Skip to main content

How to Train a Dog to Refuse Food From a Stranger

Cane Corso puppies, and other dogs that look like guards, should always be taught to refuse food from strangers.

Cane Corso puppies, and other dogs that look like guards, should always be taught to refuse food from strangers.

Food Refusal Dog Training

In some places, a dog will not need to worry about being poisoned by a stranger, but teaching a dog to refuse food from strangers may save its life. If you live in a country where this is a problem, start teaching your dog today. Even if you do not live in a place where you think this is a problem, a thief may notice your guard dog and poison her to gain entry, or a malicious neighbor may poison your dog just because he does not like her.

Either way, I think that this is something that all dogs need. So how are you going to teach your dog to avoid tainted food?

The "Leave It!" Command

Some dogs can easily be trained to refuse food from a stranger using the “leave it” command.

  1. I hold a treat in my right hand, let the dog sniff it, then tell her “leave it” and close my hand.
  2. Some dogs will sit and bark for the treat, some will try to get the treat out of your hand, and others will just stare at the hand. When the dog stops focusing on my hand, I praise her and give her a different treat from my left hand.
  3. Repeat the first two steps as often as necessary. When the dog always leaves your hand alone and stops staring as soon as you tell her, "leave it," go on to the next step.
  4. The next step is to put the treat on the floor and let the dog sniff it. As soon as she does, I cover it and tell her, “leave it.” When she stops focusing on the treat and looks up at me, I give her a treat with my left hand. (If she does not respond when you tell her “leave it,” put a leash on her and tell her to “sit” so that she will start thinking about the leash and stop thinking about the treat.)
  5. Try dropping a treat on the floor and telling your dog “leave it” without covering the treat. If she goes for the treat instead of obeying, you should go back to the beginning and train her to ignore the treat in your hand.
  6. Once the dog has learned “leave it,” and you are positive that she will respond to your command 100% of the time, have her learn to refuse food from strangers. Using bait that she really likes (fresh meat, hot dogs, liver chunks, etc.), the stranger walks by the yard and tosses the food to the dog while you are present. If she goes to smell the food, tell her to “leave it” before she even starts to eat. (If you are not positive that she will respond all of the time, go ahead and leave her on a leash when teaching this exercise.)
  7. Once you are confident that she will not take the food when you are close, sit in the house where you can see her when the stranger tosses bait. If she goes to smell it, yell “leave it” from the window, so that assumes you are always watching.

This sounds more difficult than it is. Some dogs will learn this in a day; others might require more time.

Small dogs are unlikely to be poisoned by thieves but may be harmed by malicious neighbors.

Small dogs are unlikely to be poisoned by thieves but may be harmed by malicious neighbors.

Alternative Methods to Train Your Dog to Eat Only From You

Teaching a dog “leave it” will not work for all dogs. My pit bull learned this quickly and always responds; she will not take food that I do not give to her. My Schnauzer, on the other hand, will obey if I am present but forgets about me as soon as I am out of the picture.

How do you reinforce training for a dog that does not respond to “leave it”?

  • It may help to train your dog to take food only from the bowl. Have a visitor at your house offer her a treat by hand, and when she starts to take it, tell her “no” and take her to her bowl to eat a treat. (If you use this method and it does work, you have to make sure you take your dog´s bowl with her if she is boarded, hospitalized, etc. If you do not, she may not eat.)
  • Use a slip collar (choke chain) and attach it before taking the dog for a stroll throughout the yard. Let the dog stop to sniff bait placed in the yard by a stranger, but as soon as he goes to eat it, pull up on the collar and say “no.” When the dog loses interest in the bait, it is a good idea to give him a treat and lots of praise. (This may take longer than teaching the “leave it” command, but the amount of time required will vary depending on the dog.)
  • Some trainers recommend the use of an electronic collar. Have food thrown in the yard by strangers, as I detailed above under the “leave it” section. As soon as the dog goes for the bait, give him a zap so that he associates the food outside in the yard with a negative stimulus. (I do not recommend this method.)
  • A popular trainer here in Brazil recommends that the bait be set up with a battery and an electric wire so that the dog receives a small shock when he tries to put the food in his mouth. (I do not recommend this method.)
  • I have also read that some people have strangers hit their dogs when taking bait. I do not recommend this since it is more likely to make your dog shy of strangers or aggressive to all humans.

Training your dog to eat only from the bowl is not as good as “leave it” but is the next best thing. Walking the dog through the yard on a leash may also be helpful.

An Important Skill

Some dogs have an instinct not to take food from strangers and need almost no training. Dogs are scavengers, however, and naturally test almost everything they find to see if it is edible. My dogs still think things they find on the beach are worth testing for taste, despite all of their training.

Keep working at it—someday, it may save your dog's life.

A demonstration of the method used to teach a dog "leave it." In this video, the dog is being trained so that he will be more polite, not to avoid poisoned bait.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2015 Mark dos Anjos DVM


Francois Le Roux on October 06, 2017:

Thank you Dr. Mark.

I recently lost my 3 year old german shepherd to burglars who poisoned him with aldicarb. Dog poisonings are a big problem here in South Africa. It's quite common for criminals to poison an entire street's dogs to keep the street quiet during a burglary at night. My new puppy will be poison proof.

Kind regards


Aaradhya on September 14, 2015:

Hi Mark,

How can we teach "not to eat something?

One of my dog's favorite dish is Cabbage. But at any time when he eats much, getting acidity.. And sometimes vomited also. If I am not adding Cabbage in his food. Either he won’t eat or eating very less? Breed is Cocxer (Cocker Spaniel and Boxer mixed), age of 5-6 months ? Any suggestion/reference?

Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on July 04, 2015:

Thanks Renee, fortunately not all of us have to worry about this but it is a big problem in some areas. And, like Bob Bamberg pointed out, many dogs are susceptible even if wary around strangers. Thanks to all your comments.

Tori Leumas on July 04, 2015:

I am currently training my dogs to "leave it" when I don't want them to eat certain things. I don't live in an area where strangers can feed things to my dogs, but this is good info for those who do. Great hub!

Bob Bamberg on July 03, 2015:

Helpful article, Doc. In my neck of the woods the situations you caution against are uncommon, although they do occur from time to time. I think it's wise to train your dog not to take food or treats from strangers.

On a side note, my son recently adopted a retired racing greyhound. She's big (80 lbs), muscular and adapting well. She's good with the 1 year old and 5 year old grandchildren. She's a little wary of "Grampy," still, but does take treats from example of how easy it would be to poison even a wary dog. Voted up, useful and interesting.

Aaradhya on July 02, 2015:

great article! Very useful and interesting.

Palis Pisuttisarun from Bangkok, Thailand on July 01, 2015:

Hi Mark,

My Golden Retriever wasn't trained to do this until a few months ago. He got food poisoning after eating a "dog biscuit" from another dog owner. I suppose the biscuit was spoiled or perhaps intentionally poisoned. He went to the vet and his condition was quite severe.

Thankfully, he's OK now and I have trained him a few months ago in order to prevent such danger in the future. Very helpful information and I also trained him this way. I agree that this is a very important skill to teach the dog!

JR Krishna from India on July 01, 2015:

Interesting read. There was a robbery in our neighbourhood last week where the robbers befriended the dog at night by giving something to eat and broke open the back door of the house

Votes and shares

Elizabeth Lynn Westbay from United States on July 01, 2015:

Great info!