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Monday, October 19, 2009

"Don't Eat My Finger!"

Hi Jan,
We're careful with amounts of treats, but it's the best button to push when training our two-year-old Doberman, whom we adopted from the Humane Society about six months ago. He cannot seem to GENTLY take a treat from our hands. We've turned hand over, waited for less excitement, etc.  He still lunges and could take a finger off! 
Any advice?

Dear Peggy,
This is a common problem, and it's very fixable.  First let's look at how the problems sometimes develop.
1.  Some folks like to throw treats (like popcorn) to their dogs and have the dogs catch them.  It's cute, but this teaches the dog a "snapping-turtle" response when he sees treats coming toward him from you.  When you hold the treat in your hand, he's still ready to snap...and thus, he gets your hand too, even though he didn't mean to do it.  The long-term solution for this:  DO NOT THROW FOOD FOR YOUR DOG TO CATCH.  Ever!

2.  The other reason dogs "snap" at treats in the hand is because we make it difficult for them to get the treat any other way...and then snapping becomes a habit.  Try this and you'll understand your dog's behavior:   

Hold a piece of popcorn or a small food tidbit above your own head, so that you have to tilt your head up and back to see it.  Your mouth is watering!  You're ready for that tidbit to land in your pie hole!  You don't want to miss. Your own inclination will be to catch it, and you'll probably even lunge slightly upward to get it when you THINK it's about to drop.

Now  hold another tidbit LOW, at your MOUTH level.  You can reach for it now without having to "catch" it.  You can easily nibble it out of your fingers.  

When you feed your dog treats from your hand, hold the treat LOW--at your dog's mouth level or below, so the dog has to actually lower his head to eat it.  This is a more natural, relaxed way for your dog to eat anything, and he'll be less likely to take the food too aggressively.

You'll also have to develop an "offense" to actually teach the dog some manners and self control.  Hold the dog cookie tightly between your thumb and the second joint of your index finger.  Part of the cookie should be extending out--just enough for the dog to nibble but not pull away from you.  Hold your hand LOW, as discussed above.  If your dog comes at you with open mouth and teeth, bump into his mouth with your treat-holding fingers and growl something like "AAGH!"  Don't worry, your dog's mouth won't hurt your fingers, and you won't hurt your dog.  But you'll surprise him in DOG LANGUAGE that says, "Hey, go easy if you want this!  I'm the leader here, I need your respect, and you must exercise care and self control when dealing with me."  Your dog will back up slightly, and then try again to get the treat (keep your hand in the dispensing position).  He'll approach more cautiously the second time.  If he still tries to gnaw your knuckles as well as the treat, punch into him again and utter another negative growl.  You are demonstrating, IN DOG LANGUAGE, his boundaries.   Once he becomes very cautious about approaching to take the treat, lighten up a bit and tell him "Gently," or "Nicely."  If he crosses the line and inflicts any pain on your fingers while he's gnawing the treat, let him know with an "Ouch!"  He'll get the message and begin to develop a bite inhibition, just as he would if he were interacting with other dogs.  Make him really work--nibbling--to get the cookie.  He'll learn to keep his mouth almost closed and take the treat gently between his barely parted incisors.

Follow up with CONSISTENCY.  Feed him treats the same way each time; make him work for them, and demand that he take them gently.  To get lots of practice, try feeding him his entire bowl of kibble this way.  Prepare to get a little slimy and slobbery.  Of course, make sure that no one else is incorrectly feeding him treats and sabotaging your efforts.

If you have also taught your dog the meaning of "Leave it!", you can incorporate this command into the exercise.  If he comes on too strong, use the command to get him to back off and slow down.  A calm, "Okay" from you will let him know to try again....more carefully.

I'd caution you against using treats to get him to consistently obey commands.  That's bribery, which means your dog has developed an attitude of "I'll only do it if...." and knows how to manipulate you. This causes a whole additional set of "issues."   There's a far better way for teaching plain old manners.  It's with leadership.  Save the treats for trick behaviors or daily rituals.

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