You are not alone. Let’s find out how to put a stop to your canine thief!
- Why do dogs steal
- My dog growls when he steals
- How to take something off your dog
- Get your dog to drop something
- How to prevent your dog stealing food
- Punishing dogs for stealing
- Teaching leave it
- How to avoid dogs stealing
- Training dogs not to steal
- Stealing when you are out
- How to stop your dog stealing – summary
Coping with a dog that keeps stealing your things is a big problem faced by many puppy parents.
Which dogs are most likely to steal?
It varies of course, but most canine thieves are under two and a half years old. Mature dogs can’t usually be bothered.
Gundogs are often the biggest culprits because they are quite ‘mouthy’. We have after all bred them for generation upon generation to carry stuff for us. So perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised when they do!
Stealing in young dogs tends to peak between six and eighteen months old. Often when the dog has grown big enough to put his paws on the table or kitchen counter
If you are having to pursue your dog around the house to get your car keys back. If he has chewed the laces of your best shoes this week and it’s only Monday, or if you’ve been to the vet’s twice this month because he has swallowed a sock, the chances are your dog falls into this 6-18 month age group.
And the chances are you want the stealing to stop!
Help! My dog is stealing my stuff!
People often post up in the forum about stealing and are sometimes at their wit’s end
“I can’t put anything down” they cry “without him taking it as soon as I turn my back!”
And to add insult to injury, the dog appears to be raising two fingers as he makes off with the results of his latest raid.
“He deliberately takes stuff that isn’t his then runs around taunting us with it!” is a very common complaint.
And the owners are understandably frustrated and upset.
Canine stealing styles
Stealing is a very common problem, and different dogs have different approaches. Some are very sneaky, and will very carefully slide your knickers off the radiator when your back is turned.
Others are quite brazen and prefer a smash and grab technique. Some only steal when you are out of the house entirely.
Many retrievers just love to parade around with your stuff in their mouths, offering it up, tail wagging furiously, almost giving it to you, then ducking away at the last minute.
Some dogs make straight for their bed or dive under the sofa where they will attempt to beat the world record for dismantling a TV remote.
Others will run round and around in frantic circles whilst you attempt to catch up, until you either trip over and smack your head, or lose your temper and begin screaming hysterically.
If this is a regular event in your house, it is probably time to take action.
Stealing and growling
A common additional problem in our canine thieves is the dog that growls or snaps when you (quite reasonably) try to take your stuff away from the him.
So what is going on here? Why has your adorable puppy turned into a bad dog with criminal tendencies.
Is this adolescent disrespect and insolence. Does the dog think he is in charge, is he a juvenile delinquent, or is he just plain weird. Let’s find out
Your things versus his things – do dogs understand possession?
The first thing to consider is the concept of ‘possession’ or ‘owning’ stuff. The problem for dogs is, they don’t know what ‘mine’ means.
There are things that dogs want (food, bones, cheap toys, your socks, throw pillows and fancy shoes) and things that they don’t want (such as expensive toys bought especially for them). You can have those!
So a dog that is stealing things, is actually simply taking stuff he wants. He is not making any kind of assessment or judgement as to whom they belong. They could be his. They could be yours. It’s all the same to him. It’s just that you notice (and mind) when they are yours.
Getting him his own toys may help. Especially if he really likes them. But you still need to keep your stuff out of his way. He doesn’t really understand the difference between them.
Is stealing a sign of disrespect in dogs?
It is common to hear people use the words “deliberate, defiant, disrespectful and dominant” when it comes to canine behavior. This stems from outdated theories about pack leadership, and the ‘alpha’ dog.
We used to think that dogs formed a pack with a leader or alpha dog at the top. And we used to believe that in your family, if you own a dog, you needed to make sure you were the alpha, and your dog was at the bottom of the heap.
Domestic dogs don’t form packs, nor do they value status or rank.
What dogs value is ‘stuff’.
Resources. Things they would like to be theirs.
That’s why a dog that guards food may be completely cool about you climbing all over his bed or pulling his tail (not that you should do this).
It isn’t about rank or leadership. It’s much more simple than that. It is about the things your dog values or is most afraid of losing.
So, if your dog is not being disrespectful, or trying to take over your family, why is he stealing your stuff!! Including boring things like your kid’s pencil case or a note you wrote for your other half?
He doesn’t want them, or need them. He often just ends up breaking them. So why does he do it?
Why do puppies start stealing?
