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How to stop a dog stealing food

Dogs stealing food is not as bad a problem that we would expect it to be because most owners stop it early. It is just a few like dominant dogs or confused dogs that think they can take food that are the main problem.

All dogs are opportunist scavengers as well as predators eating any food it finds at any time of the day. Even if they are full, they will hide the extra food to ensure they have a guaranteed meal for later. This we have to over come by training.

The other week I received the following e-mail.

We have 10-month-old Cocker Spaniel and some months ago, he started stealing food from the kitchen. We now put all food away in the cupboards but he still managed to open them so we put catches on all the doors. Now on our return, we find he has scratched the doors with such force he has broken the catches and he eats anything edible he finds.

He is well fed and yet when we have managed to catch him stealing we have yelled at him so he shoots off to hide but it has no effect on stopping him stealing.

How do we stop him?

My first experience of dogs stealing was when I was as a very small boy travelling by tram to Gateshead to my Aunties for Sunday tea. Before sitting down to eat, it was normal for us all to go for a Sunday walk. On our return, my Aunties two collies had climbed up under a tablecloth, used to cover all the food to keep dust and flies off, and eaten most of the food.

Recently I had a packet of Eccles cakes and knowing I had already eaten two went to have a third but found I only had one left when there should have been two. At first I thought I had miscounted but the next time I bought some, I opened the packet took one and left them on the top of the worktop. A short time later, when Winston went into the kitchen, I crept up to the door and saw he was about to steal one. I immediately shouted at him “Come” for which I gave him lots of praise.

I suppose you could say this was entrapment but it is better to set up such times so that you can train a dog rather than trying to maybe catching a dog some of the time so he is succeeding most of the time.

I used the word crime yet to a dog it is not a crime: it is natural. What is unnatural is to take food from a leader until told to do so. Most dogs that steal food feel they are the leader and entitled to do so or the way the owners try to stop the dog only turns it into a game.

We often make the mistake of feeding dogs at the table or allowing them to lick the plates clean after a meal. (Saves on the washing up). How many people will eat watching the television and offer titbits to their dogs as they eat? If asked I would have to admit that I have done this but I never thought Winston stole food or that he was partial to Eccles cakes.

Now I regularly set up a test just to check for signs of theft from off the worktops when I will then give him my loudest GRRRRUFFFF sound that I can make. As soon as he drops his head, I then gave him lots of praise but I never use titbits. The reason for that is a dog could learn that to steal will mean it will get nice food as a reward.

Any chastisement on its own will only make the dog frightened so it will go and hide whilst learning to fear the owner. Retraining using actual pain will only teach a dog that it too can use pain to protect itself and though it may not bite the owner it could well bite his or her children or anyone else that appears to be showing body posture where the dog thinks it is going to suffer some form of punishment. Shaking a dog by the scruff of the neck or shaking its muzzle will only make it fearful of hands coming towards it so the dangers of doing this are obvious.

Destruction of the cupboard doors is because the dog believes it can take food and hiding it is only turning it into a game. All the dog thinks is the owner is playing with it and so making things more difficult. The dog can smell the food so sees the closed doors as a challenge or simply some obstruction to over come. As I explained about bedroom doors, would it not be better that the food could be left in plain sight with open doors but your dog does not steal because it knows it is not entitled to take it.

Look at the number of owners who love to feed the birds nuts in suspended wire holders. Look how many squirrels have had to learn to over come so many Mission Impossible situations just to get access to the nuts. They do not know it is wrong to take them, they just think you are making it harder. There are many examples of squirrels that have become so agile they could compete in the Olympics.

There are two main methods needed to retrain a dog that steals. First owners must teach their dog that you as the leader own all the food. Secondly, if it takes food it is not entitled you then you will show displeasure in a natural canine way.

As puppies and young dogs, their owners must, whilst making their dog’s meal, show they control the food and feed their dog when they are ready not when the dog requests it. They must be able to give the dog its food and be able to take it away again without any sign of aggression. Making up their dog’s meal and then placing it in a high cupboard is good training. Only when their dogs settle down without asking for their food do owners go and take the food down then call their dog to them so they can eat.

I do appreciate that from a human point of view, doing such things would seem like teasing but dogs naturally accept leaders own all food and can do with it what the want. We are not teaching something they cannot understand.

If owners can organise opportunities for their dog to take food and find a hiding position to watch so that any attempt at theft they can show their dog their great displeasure by the GRRRUFFF bark or an angry No. Immediately their dogs drops it head and backs away, generously praise the dog. Once the praise is over the owner should then walk away other wise the dog may think it is only a game like making a dog sit and wait before its meal.

Owners should only feed their dogs in their designated bowls then there can be no confusion. This does not mean we cannot offer titbits because it is natural we as leaders can share our food with lower dogs. It is only where we lack leadership qualities or we confuse the issue by feeding dogs from human plates or from table whilst we are eating our meal that creates the problem.

Once you know your dog will not steal then it is possible to do this but only if your dog respects all humans as leaders and would then never take it until you give permission.

The aim is that you should be able to place your meal on the floor, walk away, and then on your return still find your meal untouched.

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