Written by Anna Hollisey
Snails, chewing gum, plants, parcels, dish-towels, scissors, shoes and socks… everything is treasure for your puppy. If you’ve brought home a furry little thief, don’t worry. Here’s our guide to why puppies steal stuff – and how to cope with it.
When you retrieve that towel from your dog for the hundredth time, don’t worry. You’re not alone.
Lots of puppies and young dogs ‘steal’ things around the house. They don’t yet have a grasp on what they can and can’t use. But why (why, oh why, oh why)?
Like most canine behavior, motivation is the key to training. Observation allows you to design a solution that suits the dog. So watch your dog and consider the circumstances, times, and types of things they’re stealing.
One of the main causes for this behavior is boredom. Your pup has limited resources for entertainment, and exploring their surroundings often yields good stuff. If your pup steals or destroys things while they are alone or just bored, this is fixable. Introduce extra walks or training sessions to provide the mental stimulation they crave. You can try challenge toys like a Kong or food puzzle, and give them supper on a snuffle mat.
Some breeds are intensely motivated by their appetites, which seem insatiable! Labradors and Golden Retrievers love people-food and they’re always hanging about to catch some. But if your pup seems desperate for the leftovers on plates, they could be hungry or lacking in certain nutrients. Dogs have built-in sensors that tell them when they need to consume additional food sources (that’s why you’ll see them grazing like cows sometimes). You could try changing their diet or regularly feeding them a little more, with caution.
If they’re stealing things from under your nose, they could be seeking your attention. And if you have ever chased your pup to get the chocolate/sock/letter from their mouth, maybe you accidentally made it into a game. Puppies thrive when they’re given attention and love from their people. So if they know how to get you to drop your chores and play chase… well, they’ll repeat that over and over again. You’ll have to start ignoring them or calling them somewhere else for a bit of sausage (introducing a word like “trade!”). Be sure to pick up that sock casually when they’ve given up the game (… and be prepared to sacrifice a few socks, if you’ve got a toe-chewer).
Cardboard is great for chewing to alleviate toothache, and you might notice that your pup has intense chewing phases as their teeth are popping through. The best approach is probably to play it cool and remove temptation… ensure that packages are picked up promptly and put in a safe place. Provided you get the package first, you can unwrap it and give the cardboard to your dog. After all, you wouldn’t like to suffer a toothache without any relief either.
It’s funny the first time. But if your pup is constantly stealing things to hide in their ‘den’ under the far corner of the couch, it can become a nuisance. It’s thought that dogs do this because of evolution: their ancestors were accustomed to hoarding precious resources to guard against future scarcity. And even though your pup will never have an emergency requiring your favorite sneaker, they’re programmed to save the best stuff ‘just in case’. It’s best to make sure that your dog has a supply of their own toys which nobody takes away and, if your dog reaches for your kid’s school jumper, teach them to ‘trade’ it for a really good treat. See no.5 below.
Obviously, this requires training everybody in your household! It’s not always easy, and it’s much harder when you have kids. Now seems like a good time to move the furniture and vacuum everywhere… it was probably overdue anyway.
Spray furniture with a bitter-flavored solution (which you can buy in pet stores) to dissuade puppy from chomping on it. If your pup’s wearing away the legs of your best chair, you might be forced to do this to save the chair!
Make sure you have plenty of options with different textures, so you can see what your pup loves most. You can buy pretend ‘shoes’ for chewing, but that can sometimes reinforce undesirable behaviors…
As soon as your pup realizes they have something that you REALLY, REALLY want… well, the game just became twice as fun! So you need to play this cool. Call them to you and offer a high value reward so that they drop the item, and you can calmly pick it up. You can introduce the word ‘trade’ – this is useful when you’re out and about, too.
Every dog should know the leave it command because it can save their life. Let’s say you’ve dropped a bunch of grapes or a slab of chocolate and your dog can reach it before you can. A strongly issued ‘leave it’ should be all that’s needed to stop them going for it. Startby placing an everyday treat in front of them but keep your hand loosely over it - tell them ‘leave it’. As soon as they stop trying to get it, paw or nose at it, tell them ‘good leave it’ and reward them with a much higher value treat they can’t get to. After a while, they’ll learn they’ll get a better reward and understand the concept of ‘leave it’
When your dog starts running about like an open pair of scissors (it happens), don’t freak out. Act like you didn’t notice. A simple command like ‘bed’ or ‘toy’ gives your pup a new focus. Reward them with their favorite treats when they sit on their bed or a game of tug-of-war when they fetch a toy. Teach them that they get praise and good stuff from staying calm on their bed, or bringing their own toys. Smart dogs will soon figure out they have better ways to get positive attention from you.