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How to Train a Dog to Take Treats Gently

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Taking treats roughly is not aggression, it's just a lack of manners!

Taking treats roughly is not aggression, it's just a lack of manners!

All Dogs Can Learn to Take Treats Gently

Being able to take treats gently is something all dogs should know. Taking treats roughly is not aggression, it's just a lack of manners. When I taught 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 that 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.

Why Do Dogs Bite Your Fingers When Taking a Treat?

There are a number of different reasons that could account for your dog's seeming inability to take treats gently from your hand. Here are the most common:

1. They Lack 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 littermates. 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. They Were Removed From the Litter Too Early (or They Were Singleton Pups)

In some cases, dogs who lack 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 littermates, which take 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. They Experience Positive 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. The 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 nauseam" until you break the cycle. This is often triggered by children who in fear of being bit, removing their hands very quickly which only teaches Rover to lunge quickly and bite even harder next time!

4. They Lack Impulse Control

In some cases, dogs who bite fingers simply lack impulse control. They want something and want it immediately. Training a dog for 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. They Are 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, depending on the circumstance he may not 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.

Follow these easy steps to train your dog to take treats gently.

Follow these easy steps to train your dog to take treats gently.

How to Train Your Dog to Take Treats Gently

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 that 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 four steps.

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

In The Meanwhile...

If you don't have time to train, management is your best tool to prevent your dog from rehearsing the behavior of biting fingers, at least until your dog has the opportunity to take treats gently.

In such a case, for the time being, you can still reward your dog by doing any of the following:

  • You can drop treats to the ground so that your dog has fun catching them without risking biting your fingers.
  • You can smear some peanut butter or cream cheese on a long metal spoon (most dogs don't like to bite on metal).
  • You can use alternate types of rewards that don't involve feeding directly from your fingers. I like to use the Lickety stick for some nippy dogs since it encourages licking more than nipping. It's also low calorie with only 1 calorie in every 10 licks.
  • You can place 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!)
Training my  dog to take treats gently.

Training my dog to take treats gently.

Options While You're Training

Don't have time yet to train your dog to take treats gently? Or perhaps, you want to still train your dog with treats while he's still learning. No worries, you have several options to prevent your dog from hurting you. Here are some ideas that come to mind:

  • Rather than hand-feeding treats, toss them! Many dogs love this as it turns into a fun game and also gives your dog a workout. Win-win!
  • Some dog trainers even go as far as spitting treats (I am not a big fan of that and can't stomach mouthing dog treats, but maybe can be done with human foods that can be used as treats). I would worry though about certain dogs jumping near the face.
  • Some dog owners have success using just plain kibble. Some dogs are less nippy with something that doesn't make them too enthusiastic and that they see every day.
  • I know some of my colleagues use Kraft's Easy Cheese or other branded “squeeze cheese” spread. Used in moderation, this can help as you just have to release a bit from the nozzle for your dog to lick. Use with caution if your dog is sensitive to dairy or fatty meals (ask your vet to play it safe).
  • I have used in nippy pup classes a product known as Petsafe Lickety Stik which is sort of a lollipop for dogs. It's a low-calorie option so it may work well.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 07, 2013:

Great to hear your dogs are gentle taking treats, good job! I have met a good array of croco-dogs and canine sharks. Luckily, most dogs get it with a bit of training! Thanks for stopping by!

wetnosedogs from Alabama on April 07, 2013:

I found this topic interesting because all of my dogs are gentle with the treats and my fingers. Sometimes for Roscoe I will put his treat on the floor because when I offer it to him, he just looks at me. Guess he knows it's time for me to leave the house and in his own way, he is saying "Again you are leaving us?" So I put it on the floor and I tell him to hurry and get it cause otherwise Jenny will snatch it away.( She may or may not - she's the greedy one) and that does the trick.

Nonetheless, I did find this interesting. (I tend to talk to my dogs a lot while giving the treat, maybe that distracts what could be an otherwise finger tasting treat -LOL)