Dog begging for treat
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 medical issues, 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 indicate a medical problem, or it could be a sign that he is agitated by or afraid of something in the environment. If this is the case, seek immediate assistance from your veterinarian, who can investigate potential medical issues, or may recommend 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.

Teach Your Dog to Be Patient and Polite

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.

Another alternative is not to give a treat, chew or toy directly from your hand. Instead, ask your dog to do a sit or down, mark the calm behavior with a clicker or verbal marker like “good,” and then toss or lay the toy on the ground in front of him or in a food bowl. Teach your dog to wait calmly until he is released and can retrieve the item.

Reinforcing Good Behavior

The way you offer a treat can also influence how your dog behaves. When a treat or chew is held just out of his reach, it forces him to jump or stand on his hind legs to get it and makes it more likely that he will snatch the item from the person offering it. This can create a cycle in which the person giving the treat anticipates the dog’s reaction and pulls away more quickly, emphasizing the dog’s need to move fast in order to get what he is being offered.

To help prevent your dog from jumping up to get his treat or toy, place your hands just under or aligned with the level of the dog’s muzzle rather than above the muzzle. This enables him to reach the treat without having to jump or stand on two legs.

Be sure that everyone who gives your dog food or toy rewards does so in a consistent manner, designed to promote and reinforce the gentle taking of treats. This can include offering treats on a flat palm and holding them low enough that the dog does not need to reach or jump.

When there are multiple dogs in a household, establish a routine for how dogs are rewarded. Ask all the dogs for a calm behavior, like a sit, and then hand out treats in a consistent order — smallest to biggest, for example, or oldest to youngest. This makes the situation more predictable for your dogs and less competitive, which helps eliminate grabbing.

When you play with your dog, avoid hand wrestling, as it teaches your canine that putting his teeth on your skin is an acceptable behavior. When you play tug-of-war or fetch with your pooch, have structured rules to discourage his teeth from touching your skin, such as immediately ending a game if teeth touch hands or skin.

If with training or change of delivery tactics there is little improvement or there is a sign of aggression or fear involved with the behavior, immediately contact a professional, starting with your veterinarian, for further assistance.