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Giving a dog a treat should be a pleasant experience — for the dog and the person — but when you’re dealing with a grabby dog, such an exchange can be more like feeding Jaws. Though the behavior is typically not aggressive, it can still be intimidating and unpleasant. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to help put an end to grabby behavior and encourage your dog to be gentle when taking an item he desires.
The first step in addressing this behavior is to rule out any underlying causes, including fear, anxiety, frustration or aggression. When a dog who normally takes treats and toys gently suddenly becomes more forceful and less discriminating with his teeth, it may be a sign that he is agitated by or afraid of something in the environment. If this is the case, seek immediate assistance from a professional, like a veterinarian working with a positive reinforcement trainer.
More commonly though, your dog’s grabby behavior is motivated by excitement and experience: He wants what you are offering and has learned that grabbing it from your hands is the fastest way to get it.
I teach dogs to be gentle by starting with a training game. The game begins with an item, like kibble, a treat or small toy, hidden inside a closed fist. Most dogs will start by pawing or mouthing at skin to get the hidden item. (Gardening gloves can be used to protect your hands, especially if your skin is prone to scrapes or cuts.) Offer your dog the treat in your closed hand, but ignore pawing and mouthing and wait for a touch of the nose, tongue or soft part of the muzzle before rewarding him.
This teaches your dog that though pawing and biting never work to get what he wants, soft touches will. Use a click or a “yes” to reward the gentle touches and either drop the treat from the bottom of your fist to land on the floor or open your fist and offer the item with your flattened palm, as if feeding a horse.
As the dog improves, transition from holding the treat in a closed fist to holding it with all five fingers closed around the item. Work on teaching your dog to use gentle touches even when an item is held only with two fingers. If at any point your dog’s teeth make contact with your fingers, hide the treat or toy in your closed fingers and wait until he uses a gentle touch to ask for it.
Eventually, your dog will learn to take treats gently from your fingers. To reinforce this, release the treat into his mouth only when his teeth are off your skin and he is gently pressing his muzzle, tongue or nose against your hand.
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