACK
Cut off access to their go-to Keep Away spots – Kitchen islands or tables are especially fun (for the dog, not you) because they can run all the way around and easily evade you by keeping the piece of furniture in between the two of you. Backyards are also a common favorite because generally the yard is too large for you to have ANY chance of reaching the dog once the game has started. Use closed doors or baby gates to restrict access to the rooms they use most often to infuriate you.
INCORPORATE A DRAG LINE
Freedom is earned. If your pup has proven they will consistently choose naughtiness, consider attaching a dragline while you are home (NEVER while they are unattended).
Chasing a dog does NOT help you catch them faster.
But until you have other tools in place (laid out in the following Steps) you may need some way to catch them in the meantime. The leash provides you with that option. If the lead is 10-20 feet long, even if your PUP evades you, the leash will not.
Step 3: Teach an Alternative Behavior
For many dogs (especially retrievers), having something in their mouths is an inevitability. But we CAN focus this obsession on something more appropriate. Now that the environment is managed and you have “stopped the bleeding,” shall we say, you now have the time and space to develop some alternative ways for your dog to earn your attention and praise.
- “Clean Up” – Teach your pup to place items they find in a designated spot, like in a garbage pail or back in their toy basket!
- “Gimmie That” (the Trade) – Teach your pup to put items they find in your hand (in trade for a treat of course). This trick is a replacement for snatching.
Instead of you grabbing the item, the dog learns to give it up willingly.
In other words, do NOT reach out towards the item or put your hand on the item before asking for the command. Simply present your open palm so that there is no guessing as to your intentions. You are NOT going to take the item; you are going to wait until your pup gives it to you. Once there is no more grabbing, there is no more Tug-Of-War. If you eliminate Tug- Of-War, you may be eliminating your dog’s reason for Keep Away in the first place.
- “Drop It” – Teach your pup to willingly release an item from their grip. The alternative is often you frustratingly prying the item out of their clenched jaws. This invasive maneuver is one of the most common causes of Resource Guarding. Making your dog comfortable with releasing valuable items will decrease any anxiety they may feel around those items and therefore decrease any desire to guard.
- “Come” – Teach your dog to come to you and allow you to catch them REGARDLESS of what is in their mouth. I’m sure when this whole thing started you did try “Drop It” but your dog ignored you because they were too far away. Convince them that you don’t CARE what’s in their mouth, as long as they Come to you.
If you can’t get the item, get the dog.
Step 4: Change the Pattern
STOP Rewarding What You DON’T Want
To change the pattern, you have to cut off your involvement in it. In other words – DON’T want the item and DON’T chase the dog.
Convince your dog that you could NOT CARE LESS about their prize.
Try these alternatives:
- Stop Advancing – What is better than Advancing? Waiting. As soon as your pup shows up with the item in their mouth and that mischievous expression, take a seat.
If you make ANY moves towards the pup, this will be considered an acceptance of the game invitation.
If you take a seat, this usually indicates to your dog that the game has ended (since you don’t usually play with them in that state). This alone could be all you need to get your dog to come to you.
- Negotiate Well – The person with the upper hand in any negotiation, is the person who wants it LESS and has ALL the time in the world. As you are preparing to trade with your pup, make sure you make your lack of interest clear and you are prepared to be patient. While you are seated, take a treat out of your pocket and show it to your dog. Do not reach out towards them. Ask them if they want to trade (maybe use one of the Alternate Behaviors you have taught them) and WAIT. Wait, potentially, a long time. At first your pup may not believe what’s happening, because they are so used to you getting upset. The key here is NOT to care. If they want to come over or even drop the item, they will get a treat, if they don’t, they won’t. It’s no matter to you.
*Obviously if your dog has something dangerous you may not have the freedom to wait them out. This is why it’s SO important to practice OFTEN with non-toxic items. These practice sessions trick your dog into thinking you don’t care if they steal stuff (no matter what it is) and you won’t chase them (under any circumstances). It also teaches them that there are other games they can play that DO succeed in getting your attention, making Keep Away altogether pointless. Once they are convinced of these new results to their stealing game, the old pattern will be broken and not even a high value or dangerous item will trigger it.
Stop Chasing – What is better than chasing? Leaving.
In some cases, you can make a bigger impression by giving your pup the OPPOSITE of what they want.
When you see them exploring, sniffing or attempting to pick up an inappropriate item, try getting up and leaving the room immediately. Go into another room, bathroom or even out your front door and close the doors behind you. Create an immediate correlation that when they explore inappropriate items, it makes you get up and leave and they cannot access you/your attention. Oftentimes when you return, they will be so happy to see you, they will approach you willingly.
Step 5: Reward What You DO Want
What do we usually do when a dog sniffs, picks up or plays with their dog toys?? Nothing! We usually don’t even notice. The dog does not get any positive reinforcement from the owners when they play with their toys on their own. Start to pay attention to when your dog explores/picks up their own toys. Go towards them in a fun, playful manner and play the highly reinforcing game of fetch and/or tug of war.
Step 6: Review of the Rules
DO NOT chase them – instead leave the room
DO NOT move towards the dog – instead get your treat, take a seat and wait
DO NOT grab at the item – instead ask for a “drop it” and encourage a VOLUNTARY TRADE
DO increase their mental and physical exercise
DO engage with them when they pick up appropriate items
DO teach the dog other ways to get your attention/treats