“Dogs are programmed to be opportunistic feeders, but when the instinct causes the dog to steal food at home, the behaviour can be embarrassing.”
– By Shirin Merchant
Julie loved food. So much that she would resort to stealing it. Her owners, the Sampats had to lock their kitchen door every night to keep her out of the garbage can, and took care not to leave any food lying around, because they knew she would steal it. And it wasn’t as though she was underfed – the Sampats fed her two full meals everyday, yet the amicable dog would turn into a monster at the sight of food. She even snatched food from innocent children. The problem turned into something greater than embarrassment and the Sampats finally decided to seek professional help.
Julie in fact, is carrying out a perfectly normal canine behaviour. Dogs are programmed to be opportunistic feeders and scavengers. In the natural state, a wild canine’s survival depends on its ability to scavenge and gorge whenever food is available; it does not get to eat on a daily basis so it must take advantage of any feeding opportunity that comes its way. Despite the lavish servings of food our pet dogs get, the instinct often remains.
Unfortunately, this innate instinct can sometimes get a dog into more trouble than just stolen foods and a turned out bin; it can lead to gastric problems if the dog ingests a poisonous or harmful item.
Most owners err by waiting until the problem is entrenched before doing anything about it. Instead, an owner must take a pro-active stand and teach a dog what is appropriate to take and what isn’t. This is particularly important in the case of a young puppy or a new dog.
So what’s a poor owner to do if the behaviour is firmly established in the dog? Is constant vigilance and punishment the only answer? Not really, here are a few things that can be effective in correcting the problem.
Keeping food out of the dog’s reach is the simplest solution to prevent stealing. Leaving out a leg of lamb to cool on the counter top or a box of mithai on a coffee table is pushing temptation too far, even for a well-behaved dog.
Also make sure the garbage can has a firm lid and cannot be knocked over or opened easily. Even better, keep it in a cabinet – like under your kitchen sink. Give your dog something he can chew on, like a rawhide bone stuffed with liver or paneer paste, when left alone for long periods of time to keep him away from temptation.
Don’t punish your dog unless you catch him in the act of stealing. For the dog to connect the act of stealing with the punishment, the two have to be contiguous. Punishment after the deed is done is pointless and does nothing to prevent the dog from raiding the bin or stealing from a countertop the next time he gets the chance. In most instances, scolding and hitting can actually make the dog subtler and quicker about his thieving and in many cases it can make him fearful of you or even aggressive. It also teaches the dog to steal behind your back as the punishment is connected to the presence of the owner.
“Simba used to try and jump on the table whilst we were eating, but got punished for it,” says Mr. Sheth of his Beagle. “In no time he learnt to wait till we were in the kitchen before jumping onto the table and making off with our food. How could we punish him if we weren’t in the same room?”
What does work, in such cases, is aversion therapy. With this therapy, the dog associates a disagreeable experience with the act of stealing. The advantage is that the dog sees no connection whatsoever between the unpleasant experience and the presence of the owner. “Finally, acting on the advice of our behaviour counsellor, we ‘booby-trapped’ the dining table,” says Mr. Sheth.
Mr. Sheth tied together a dozen coke cans to a thin rope. The rope was then passed through a hook in the ceiling, just above the table. Mr. Sheth controlled the other end and hid behind the door. When Simba jumped onto the table, Mr. Sheth let go of the rope sending the coke cans crashing onto the table. The startling nature of the intervention was enough to scare Simba off. While Simba recovered from the shock, Mr. Sheth quickly raised the cans back to the ceiling. After five minutes of looking around furtively, Simba laid siege to the table yet again, only to be met with a louder crash that sent him scurrying behind the sofa. “All it took was three repetitions to make Simba give up,” says a triumphant Mr. Sheth. “He spent all evening watching the coke cans with a mixture of hatred and fear.” A few more repetitions spread out over a couple of days and Simba soon learnt to stay away from the table. To drive the point home, the Sheths had to leave the unusual chandelier hanging for a fortnight.
Keep your dog satiated.