If they want something, most puppies and young dogs will try and take it. This is normal.
Remember, although we call it stealing, it isn’t really stealing because dogs don’t understand our rules of possession.
Puppies pick up things that smell interesting or appealing, just to find out what they taste like or feel like. Like babies, puppies explore the world with their mouths.
Because of what happens after they take something that doesn’t belong to them, some dogs then get into the habit of constantly picking things up, and running off with them.
Why dogs keep stealing
Dogs keep stealing because they get some kind of reward out of it. That reward may not be obvious to us at first, but there always is one.
In one way or another, when your dog steals, he enjoys the consequences.
It’s important that we understand why our own dogs steal because that will help us create the right system for stopping them from doing it.
The rewards that dogs get for stealing can be varied, and often fall into one of three main categories. Your dog’s stealing may be:
- Intrinsically rewarded
- Rewarded through attention
- Deliberately rewarded
Let’s look more closely at those.
Intrinsically rewarded stealing
Sometimes the item stolen is rewarding in itself. Food, including the contents of your bin (yeah, your dog regards that as food), plus things that squeak or roll and that can be chased are very rewarding to most dogs.
Items that smell strongly of you may also be attractive. Underwear and socks tend to fall into this category!
And don’t forget, a dog can smell human scent on items that have been through the washing machine – many times. So being clean isn’t going to save your garments from his loving attentions!
Stealing that is rewarded with attention
Many dogs value human attention highly. We have bred this kind of temperament into some of our most co-operative and trainable working breeds. Especially our gun dogs and sheep dogs.
Often the behavior of the humans around the dog after the theft are very rewarding. Especially to these dogs, because they focus a huge amount of attention on the dog.
This kind of behavior includes shrieking and yelling (from children and adults) chasing the dog, and tackling him to the floor. All good fun activities for a healthy young dog. Fun that is, until he starts to get scared or feel threatened. We’ll look at that in a moment.
We should probably just briefly mention the dog that is being taught to retrieve. This is a common problem in homes where we train young retrievers.
The dog realizes that retrieving is appreciated by people and often rewarded, and starts retrieving everything in the house that is not nailed down.
My dog growls when I take something off him
Most people’s response to the sight of a dog running off with their precious stuff is to chase after him and try to wrestle the object from his jaws. Unfortunately this is highly rewarding to many dogs and makes the stealing problem even worse.
Once the family has chased the dog around the room a few time and pinned him to the floor, this is when problems can really start.
What many people do at this point, is try to force the dog’s mouth open, pulling his jaws apart to retrieve the offending item.
Initially the dog probably just clamps his jaws together, but eventually if they are forced apart and the object removed, this will influence his future behavior. Some dogs will even attempt to defend themselves against this perceived assault.
It is not at all unusual for dogs who expect to have their prize snatched away, to progress to growling and even snapping. This is because they feel threatened and are afraid of losing their new possession
Many dog owners, quite rightly, see growling as a serious issue in a dog. And a few incidents of this nature can buy a dog a one way ticket to the local shelter.
This is a great pity because many perfectly nice and safe dogs, will growl if physically attacked. Most owners never discover this because they never get into a physical conflict with their dogs.
It is important therefore, to make sure that we know how to take something safely off a dog who wants to keep it.
How NOT to take something off your dog
You should not try and physically remove an item from your dog’s mouth except in the most dire emergency (if he is choking for example).
The reasons for this are twofold
- Next time the dog may guard his mouth – ie growl or snap at you
- Next time he may try to swallow what he has in his mouth.
If a dog really does not want you to have what he has got in his mouth he has two options. He can put it where you can never find it – in other words in his tummy- or he can fight you for it.
Dogs that pick up tiny things like coins and little stones, can be quite a worry. Puppies often do this out of curiosity. It’s their way of exploring the world.
Occasionally a puppy will pick up something dangerous – a tiny battery for example
The last thing you want to do is teach a puppy to swallow the things they put in their mouths.
What you want the dog to do, is spit it out. And we’ll talk about teaching that in a moment. But for now, how do you cope with a dog that isn’t trained to drop an object.
Don’t forget, you should also refrain from chasing your dog, because as we have seen, many dogs find this highly rewarding and it reinforces the stealing and encourages the dog along his pathway to a life of crime.
The right way to take something off your dog
Supposing your dog has made off with the TV remote or the book you just bought your granny for her birthday.
