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Stealing: Is Your Dog a Thief?

What is a thief? In the human sense, is a dog capable of stealing? When something of yours is in jaws of a dog, you want it back! How to get it?

Actions you take when your dog runs off with something of yours can create grave behavior problems in the dog-or improve the dog's training and your relationship. For either result you'll put in the same amount of time. Knowing what to do lets you shape the outcome.

Why Do Dogs Carry Things Off?

A dog's reasons for carrying something are fairly simple, but not always obvious to humans. Dogs have no way of knowing the value things have for us. Money means nothing to a dog.

Wild dogs often need to carry food from where they find it to where they will eat it. They bury some to eat later. They carry food to pups and sometimes to other members of the pack. In some cases they eat the food, travel to the pups, and regurgitate the food for the pups to eat. Domesticated dogs--at least some of them--have the ability to regurgitate voluntarily in order to transfer food in this way.

Some domesticated dogs bury bones, toys or other items, and some hide the objects in other ways. A dog worried about having a steady food supply may hide food. Sometimes a dog who does it at first in a home will stop after settling in. A dog with pups may do it when she's never done it before.

Whenever you see a dog hiding food, keep in mind that the dog may be feeling insecure or may feel a need to think about providing for the future. To rebuke the dog would likely make the dog feel even more insecure.

Dogs use objects to soothe their mouths by chewing. The jaws apparently are uncomfortable, possibly painful, in the process of setting new teeth. We should be glad that puppy chewing reduces the needle-sharpness of their first teeth! The permanent teeth need to be set in the jaws by chewing, and if this starts the dog on a lifelong habit of chewing appropriate objects, better dental health for life can be the welcome benefit. For you that means a dog with better-smelling breath, sounder teeth, and less frequent need for anesthetized dental cleaning.

Remember that dogs need to chew. When your dog has something inappropriate as a chew item, make a quick switch that ends in your dog chewing something appropriate and getting praised for it. Realize you'll likely have to do this many times and supervise until your young dog forms good chewing habits. Punishment will not help solve this problem, and will result in problems much more serious than chewed possessions.

Besides lifelong dental health, a dog with good chewing habits can use a chew toy to relax. This ability helps dogs control their own emotions in some rather remarkable ways. Instead of bugging you when you're sleeping or reading, your dog may pick up a toy and chew it until the dog falls asleep.

To help develop this ability, be sure to place one or more favorite chew toys in the crate with a young pup. With nothing else to do, the stage is set for the pup to discover that chewing helps bring sleep, and at the same time makes the jaws feel better.

Some people recommend providing only one toy so the dog will focus on that one object for chewing. Others suggest that you rotate toys, making old toys new again when they come back out of storage. Whatever you do, try to provide your dog with a variety of textures in toys to chew, especially textures similar to the human possessions that have interested the dog.

Dogs often "steal" something they notice interests you because they want to play. They'll do this with other dogs, too. Chasing your dog is not a good idea, because dogs who learn to run from humans have played this game in traffic.

Cornering the dog and angrily forcing the object out of the dog's mouth triggers fight-or-flight survival instincts-but gives the dog no flight option. People get bitten this way and damage their dogs' temperaments in the process. The dog has a new reason for running off with the object and for defensive behavior: fear of you.

The dog's playful mood in initiating this game is a perfect training opportunity if you know what to do, and we'll discuss that in a minute. Meanwhile, realize that it's vital not to turn this into a confrontation. Good work with your dog will make these situations easy to handle. In the meantime, trade the dog for something better, and act happy about the deal.

Dogs do sometimes "want" things. Some dogs have favorite toys. Sometimes this behavior may be related to maternal instinct. A heritage from the wild is food guarding, which will be made worse if you force the issue. The trick to handling food guarding is to convince the dog there's no NEED to guard food. Instead of taking food away, you keep approaching the dog as you bring small amounts of food. Meanwhile, though, feed the dog in a private place.

What Not to Do When Your Dog "Steals"

Things that don't work and that cause complications when handling the dog who has your stuff include:

1. Chasing the dog. Running away from people is life-threatening for a dog. Pattern your dog to always come toward you, unless it's a retrieve that involves going out and then coming back.

2. Yelling or punishing the dog for damage. The dog won't learn anything from this except fear. When people return home to find a dog left loose in the house has damaged things, and then freak out at the dog, they may soon find their dog has developed separation anxiety. The damage done before will pale by comparison with damage from a dog suffering separation anxiety.

3. Punishing the dog when you get the object back or when the dog comes to you. Teach your dog to bring things to you and to come to you when called. This learning does not occur when the dog experiences you being nasty when the dog comes to you or you take something from the dog's mouth. Anytime you remove something from your dog's mouth, make the dog happy about giving it to you. Give the dog something nice in return such as praise, games and treats-leave the dog happy about the transaction! The same is true whenever the dog comes to you. A dog who comes to you should be "home free," no matter WHAT the dog has done just prior to coming. Dogs are not going to come to people who penalize them for coming!

4. Corner and punish a dog. Just as you don't want to pattern a dog to run from you, it's dangerous to pattern a dog that being caught by a person can mean being in big trouble. You need to be a "safe place" for your dog, someone your dog can always trust. This will happen only if you behave in a trustworthy way. Lying to a dog doesn't work, because the dog only believes what you do, not what you say.

How to Use "Stealing" as a Training Bonanza

The brain-dog as well as human-is most receptive to learning when in a playful mood. When your dog grabs an object and prances away, enticing you with body language to come and play, you've just been handed a solid gold opportunity to teach your dog one of the most important advanced behaviors: the retrieve.

What's your first move? Instead of getting mad, join the game! Instead of chasing the dog, run from the dog. Make it the dog's challenge to chase you and persuade you to take the object. Have something handy to give the dog in exchange or to throw for the dog to pick up, carry, and hopefully bring to you. Get happy! Have fun! This is part of the great joy of having a dog. Don't miss it!

All of this fun gives you the opportunity to develop a language of retrieving with your dog. As you play together, associate words with the dog's actions of "pick it up," "get it," "go get it," "hold it," "bring it," "put it in my hand," etc.

Retrieving is the best game to play with a dog. It builds cooperation, brings the dog to you, enhances communication between you and the dog, conditions the dog to give things to you, and provides the dog with exercise.

It's Your Choice

It's no exaggeration to say that people have ruined the temperaments of their dogs by responding harshly when dogs "steal." Don't make this mistake. Recognize the golden opportunity presented to you when your clever dog picks up an object and runs around with it. The dog is ready to learn. Be ready to teach! In the process, you'll learn, too, and you and your dog will both be the winners.
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