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Dog Behavior Problems – Stealing

Why does my dog steal things?

Most puppies, and many adolescent dogs, love to explore and chew, so it should be no surprise when they notice and ‘steal’ household objects. Most young dogs steal things even when they are being directly watched. Engaging with new objects can be part of normal exploratory behavior—your objects are toys until proven otherwise.

Besides stealing objects, some dogs raid garbage bins, steal food off tables and countertops, and enter cupboards or refrigerators. Dogs are highly rewarded by this opportunity to find and keep snacks. (Note: food-seeking can also occur secondary to illness or inadequate access to nutritious food. Talk to your veterinarian if food-seeking is a new behavior for your dog.)

"Talk to your veterinarian if food-seeking is a new behavior for your dog."

Simple stealing becomes more complicated when your dog carries their treasure close enough for you to notice but not close enough for you to reach for the object. This type of behavior is called attention-seeking behavior; your dog is stealing to communicate a desire to interact with you. Your dog may have learned that you will begin a chase game to try to get the stolen item back. Being chased can become a fun game for your dog, and your dog will continue to play rather than give up a newfound “treasure.”

Why does stealing continue?

Everything about stealing is rewarding to a dog. Any object that can be chewed or batted about could be considered a toy from a dog’s perspective. Food items are appealing on their own. Stealing something you value turns into an exciting game of keep-away. Behaviors that are rewarded will be repeated, whether we like them or not.

How can I stop my dog from stealing?

Preventing your dog from experiencing the rewards of stealing is the best strategy. Dogs need direct supervision until they exclusively engage with appropriate toys and do not take an interest in your possessions. Food should be put away to avoid temptation. If you notice your dog eyeing something of yours, attract his attention with a toy.

Be sure that your dog has plenty of toys to enjoy. Rotate the toys so they stay interesting. Also be sure to provide social enrichment—play with your dog several times during the day, particularly if your dog is a puppy or an active adult. Reward-based training is invaluable, as it teaches your dog which behaviors you prefer and increases your dog’s motivation to engage in those preferred behaviors.

When you cannot watch your dog, puppy-proof an area where there is no access to tempting, valuable, or dangerous objects. A gate or crate can be helpful if your dog tolerates this type of confinement. When confinement is not possible, you may prevent stealing by holding your dog on a leash with appropriate toys available.

What if my dog has something I need or that is dangerous?

If an item is truly dangerous, you have to think fast. Some dogs will leave stolen goods if you throw a handful of great treats on the ground. Dogs will often run to the door if you ring the doorbell.

Thankfully, most treasures are not dangerous, and you have time to respond in a way that will reduce stealing over the long term. If your dog has already taken a treasure, try not to contribute to the reward value. Your response should be relatively neutral, which means that you should not shout at or chase your dog. It is better to try to find a way to attract your dog’s attention by presenting something even better than the stolen treasure. Avoid reaching for or approaching your dog. Instead, begin to quietly walk a few steps away. As you are moving away, begin to interact with a toy your dog finds irresistible (squeak a toy, bounce a ball), or drop a couple of treats onto the ground as you continue to move away. Your dog is likely to continue to follow you to collect the prize. Once you have lured your dog away from the stolen object and out of the area, you may put the object away. Eventually, you will be able to train your dog to “stay” and you can then put the object away, even when your dog is in the room.

"It is better to try to find a way to attract your dog’s attention by presenting something even better than the stolen treasure."

It may seem as though you are rewarding your dog for stealing but you are not! You are rewarding your dog for leaving the object behind. And even more important, you are not adding to the excitement by chasing, or scaring your dog by scolding him. In fact, chasing and capturing dogs may increase the possibility that your dog will exhibit an aggressive response if approached when in possession of something valuable.

Can I teach my dog to not touch my things?

It can be helpful to teach a cue to communicate to your dog that a particular object should not be touched. A verbal cue, such as “leave it”, can be easily trained.

To train “leave it”, have a tasty treat in one hand and a relatively neutral object in the other. The neutral object should not be dangerous, just in case your dog chooses to try to take it from you. For instance, it could be a clean spoon. It may be easiest to sit in a chair and call your dog over to you. Hold the tasty treat in a closed fist close to your body and extend the hand with the spoon for your dog to sniff. If your dog wants to take the spoon, you may need something just a little larger. The goal is for your dog to sniff the spoon but lose interest quickly, particularly since the aroma of the treat is close by. The very moment that your dog moves away from the spoon, deliver the delicious treat. You may say “yes” or “good” but do not say the “leave it” cue just yet. Repeat two or three times. Try again later. Once you are quite certain that your dog will turn away from the spoon immediately, you may introduce the “leave it” cue at the same time as you offer the spoon. That is, you say the cue just as your dog is about to turn away from the spoon anyway.

Next, replace the spoon with a different neutral item. Present it to your dog, who has already been taught that “leave it” means turn away from the object. This time, since the word has meaning to your dog, you may say “leave it” as soon as you present the object and, as soon as your dog looks away, reward.

Practice “leave it” with a wide range of objects. Always practice with some easy, neutral objects as well as some more interesting ones, and always treat. Now, if your dog starts to take interest in one of your possessions, you can say “leave it” and your dog should look away—do not forget to reward!

Can I teach my dog to give things back to me?

It is very handy to have a “drop it” cue. It is also important not to use any verbal cues until they have been trained. Your dog needs to learn that by following the “drop it” cue, there is an opportunity to earn a treat. Begin when your dog has something that is not very interesting, perhaps an old toy or bone. Approach your dog with a container of great treats and begin to shake the container so he is aware of the food. As soon as your dog lets go of the toy to head for the food, deliver the treat. Do this a few times until your dog begins to predictably drop the toy and move toward you to take the treat. Now that you have a predictable behavior, you can introduce the “drop it” cue. Approach your dog with the treat and, just as your dog is about to drop the toy, say “drop it” and reward.

Just as you practiced with the “leave it”, begin to try “drop it” with more interesting items. Always be ready with a great reward.

How can I stop my dog from stealing food off the counter?

Food on the counter seems like the ultimate reward to a dog. Training can start when you are preparing your own food. Teach your dog to lie down on a mat or in a bed when you are cooking. Choose a spot that allows your dog to watch you but is not in your way when you move about. While you are preparing food, reward your dog often by bringing delicious treats to the mat. Your dog will learn that the mat is the place to earn great food. If your dog gets up to check out your food, guide him back to the mat and reward him.

"Teach your dog to lie down on a mat or in a bed when you are cooking."

Some dogs will eventually lose interest in food left unattended on counters, particularly if you are consistent about putting the food away until your dog is consistently ignoring it in your presence. For some dogs, it will always be important to put food away; use a gate to keep your dog out of the kitchen when you are not able to supervise.

How can I stop my dog from stealing in my absence?

Stealing that occurs only when you are away may reflect underlying anxiety or frustration, or may reflect a lack of appropriate enrichment. Talk to your veterinarian about the possibility of underlying distress. Never punish your dog if you come home and find that your dog has taken your things.

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