What’s in Your Mouth?!
I could write a book on this subject alone, how people reinforce the behavior of their dogs who grab things their people don’t want them to have.
It often begins when the dog is a puppy and begins to explore the world. Just as exploring babies do, puppies learn about their world by using their mouths. Add to this, puppies lack hands so they must use their mouths to pick things up.
Of course we don’t want them to harm themselves, so we often become hyper-vigilant. Every time the puppy picks something up that we’re either afraid will hurt them or are afraid they will destroy, we “mark” that behavior by rushing over to them, giving them lots of feedback by speaking to them, looking at them, handling them, putting their fingers and hands in the puppy’s mouth, all with much emotion.
What does the puppy learn from this reaction oh, so quickly? That they’ve found a behavior that is guaranteed to get 100% of our attention.
This isn’t because they want our attention for affection, love and play. This is because they must ask the all-important question that canines ask for their own survival: Who carries the weight of authority? Who has influence over others in the group? The only way they can ask their questions is through their behaviors. If they pick something up and we instantly run to them and fuss, then clearly the being on all fours holds sway in the group!
A good friend of mine is experiencing the fallout from the continual reinforcement of this grabbing behavior, a behavior which has escalated because of the stress the dog is feeling. She’s fostering a dog who is approximately 18 months old, an adorable mix of many breeds who has great potential for being a lovely companion. His grabbing and mouthing behaviors, however, also have the potential for him to eventually lose his life if they’re not resolved.
This dog’s behavior often bends to the extreme. He continually grabs whatever is nearby: shoes, slippers, clothing out of the laundry basket (which he doesn’t touch unless his people are trying to fold the laundry). He pulls on sleeves, pant legs, shirt hems. He mouths the sofa, grabs blankets. He doesn’t destroy these things, and when I recently visited and watched out of the corner of my eye when he took my shoe, he’s clearly watching for the reaction of the people and has no real interest in the item. The worst behaviors are when he puts his mouth on people, grabs their hands, their arms. My friend is bruised from this dog’s efforts to get and keep her attention on him.
It’s abundantly clear that this dog has experienced great success using these behaviors in his previous living situations, all to his own detriment and ending up in a shelter.
How do we prevent this from happening? Very simple. These suggestions are both for puppies and for grown dogs you may welcome into your home.
Firstly, do a twice daily sweep of the home. If you have youngsters in the house, get them involved. Think in terms of baby-proofing. I often ask clients to get down on the dog’s level, go through the house, clearing away anything they see that the dog may be tempted to take, potential dangers such as hanging cords, as well as anything they don’t want the dog to have at all and possibly destroy. Prevention from the outset is the best way to prevent these situations from cropping up to begin with.
If the puppy or dog does pick up something undesirable, don’t react. Have a selection of toys or healthy chew items stockpiled and stored just for these occasions so you can casually walk past the pup, shake it to make sure he notices it, drop it a little away from him so he must move away from what he currently has and then retrieve the item the little bandit had absconded with.
You can also go to another room and call the dog to you, reward him when he complies with your request, and have someone pick up the item the dog formerly had.
Peaceful, force-free, no feedback whatsoever.
Remain alert, however. If you find yourself frequently calling the dog to you to get him to drop something the dog, being the highly intelligent creature he is, may very well have realized that grabbing something = food reward. So as mentioned, the wisest thing to do is to make sure there aren’t any items hanging about that you don’t want the dog to take in the first place.
Simple. Positive. Profoundly effective. #theABway