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Teaching Your Dog to Take Treats Gently
What to do when a dog is part alligator

Question: My dog takes treats so hard that she’s hurt my hands on occasion. I’ve had the same thing happen to me to varying degrees at the dog park or in classes when I give a treat to another dog. I dread training sessions with my own dog, and I’ve become hesitant to give treats to other dogs. Is there a solution to this problem?

Answer: I sympathize! Your experiences with dogs who chomp enthusiastically are universal among those who spend time with dogs. Many dogs regularly grab treats without taking the care required when dealing with delicate human skin. (On the other hand, some dogs are only “chompy” when revved up, so this can be a good assessment tool; in these cases, the intensity of the alligator-like behavior can indicate a dog’s arousal level.)

Some dogs are naturally gentle with their mouths, but most need lessons to achieve this skill. Dogs should be taught the cue “Gentle,” which simply means to take the treat nicely. Having a dog who takes treats gently can relieve much of the conflict-induced frustration that occurs when you want to reinforce your dog’s good behavior but also want your fingers to remain intact and connected to your body.

Avoid confusion by teaching the cue “Gentle” as its own behavior rather than during a training session for some other behavior. Commit to the idea that your dog needs to take the treats gently or she doesn’t get them at all. In other words, don’t allow the snapping behavior to work for her. Until now, she has been getting the treat no matter what she does, but we want her to only get it when she takes it gently.

To teach your dog what “Gentle” means, hold a treat in your hand, close your fist around it and offer it to your dog. If your dog bites at your hand, keep it closed; this means either toughing it out or wearing gloves, depending on your dog’s behavior and your tolerance. When she stops biting and licks your hand (or even nibbles gently and painlessly), say “Gentle” and open your hand completely to give her the treat.

Keep saying “Gentle” each time you offer her a treat to help her associate the word with the behavior. If she has a relapse and returns to her former finger-gnawing ways, pull your hand away and then offer the treat again, using the cue “Gentle” to remind her of what you want. This will keep you from dropping the treat in response to her snapping.

Until your dog knows how to take treats gently, there are a couple of ways to protect your fingers when giving treats outside of training sessions. At home, put cream cheese or peanut butter on a wooden spoon and offer your dog a chance to lick this food a few times. This is a way to reinforce your dog without putting your hands near her mouth.

In a dog park or class setting, offer the treat on your flat palm. Many dogs who will snap at treats held in the fingertips are able to take them properly when they are presented on an open hand. A final option is to drop the treats on the ground rather than giving them directly to the dog. It takes a lot of repetition for most dogs to learn to take treats gently, and the occasional effort to teach someone else’s dog by, for example, holding them in your closed hand is unlikely to be effective. Unless a dog’s guardian is teaching this at home, save your fingers by either flat-palming the treats or tossing them on the ground. These techniques won’t teach your dog or her dog park friends to take the treats politely, but they do keep your fingers safe!

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 53: Mar/Apr 2009

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

Photograph by Daniel Bobrowsky

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Submitted by Fred | January 17 2013 |

New puppy owners should read this before going out to buy all sorts of new puppy supplies. This surprisingly, is one of the most common complaints amongst dog owners. Some will say the dogs had “bitten them” but we would later find out the dogs had simply nipped them when eating treats. Dog training is not just about putting your dog on a dog collar and leash and getting them to “heel”. Dog training also includes any training that helps the dog live in a strange human world. Any training must happen the moment a puppy or a dog is introduced to the household. Some people let puppies get away with things but wonder why their dog behaves badly later.

Submitted by eardog | January 21 2013 |

Karen!

I love that your piece appears just as I'm having questions about my foster dog with alligator tendencies! This one year old pup is just 2 months out of the shelter, and one of the things I've worked most diligently on is counter conditioning and desensitizing her to loud noises in the city.

When we practice 'gentle' indoors, with few distractions, she can hear the 'gentle' command, and most times takes the treat gently. She definitely understands what the word means.

But outdoors, when we are working on 'heel' training, or I treat her to counter condition her response to a loud truck rumbling by, she takes the treat like an alligator and it is tough for her to heed the 'gentle' command. I've not dropped treats on the ground, as I'm also trying to teach her to 'leave' trash and pay attention to me, not the ground. (As a hound, she loves to sniff everything.)

So, I'm wondering, when working on 'heel' training, and I want to treat her when she is in exactly the right place and moving at a nice clip with me, should I not worry so much about her taking the treat 'hard'? Or should I stop and require her to sit and really enforce the 'gentle' command (it takes a few tries before she can be calm enough to take it gently, and then I fear she has lost track of why I was treating her in the first place) and not worry so much about making sure I'm rewarding her at precisely the right moment for the 'heel' command? The question is similar for helping her out with loud noises. I want to treat her right away, when I hear a siren or see a truck coming towards us, but she is so agitated, that she can't help but take the treat hard.

Would love your advice and am curious to know if others have had the same problem!

Submitted by Nikki | June 26 2013 |

That's the same problem I have, training in the house seems to be fine but when I go out on walks, my dog takes her treats so aggressively and not really paying attention to what training is given, I'm the same ad you, I'd like to know when to treat her or how to stop her doing this, it's very frustrating! Also, I'm trying her not to pull on the lead, it works at home but when I take her fir a walk, I just can't grab her attention!

Submitted by Kari | September 19 2013 |

I'm not a trainer, but was thinking maybe clicker training would be able to help you with your issue. This way the reinforcement of the behavior is the click, which can occur at the time of the behavior. Then you can take the time to treat, and the behavior was already marked with the click... Just an idea. Best of luck!

Submitted by h | May 17 2014 |

Hi I used to have that problem. The answer is in keeping the dog at a distance where it feels comfortable from the loud noise. Put your body between dog and feared object. It takes time and patience but I saw improvement every day. Gradually rewarding until it can take gently from your hand when noisy vehicle is close by.

Submitted by Bryna Elder-Munro | February 3 2013 |

Thanks for these great tips. Our small, sweet-natured Lab/Boxer mix Jamie turns into a snapping turtle sometimes. I can't wait to try your suggestions on her.

Submitted by Rachel Knox | June 3 2013 |

I have two dogs, the dachshund is 6 years old, she knows how to take treats without problems, but we just adopted a Labrador/Pitbull mix and this was the first time he ever was able to take a treat. He got so excited that he accidently bit my finger while taking the treat, and I have a small lil cut. This article helped me alot. I took a few treats in the "training room" (that's where we started to teach him basic commands without distractions right now) and i taught him the gentle command. I felt this should be his first command he should learn. He is extremely smart, He started to nip at my closed hand, but then licked at it. I said "Gentle," Opened my hand he took the treat, I did it again, he nipped again but he licked it lightly I said it again, and opened my hand, and he took it. Not but 3 minutes later, he got the command quick. I can tell that he's gonna be a smart puppy

Submitted by Jack Z.Lucas | July 27 2013 |

What other ways have you trained the "Gentle" command when not using a food treat? For example have you trained gentle when taking a toy from your hand and transferred it to treats? How well did that work?

Jack

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