If you can’t chase the dog, or physically take your things back, how do you retrieve your property with the least possible damage
When a dog is holding something in his mouth that you want. And has not been trained to let that article go, you have two choices.
- You can ignore the dog
- You can swap the item for something he wants better
Ignoring is a great strategy if the dog is just trying to get your attention by picking up your stuff.
If he is about to destroy something valuable, you need to head straight for the fridge and arm yourself with several tasty snacks. This is for the dog, not for you!
How to get your dog to drop something he has stolen
If your dog is a veteran thief, the first few times you do this, you may need to actually push the snack onto the end of the dog’s nose before he will drop the item he is holding.
Make sure you have another snack ready!
If he was carrying something dangerous, put your foot on it as soon as it hits the ground to be absolutely sure he cannot pick it up again. Then throw tasty snacks well away from you while you dispose of the dangerous item.
What if your dog won’t swap!
With dogs that have a history of stealing, swapping can sometimes be hard because the dog doesn’t trust you.
He is used to being chased and grabbed at, and won’t come near enough to focus on the swap you are offering. Instead, he dives straight under the sofa and proceeds to demolish your favorite shoe.
In this situation, you need to have your dog wear a houseline
How a houseline can help you
A houseline is a great way of managing a dog while you work on training him or improving his behaviour.
It can help with dogs that jump up at visitors, dogs that run off with your shoes, dogs that won’t get off the furniture and so on.
With thieves, it enables you to bring the dog right up close to you so that you can give him a massive reward for letting go of his prize.
He is not going to hang on to your shoe if there is a piece of roast beef right under his nose and he can’t move away from you.
Using a houseline
A houseline keeps things cool between you, and avoids physical tussles and chasing.
You can simply ‘lead’ the dog away and put him in another room or behind a barrier while you think about what to do next and how to manage the situation better in the future.
When you get up in the morning, just put a harness on your dog, he can wear that for the day, and attach a houseline to it. Take the houseline and harness off at night and anytime he is left on his own in the house, so that he can’t get tangled up in anything while you are out
Dog that steal food
When a dog is stealing food on a regular basis, you have a different problem.
Partly because he will probably swallow it immediately, and partly because you’ll struggle to find something more valuable to him than the cake you baked especially for your in-laws.
Food is what we call a primary reinforcer. A survival essential.
Some dogs, no matter how hungry, never take food from tables or counters. My chocolate Labrador is like this. It simply has never occurred to her to take anything off the table.
She is in the minority
Many dogs will steal food whenever they think they can get away with it, which is usually whenever you are not looking.
The answer to that in the short term, if you have not guessed already is not cure. But prevention.
If your dog is making off down the garden with your filet mignon, well, you had better kiss it goodbye, because even in the unlikely event that you retrieve the item almost intact from his mouth, I doubt anyone is going to want to eat it.
The truth is that stealing food left lying around unsupervised by humans is so common in dogs of all breeds, as to be regarded as normal.
How to prevent your dog stealing food
In most families, the best solution is to make food inaccessible to dogs. This can be achieved in one of several ways
- Putting food away
- Gating areas where food is prepared and served.
- Training a dog to lie in a designated place during food preparation or consumption
With a new puppy, if you make sure there is never any food within reach of your puppy in your kitchen or elsewhere, then eventually, as he grows and matures, it will never occur to him to look for it or take it.
You can teach the ‘leave it’ command with respect to food. And we’ll look at that in a moment. But, food is such a powerful reward that teaching dogs to ‘leave it’ whilst you leave the room is time consuming.
It is probably simpler just to get the whole family to put food away..
What about punishment?
Punishment is often one of the first things people try when their dogs start stealing. Punishments vary from smacking and scoldings, to ‘time out’
But there are downsides to punishment that make it a generally rather unhelpful tool when it comes to stealing.
Punishment makes dogs sneaky
The first problem is that it is difficult to deliver punishment accurately – at the exact moment that the dog touches or makes a move for, your stuff.
Even if you succeed in accurately delivering a punishment once, dogs are persistent and unless the punishment is so devastating as to cause them actual harm, they are likely to try several more times before giving up.
And next time they try, they will be careful to do it when you are not watching.
So, while punishment may make your dog spit out your stuff this time, it will also make your dog more secretive and evasive in the future.
Punishment doesn’t solve your problem
You are much more likely to end up finding your favorite hat mangled under the table if your dog has been punished for stealing, and much more likely to find him bringing it to you undamaged if he has been rewarded with a swap.
