Dogs Who Steal Your Stuff

How to keep your puppy or dog from nabbing your stuff, and how to respond when it happens anyway.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
October 13, 2009
Episode #032

On many a day in many a household, the cry is raised: “Dogalini! What is that! No! Give it back right now!” Yes, it’s the Sneaky Thievin’ Thiefy Dog episode, otherwise known as the Perfectly Normal Dog episode, of The Dog Trainer’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Teaching and Caring for Your Pet.

Object Nabbing – A Popular Pastime

I’d bet a lot of money that every pet dog with the power of locomotion has gotten in trouble at home for nabbing socks, shoes, plastic soda bottles, counter sponges, and other ordinary and not-so-ordinary household items. Today, why they do it, how to direct their time and energy someplace else, and what not to do unless you want to turn normal dog behavior into a serious problem.

Why Dogs “Steal” Objects

First, the why. One thing about dogs, you never have to look for deep dark motivations. They act like rascals because they’ve got unburned energy lying around. They’re a little bit bored and want some action. They’re a little bit lonely and want some attention. The item they nab smells like you. The item they nab smells like food. The item they nab has just the right chewy texture.

That list of whys, conveniently enough, turns right into a list of problem-solving tactics.

Fix No. 1: Exercise

If you’ve got an active young dog, be sure to provide a solid hour of aerobic exercise every day. The meaning of “young” varies from breed to breed and individual to individual. Though large dogs tend to have shorter life spans than small dogs,

they may remain puppylike for several years. Dogs with a working or hunting heritage – Border Collies and German Short-haired Pointers, for two – were bred for sustained activity and will go stir crazy if they spend all day lying on the couch. Let me rephrase that: they won’t spend all day lying on the couch, and they will go stir crazy looking for something to do.

Fix No. 2: Mental Stimulation and Attention

Exercise is half the cure for boredom; mental stimulation is the other half. Many people notice that their puppy or dog’s shoe-stealing evil twin appears at more or less the same time every day. Scheduling a 5- or 10-minute session of reward-based training just before that often preempts the witching hour entirely. It also meets your dog’s need for attention – and attention is a need; dogs are social animals. Nobody enjoys a bored dog’s pestering, but it’s reasonable for our dogs to want some of our time, focus, and affection every day.

Food-Dispensing Toys

Also great for burning off mental steam: food-dispensing toys. Why should dinner take 4.5 seconds? Pack a mix of half canned, half dry food in a hollow rubber toy such as the Kong, freeze it overnight, and welcome your dog to the Slow Food movement. Extracting his food from its rubber prison will carry him right through that time of the evening when he would otherwise be checking out your kitchen counters and the dirty laundry. And remember the smells-like-food and chewy-texture motivators for object-nabbing? You’ve just taken care of those, too.  For more tips on how to keep your dog from counter surfing, check out my episode on food-stealing.

Prevention (AKA Cleaning Up After Yourself)

While you’re enriching your puppy or dog’s life, don’t overlook plain old management as a training tool. Shoes go in the closet. Dirty laundry goes in the laundry bag. Clean laundry gets put away. Tupperware containers bearing traces of last night’s pasta salad need not remain on the dining room table while you zone out in front of the TV. That inquisitive animal who lives with you evolved as a scavenger, and

if you leave interesting stuff around of course she will sooner or later scavenge it. A puppy who grows up focused on exercise, legal chewies, and training time with you may rarely or never feel the need to poke around looking for snacks and fun. But once a snatch-and-grab habit has taken root, it’s as hard to shake as cigarettes. Prevent access, provide alternative outlets, and don’t blame your dog for her occasional lapses.

What to Do When Your Dog “Steals” Something

What to do about those? Take a deep breath and keep your cool. Shouting at your dog and rushing her to grab her prize is likely to produce a game of keep-away at best. At worst, she perceives a threat and gets scared and defensive. This is especially likely if you grab her, roll her over, and pry her jaws open to take whatever it is away. From your dog’s point of view, this is socially peculiar, to say the least. Imagine how you’d feel if out of the blue a close friend punched you and took your wallet away. Dogs repeatedly subjected to this kind of behavior may escalate from object “stealing” to object guarding. Human approach now constitutes a threat, and the canine response to a threat is growling, snapping, even biting.

Ignore “Theft,” or Distract or Bribe Your Dog If Necessary

If the object Dogalini’s gotten hold of is harmless and inexpensive, your best bet is to ignore her. No agitation, and no attention given to that attention-seeking grab-and-snatch. But if that’s your favorite shoe she’s got, or a potentially toxic food, go with distraction and bribery. Suddenly discover something fascinating at the other end of the room. Throw a ball. Pick up the leash and invite Dogalini for a walk. Or walk up to her quietly and trade her a bit of cheese or meat for whatever she has nabbed. Yes, the lesson for Dogalini is that stealing your socks induces you to part with your cheese or take her on a surprise inspection of the local fire hydrants. Never mind; you’re in damage control mode. “My people will give treats in exchange for my prize finds” is a much better lesson than “My people get weird and scary when they want something I’ve got.” As for you, review your canine theft-prevention exercises and remember to put away your shoes.

I love hearing from my listeners so this show can be responsive to your concerns. Email me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com or call 206-600-5661. And come see me on Facebook. Thank you, and goodbye for now!