A dog will often resort to stealing food or scavenging for it if he is hungry. Providing more frequent, bulkier meals may help even out his appetite. It is important to feed a dog a healthy well-balanced diet that agrees with him. If your dog is well fed but still seems hungry and thin, crosscheck his diet with your vet.
Certain breeds, such as Labradors and Dachshunds, are especially noted for their gluttony in general. Teaching a puppy what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t will reduce the likelihood of the dog stealing and scavenging as he grows.
Medical problems and certain drugs can also bring about a sudden increase in appetite. Cushing’s syndrome and diabetes mellitus can cause Polyphagia – a sudden increase in consumption of food. It is best to consult a vet if you suspect a sudden increase in appetite.
Teach your dog to leave it.
Over a period of time, some dogs, like Julie, become resistant to any form of punishment. No matter how much the Sampats would shout, Julie would brazenly steal right from under their noses. The Sampats first had to be taught how to get Julie to understand a ‘leave it’ command.
Their trainer demonstrated by putting a couple of biscuits on the floor. As soon as Julie went to get the food, the trainer reacted explosively by slamming his hand on top of the food and growling “No – leave it” at the same time. Julie reacted by stepping back and looking at the trainer in astonishment. Within a second, she tried again – only to be met with the same response. A couple of minutes later, Julie wouldn’t even look at the food for fear of invoking the nasty reaction.
The Sampats couldn’t believe it. “We were scolding Julie too mildly,” says Mr. Sampat. “ We had to learn to communicate in the language Julie understood – Dog language.” A dam will correct a misbehaving pup with a firm, unyielding growl; the same principle was used by the trainer to teach Julie how to leave food. The correct timing and explosiveness of the correction was strong enough to teach Julie to back away. The Sampats can now let Julie mingle freely with guests at a party, without worry –if temptation crosses Julie’s mind, all they have to say from the corner of the room is – “leave it”.
Give your dog attention for good behaviour.
Often a dog will resort to stealing, when what it really wants is attention. In such cases the dog is either attention starved or has a behaviour problem. The dog will steal food not to satisfy his hunger pangs but because it gets him attention. The act of stealing comes to symbolise attention; for a dog negative attention is far better than none. In such cases, however, the dog will not just resort to stealing food, but may also steal other items. The best way to stop this from happening is to ignore the stealing and praise and give attention for any good behaviour.
With the help of the tips above and with a bit of patience, some effort and a lot of love, any dog can be taught not to steal bringing back harmony to your household again.
The outdated and ineffective methods of punishing a dog for stealing have given way to kinder and more effective methods. Aversion therapy is widely used by trainers and behaviourists all over the world today as the preferred method of controlling a dog’s behaviour without involving the owner.
Noise aversion therapy, where a loud and startling noise is made to scare the animal away is extremely effective, especially as dogs are so sensitive to sound.
Here we list a few methods that will help keep a dog away from stealing and scavenging. However, don’t be limited by what you see below, you can create your own aversion therapy method using a bit of common sense and lots of creativity. Do be sensible though, and make sure that your method will not cause harm to the canine. Your aim should be to shock the canine not hurt it.
Also keep in mind that any method will have to be carried out for a while before you see permanent results. Whatever you try, keep in mind that the principle clearly must be one of aversion therapy, not punishment, to be effective.
With a rubbish bin
- Place small balloons right at the top of the rubbish with a few poky items below. When he does stick his head in, the balloons will burst and scare him off.
- Precariously balance a few metallic vessels on top of the lid; when he knocks over the lid, the vessels will fall with a clanging sound.
- Put a heavy stone on top of the lid, making it impossible for him to tip it over. You will have to be consistent in setting up the bin for a long period of time before your dog learns to permanently stay away from it.
For a dog that steals off countertops
- Set it up so that the next time he jumps up at a plate, there is either a loud alarm noise that goes off.
- Precariously balance the food on top of strategically balanced metallic vessels, which will come tumbling down with a loud noise, scaring him off in the process.
- Hide behind the door and when he jumps up, squirt him with water or throw something at him that will make a loud noise like an empty coke can filled with a few stones and the opening taped up.
A few training tools are available in the market like training discs, ultra sonic sensors and sprays, all of which use the same principle of aversion methods and are effective as remote punishers.