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A few years ago I unintentionally insulted my father, Dr. Marty Becker, by giving him some unsolicited advice about how he could better give treats to our family’s combined six dogs. My dad would grasp the treats between his fingers and hold them out over the dogs’ noses. Each time he did this, I was reminded of sharks in a feeding frenzy as the dogs swirled around his legs and made crazed Jaws-style leaps and snaps at his hands to secure their snacks.
From the bewildered and slightly annoyed look on Dad’s face, I could tell my suggestion wasn’t well received. He clearly thought I was nitpicking something that seemed insignificant. After all, he’d given thousands of treats in his nearly 30 years as a veterinarian and lifelong pet lover. He knew what he was doing!
Or he thought he did.
A couple of days later, Dad burst into the house shaking his hand vigorously. One finger was bleeding slightly — an excited dog had leapt up for a treat and accidentally nipped Dad’s hand. Fortunately, the wound was minor and once we had it all bandaged up, he asked me to show him how I give treats, because if there was a better way, he wanted to learn it.
My father wasn’t alone in his misguided treating ways: Teaching people how to offer a dog a treat more safely is a common part of my coaching. Fortunately, there are some common variables that can easily be tweaked when it comes to treating your pooch. The changes are simple but the results can be dramatic.
The first mistake people make when treating a dog is to hold the treat too high. This causes the dog to stand on his hind legs or jump to get the treat. In this way, jumping up is reinforced, making it a harder habit to break in other situations as well, such as greeting new people.
Your fingers are also at risk when you hold treats too high above your dog's head. When he has to jump up to get his snack, his vision and control over his teeth may be more limited, especially when he is excited about the treat itself — and you may very well find yourself, like my dad, with an unintentionally nipped finger.
So what’s the solution? Simple: The treat should be brought closer to the dog’s face, not waved in the air above him. Hold it just under his mouth or at chest level, where he can easily take it from you without jumping or snapping.
If your dog tends to snatch treats from your fingers, deliver them on a flat, open palm, as if feeding a horse. For especially grabby dogs, keep the treat inside a closed fist, lower it to chest level and then open up the hand and let your dog take the treat from your palm. This will help your dog stay calm and keep your fingers that much safer.
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