In conclusion, punishment probably won’t stop him stealing.
What about teaching ‘leave it’
We talked earlier about training the dog not to touch food intended for humans. While prevention should be your first line of defence, you can, if you wish, teach your dog not to touch food until you offer it to him
Here is an excellent kikopup video that you can watch to give you an idea of what is involved.
Remember, If a dog growls when he is holding something, it doesn’t mean he thinks it is his. It just means he wants it, and he is scared of losing it.
Or that he is just plain scared because you are acting all weird and shouty.
Next time your dog steals something
It may not even occur to your dog that the shouting is about what is in his mouth, or that dropping the thing in his mouth will end the shouting.
So try to see things from his side, back away, and find him something yummy to exchange for your mobile phone.
Let’s sum up what we have covered so far. We need a two pronged approach to deal with stealing
Good management of your puppy or dog can prevent a stealing habit getting started and help an established stealing habit die.
How to avoid dogs stealing with good management
The first step is to reduce conflict. A small battle is easier to win than a bigger one. You need to:
- Get your family to pick up their stuff
- Restrict your dog from accessing some areas of the house.
For example, if your dog is a cushion thief, or a TV remote thief, put a baby gate across your living room door so she cannot go in there without you.
A baby gate across the bottom of the stairs prevents dogs nipping up and removing teddies from the children’s bedrooms, or dirty laundry (a favourite target) from the hamper in the bathroom.
A baby gate across the kitchen keeps the dog out of reach of food when you are preparing or consuming it.
I know this seems really obvious, but its surprising how many people have their problem virtually solved by this simple method.
How to prevent dogs stealing through training
Preventing theft while you are supervising your dog is possible with the ‘leave it’ cue.
This means that as your dog approaches your best silk cushion and extends his neck towards it you can simply say ‘leave it’ and he will turn away and amuse himself elsewhere.
Dogs that steal when you are out
People often have high expectations of how dogs should behave when they are not there.
For example: you would not tell your dog to ‘sit’ before you left for work, and expect him to be sitting in the same position when you got home three hours later. Yet people expect a dog to do this with ‘don’t touch’.
Some cues, or commands that we teach dogs are time sensitive. Duration is a part of them. ‘Leave it’ (or ‘don’t touch my stuff’) is one of those cues.
Duration is simply how long you expect the task your dog is carrying out, to last. It is something we need to purposefully teach our dogs. This applies to ‘leave it’ in the same way that it applies to sit, or down.
What we are expecting when we want a dog to ‘not touch stuff’ whilst we are not there, is a cue with infinite duration. Which simply isn’t reasonable.
Relieving boredom in canine thieves
We talked earlier about dogs that steal because it gets them a lot of attention. And about dogs that steal because they have a huge urge to carry things around. The two are often combined.
You can help a dog like this by making sure he has adequate attention at other times and that he is getting sufficient mental stimulation and physical exercise during the day.
If your thief is a gun dog and loves to carry something in his mouth, make sure he has his own things to carry.
Spend some time retriever training with him too, so that he fulfil his urge to carry things and learn to do so in a disciplined way.
How to stop your dog stealing – a summary
The best way to get your stolen things back, relatively unharmed (apart from some drool) is to swap the thing in your dog’s mouth for some really tasty food.
- Don’t chase dogs with stolen objects in their mouths as this encourages them to steal again.
- Punishment leads to evasive dogs and to dogs that swallow potentially harmful objects.
- You can’t prevent most normal dogs stealing food without a lot of training. Do the training or put your food away.
Clearing up prevents other kinds of stealing too. Nine times out of ten, dogs steal people’s possessions because they have been given too much freedom in a paradise of other people’s clutter.
Keeping a young dog out of family rooms that aren’t fairly tidy, and crating young dogs that steal, when you have to leave them alone in the house is often a temporary solution that enables you to break this annoying habit.
Dogs are opportunists, and it is important for your relationship with your dog that you stay friends and pick your battles carefully.
If you can remove some opportunities for your dog to steal using baby gates, life will be more pleasant for you both.
Does your dog steal? Or did he steal as a puppy? Tell us what his favorite item is, or what you do to keep your things safe at home.
Want to know more about training your dog and keeping him out of mischief? Then check out Pippa’s best selling dog training book Total Recall.
Total Recall is a complete recall training programme packed with dog training advice and help.
If you enjoyed Pippa’s article on stealing – you’ll love this book and you’ll feel like an expert by the time you get to the end!