The Case of the Treat-Grabbing Puppy

You're trying to teach your puppy to lie down on cue, but she bounces up, she nips at your hand for the treats, and in general she acts like a hooligan. What to do?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #224

A listener, Sandy, writes about the trouble she’s having when she tries to teach her puppy to lie down – well, not exactly! Georgia Pup will lie down, all right. It’s everything else she does at the same time that gives Sandy agita. Check this out:

"Dear Dog Trainer,

I have been making Georgia lie down by putting my hand on the ground (with the treat) and backing it up until she lies down. But all she does is freak out and attack my hand until she gets the treat. Then she starts rolling around and standing back up. The second I take my hand off the ground, she is jumping at my hand looking for another treat. I have been trying for the last two days to train her with just praise and no treat and she is still attacking my hand. She’s an 11-week-old yellow Lab. Please help! 


This week, how to work with the Treat-Grabbing Puppy..

Sandy’s having problems here because she’s really trying to teach Georgia several behaviors at once. There’s lying down on cue – that’s the behavior Sandy’s focused on. There’s taking treats politely instead of grabbing. And there’s a more nebulous one that we could, roughly, call Not Acting Like a Maniac for Just 5 Seconds. I say “5 seconds” because Georgia’s 11 weeks old, and we can’t expect too much calm focus from her at that age.

Dealing with Treat-Grabbing

For a puppy or an untrained dog, waiting politely for a treat to be delivered to the mouth, and taking it gently when it arrives, are skills all their own. Many dogs learn them easily, in the context of other training, but Labrador Retrievers aren’t nicknamed Labrasharks for nothing! (Not that other dogs can’t be just as grabby too.)

In dealing with a grabby puppy, remember that she is a puppy, and that it’s normal for her patience to be limited. The same goes for a dog who hasn’t had much in the way of manners lessons. So don’t hesitate in delivering the treat – give it to your dog promptly, or you may unintentionally tease her with it. Also, people sometimes accidentally teach grabbiness along with teaching a puppy to sit; this happens when they offer the treat so that the puppy has to get up out of the sit to reach it, or when the puppy gets up for the treat as it approaches and the person then delivers the treat as the puppy moves forward to it.

Instead, make sure you bring the treat right to the puppy’s mouth so she doesn’t have to reach for it. If she does get up, don’t allow her to take the treat; instead, encourage her to sit again, and deliver the treat when her heinie hits the floor. Sometimes it works to withdraw the treat and wait for the puppy to figure out that she has to sit to get it delivered. But if you try this two or three times and your puppy keeps bouncing up, she’s just getting frustrated and not learning what you want her to; instead, use the treat to lure her into sitting. That way your hand is right at her mouth to begin with. After a few reps, try luring her with your empty hand; use your other hand to deliver the treat from behind your back.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).

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