Dogs are scavengers by nature. Puppies naturally explore the world with their mouth, picking up almost everything to determine if it is food. If you have a puppy under the age of 4 months, you may want to talk to your puppy school teacher about how to handle your particular puppy. Puppy pica—eating things that aren’t food—is normal and most puppies don’t actually try to eat the leaves, pebbles, and sticks that they pick up. The exercise I describe below can turn into a game if you use it for every little item your puppy explores. The game goes like this: The puppy picks up a leaf, the owner says, “Drop it!” and then the puppy is rewarded. The puppy picks up the next leaf. Repeat. This can result in a frustrating walk. Never grab things from your puppy’s mouth!!! This will encourage guarding and also encourage them to swallow the item before you can get it.
This article is specifically targeting older dogs that are eating things from the sidewalk and gutter, not young puppies who are just exploring their world. In this article, I will use the command “Drop it!” to mean spit something out of your mouth. In my classes, “Leave it!” is a command that tells the dog to look away from something and to give his or her handler eye contact. Some trainers use the command “Out!” in place of “Drop it!” The command title is about as important as the title of this article. It’s just a signal; the real important information comes after the signal. Just pick one command, define it for you and your dog, and be consistent.
Discarded chicken wings are understandably attractive, but very dangerous. Other items such as banana peels, food wrappers, napkins, odd bits of sandwich, and the like can also be dangerous—and also disgusting. If you see the item first, use your “Leave it!” or “Look!” command. Spectacularly reward your dog for looking away from the item and giving you his or her attention.
If you know you have a serious scavenger, you will need to be prepared with very high-value food rewards. Pick something very tasty, like real meat or cheese. Remember that to a scavenger, any found item will be automatically coveted, and so dry biscuits and other small-token cookies that would normally be greedily consumed by your dog will be uninteresting. Some dogs guard scavenged items. If your dog is actively trying to keep you away from things he or she has in his or her mouth with growling, snarling, snapping, or biting, contact a certified professional trainer to help you. I understand and agree that this behavior is unacceptable and dangerous, but you will need professional help. Punishing the resource guarding can cause bigger problems and make the behavior worse. There is a book written by Jean Donaldson called Mine!: A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs. It is a technical guide for professionals, but it also helps dog guardians understand this complex problem.
But what if your dog isn’t growling at you but just avoiding you (playing keep away) when he or she has snagged a disgusting gutter snack. As soon as your realize what has happened, say “Drop it!” Then immediately reach for your amazing bribe. Yes, unless your dog already knows this command, nothing is going to happen without a bribe. Don’t worry about it. I will also explain how to teach your dog to spit something out when you give the command. For now you are in triage mode. I’m only having you give the command, because it is good practice for both you and your dog. Your goal is to reflexively say “Drop it!” as soon as your dog has something in his or her mouth. Only say this command once.
Now that you have your bribe ready to trade your dog, toss a piece of the bribe on the ground near your dog. If he lets go of the item he is holding, praise him—“Nice!”—and then reward them with another piece. Try to toss the reward even further away from the dropped item. You are trying to prevent a re-grab. At this point, you could switch to practicing “Leave It!” from the item, but that would be extra fancy.
The Set-Up Item
For this exercise, the opposite of triage, you need something your dog will want, but that is virtually inconsumable. I often use a very, very stale brick-hard bagel. You can also use a food puzzle toy such as a Kong, that will hold a set-up item but not allow it to be quickly consumed. I have had success wedging a small chunk of pig’s ear into a Kong.
The Practice Space
I like starting this lesson on a tie-down. This just means that your dog is leashed to something and can’t take the item and run away from you. Running away triggers a whole new level of difficulty, and you want this lesson to be successful, not turn into a triage activity.
Practice, Reward & Repeat
Make sure you have good rewards, medium rewards, and amazing rewards. You will give the dog the set-up item and then give the command “Drop it!” Then show your dog the medium reward. If she drops the item, praise her and pay her the medium reward and bonus her with the amazing reward. If she doesn’t drop the item, show her the amazing reward. When she drops the item, praise her, but only pay her the medium reward. It helps during this activity to use your foot to cover the set-up item as you praise your dog. After you reward your dog, remove your foot and let her re-take the set-up item. Repeat about 10 to 15 times and then end the lesson. Practice three to five times per day.
If your dog starts dropping the item on the command before you have time to get the bribe (pausing after the command to allow this to happen helps), then reward with the several of the highest value rewards (the jackpot).
Take It to the Street
Expect to repeat all of the steps above now that you are outside or off leash. Take the set-up with you and practice in the real world. Be prepared with a jackpot reward on walks and at the park if your dog immediately spits out the item when commanded to “Drop it!”
Kelley A. Filson grew up in New Hampshire around many animals and graduated the University of Vermont with a bachelor’s degree in science. She worked at the SF SPCA from 1999-2006 and left her position as director of education to pursue a career as a private dog trainer. She has been a certified trainer for 12 years. She enjoys working with rescue dogs and teaches classes on Tuesday nights at Jeffrey’s Natural Pet Food Store in North Beach. Stop on by—it’s a drop-in class at 6:30 p.m., and the first class is free.
Main article photo by: Kelley A. Filson