How to Train a Dog to Take Treats Gently
Why Is Rover Biting Your Fingers When You Feed Him Treats?
Being able to gently take treats is something all dogs should know. It's not aggression, just a lack of manners. In group classes, it was not unusual for me to hear the occasional "ouch" when owners were instructed to reward their dogs for accomplishing certain tasks. Taking treats gently is not an innate behavior dogs are genetically pre-programmed to know. Don't expect Rover to do it on his own. This is something that canines need to learn with our positive and gentle guidance.
Why is Rover biting your fingers? There are several possibilities to evaluate. Let's take a look at the exact dynamic behind it. Following are some causes that contribute to finger-biting behaviors.
1) Lack of Bite Inhibition
Bite inhibition is something that all puppies should learn when they're young. This is something that is started when the pups are still with their moms and litter mates. If you watch young puppies play, you will notice how at times one puppy may bite another puppy too roughly. What happens right after that? Most likely, the hurt puppy will squeal and withdraw from the rough game. After witnessing several squeals and pups withdrawing from the game, the rough puppy will learn to inhibit his bite more and more if he wants to continue playing with his playmates.
Despite these early lessons, many puppies though continue to bite rough, what gives? First of all, it is wrong to assume that the puppy is "self-taught" after spending time with the litter. If you want a pup with good bite inhibition, you'll have to take over the task and continue teaching it. Also, consider that your skin is much more delicate than another dog's skin, so the puppy must learn more "finesse" with humans.
You may have heard about the "squealing and yelping in pain" cliche' to train a puppy to bite less. Yet, I have noticed some puppies get actually more revved up with this method. Also, withdrawing your hand immediately and fast, may trigger his predatory instinct to bite more. In this case, it's best to slowly and calmly remove the hand and then just turn away and withdraw from play. Repeat and rinse as long as needed, until the puppy learns to be more gentle.
Note: you don't want a puppy that completely stops biting altogether, your goal is to simply have a puppy that is gentle with his mouth.
2) Being Removed From the Litter too Early/Singleton pups
In some cases, dogs who lack from good bite inhibition are puppies who were removed too early from the litter. In this case, they missed the important bite inhibition basics from their mom and litter mates which takes place up until the pups are about 8 weeks old. Lots of work in good bite inhibition is required upon adopting one of these pups.
3) History of Reinforcement
Despite these important life lessons, some dogs just have a rough mouth. If your dog gets used to taking food roughly, he'll likely continue to do so if you don't intervene. Fact is, the dog is being rewarded for taking the food roughly if he takes it rough and then gets to eat the food. So the behavior will continue and continue "ad nauseum" until you break the cycle. This is often triggered by children who in fear of being bit, remove their hands very quickly which only teaches Rover to lunge quickly and bite even harder next time!
4) Lack of Impulse Control
In some cases, dogs who bite fingers simply lack impulse control. They want something and want it immediately. Training a dog better impulse control through the Premack Principle can help make a difference. It trains a dog to know that in order to earn life rewards, they must be calm or perform a certain behavior.
5) Over Threshold
When I work on behavior modification, I know the dog is getting too aroused and the dog is over threshold when he starts taking the treats too fast and roughly. I have two Rottweilers that have great bite inhibition. If I put food in Kaiser's mouth along with my fingers, he won't even bite down. Heck, I even tried to put my fingers in his mouth when he was yawning and he won't clamp down! Yet, if he sees another dog and gets a bit excited, he won't concentrate much on being careful as he usually is and I may feel his teeth a bit. So if you want to train your dog to take treats gently, don't do it when he is excited, hyper, stressed, or aroused. Do it only when he is calm, and then, as with any type of training, gradually add a bit more distractions to the picture as you progress.
Training Your Dog to Take Treats Gently
As mentioned, start training your dog to take treats gently in a quiet area when your dog is calm. Also, try first using treats your dog isn't too crazy about. Some crocodile dogs are so treat-motivated, they'll take the treats along with a finger or two! Choose a word that you will always use to remind him to be gentle. I like to say "gentle". Make sure all your family members use the same word! Consistency is key to all doggy training! Follow these steps.
- Place a treat in your hand inside your fist. Ask your dog to sit (this helps him stay a bit calmer). Present the closed fist to your dog, keeping it slightly under his chin. If your dog bites your hand, continue keeping the fist closed. Be persistent and patient. Once your dog stops biting and nibbles gently or licks your hand, praise, open the fist and release the treat. Note: If your dog has an alligator mouth, for safety sake wear gloves for this exercise until your dog develops a softer mouth! However, it's also true that gloves may blur sensation and you may think he's not biting when he actually is!
- Repeat several times. Once your dog understands the concept a bit better, add the cue "gentle" before opening your hand. You want your dog to associate being gentle with you giving the treat so he learns that gentleness works.
- Advance by placing a soft treat between your thumb and your index finger, covering it slightly with your thumb. Continue wearing gloves if your dog is rough. Say "gentle". If your dog appears fast or too rough for your taste, close your fist again and take a step back and continue the closed fist/ open fist exercise until he has mastered that one. If, on the other hand, your dog takes it gently, praise and reward by releasing the treat.
- Advance by placing the treat between your index and thumb but this time allowing it to protrude a bit. Offer it to your dog moving slowly. Continue wearing gloves if your dog is rough. Say "gentle" and allow him to take the treat if he's gentle. Hide the treat in your fist if he's too rough.
Note: You really, really want to avoid allowing your dog to get the treat roughly, so make sure you have a very strong grip on the treat and that you're fast!
If you don't have time to train, management is your best tool to prevent your dog from rehearsing the behavior of biting fingers. In such a case, for the time being, you can still reward your dog by dropping treats to the ground, smearing some peanut butter or cream cheese on a long metal spoon (most dogs don't like to bite on metal) or putting the treat on your flat palm, which by the way, is the way you give treats to horses (fingers may look like carrots and you don't want to figure out the type of pain a horse's teeth may inflict!)