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Dog nipping fingers whilst taking food offered to it by hand

Sometimes some of the simplest of problems get out of hand and then they seem impossible to correct. This next email is regarding a problem of a dog nipping fingers whilst it is taking a titbit. The owners have found this difficult to solve and no matter what they tried, the problem gradually became worse.

Hi Alan,

We have a three year old cocker spaniel that has never shown any signs of aggression. We are able to take food from him like a bone easily without him growling or biting us. Even our children do not have any problems with him nor do other people, dogs and cats. He is a very happy dog.

The problem we did have was as a puppy when we gave him a tit bit sometimes he would catch and nip our fingers. We tried to stop him by saying a loud No and not giving him the food until he took it gently from our fingers. We tried tapping his nose and as it became worse we finally resorted to smacking him but he only became faster. As soon as he saw food in our hands he would shoot forward to snatch it and often caught our fingers.

In the end we just decided not to give him any more food from our hands and this seemed to have solved the problem until the other day. Some friends come to visit us and they brought along their young daughter. We asked her not to give our dog any food but whilst she was eating crisps she could not resist his appealing eyes and his begging. Before we could stop her she offered our dog a crisp he shot forward snatching it but in doing so bit her fingers quite badly.

Our friends were very understanding but we have to agree children will often offer dogs food and our dog must stop doing this. We do need some urgent help as we do not want any more children harmed again. Please if you can give us some advice as to what we are doing wrong or how to stop this biting it would be appreciated.

This is quite a common problem but aggression has nothing to do with the biting. This sort of action from the dog is actually a learned response yet owners would never think that they were actually teaching it to bite even if by accident so what is going wrong.

If we start at the beginning, people regularly offer food to puppies and dogs but it does take some trust that the dog will take such food gently but you need to teach them how to do it. The problem is our watching a set of open jaws full of teeth coming towards our hands would make most people think twice. Very often, we flinch at such a sight so the dog has to make adjustments in order to catch the food. Seeing the food withdrawn each time only teaches the puppy or older dog to compensate but occasionally it makes mistakes and it bits fingers in error.

When this starts to hurt or even to drawing blood then the owners begin to chastise their dog like tapping its nose or slapping its jaws in an effort to slow it down. Because the dog sees this only as a further obstacle to obtaining the food, the dog becomes even quicker to avoid the chastisement. You can often recognise such dogs as they look at such offered food by using a stalking pose showing fearfulness of retaliation.

Those owners who have more than one dog then there can be competition and again in order for one dog to obtain the food first speed is essential and fingers are often hurt as a result.

I have seen many owners have all their dogs sit in a line to feed each in turn where unless the dog takes the food slowly and gently it does not get the reward. This does seem like the right way to train but in fact it is a tease method and very often such dogs can with someone else offering food find that they are nipped by accident.

Some owners go further and place the food protruding from their mouths. They are trying to teach their dogs to take in gently but again some have found to their cost the dog has misjudged and accidentally bitten the owners face.

Teaching such tricks, we find most dogs see this as a tease and instead of slowing them down actually speed them up in order to snatch the food before loosing it and accidentally biting by mistake.

I use the word accident because there can be a few nervous dogs that may wish to bite hands or fingers that are approaching them because they are fearful. Then there are dogs that see such hands moving towards them are showing some action of wishing to touch their heads in a sign of dominancy. Any such dogs that are motivated by hierarchy then they will intentionally attack any such approach. The following correctional training is no use to such fearful and hierarchal dogs as it is dangerous.

I am also not including those dogs that snatch toys like balls from owner’s hands. This too produces many unintentional accidents but we need to correct this type of snatching by a different method. My dog Winston will try to snatch a ball from my hand before I throw it for all the dogs to go and fetch so I too must now resolve this problem quickly before someone is hurt. He has already caught Kathryn Hollings hand by accident and this is totally unacceptable.

Most people know that to feed a horse you should put the food in an open hand and not to hold it between your fingers. Again, some horses seem simply bad tempered and even when offered a sugar lump will result in a bad bite. For dogs, it is slightly similar but to stop a dog snatching we have to make it use its scent skills and not rely on its eyes.

When you wish to train a puppy or correct an older dog that already has a snatching habit, we show the food going into the palm of our hands near the thumb and first finger. We then close our hand into a fist and turn it over showing the dog the back of the hand. It is here that the dogs scent skill takes over so approaching the hand slowly to find out where the food is. Once the dog’s nose is touching our hand, we slowly turn our hand over and open our fist so the dog can lick or pick up the food without the need for snatching.

You can turn this into a game where the dog has to indicate in which hand is the food. This is easy for a dog even when there is scent in both hands. For the dog, the hand holding the food will always smell stronger. It is a nice little game to play when we have the regular power cuts and we are looking for something to do.

It is a dog’s competitiveness or our lack of trust and so we withdraw our hands quickly that makes dogs snatch. It the dog sees our hand closed up it then goes into search mode and it may even lick at our hands. Do resist the temptation to keep your hand closed as the dog will often either push its muzzle between your fingers or start to paw your hand and accidentally scratching you with its claws.

It is also important to teach your children to offer all dogs food in the same way so there is no encouragement to tease from the human side and encourage a need to snatch.

Let’s be careful out there.

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