One of Aesop’s fables tells of a dog with a big bone who sees his reflection in a pond. He thinks it’s another dog and growls to keep the other dog away from his bone. Then he noticess that other dog has a bone, too and it looks bigger! The dog opens his mouth to try to get it — of course dropping the bone he has, losing it in the water. I can’t remember what the moral of the fable was, but it’s plain that Aesop knew dogs.
He knew that a dog’s first inclination is to hold on to what she has, and try to warn others away so they don’t try to take it. He also knew that dogs are often easily distracted. (As the very funny Golden Retriever in UP! says — “Squirrel!” — forgetting everything else.) We can use the second quirk to help us deal with the first, which can become a problem.
I don’t care how sweet your dog is, it’s never a good idea to try to take something out of her mouth. It’s just not worth the risk. I’ve seen the most happy-go-lucky spaniel-mix stiffen and raise lip at me over a piece of something dead found next to a road. This from a dog so submissive that you have to keep your hands in your pockets at all times around him to keep from being constantly licked!
The point is, any dog can decide to guard a ball, a frisbee, or some food, and you don’t want your hands close to those teeth! A dog might bite. Even if the dog shifts her grip on the item to hold on to it, your hand can still come away bloodied.
Instead, I take advantage of a dog’s “distractablility” and play the TRADE ME game. This works to keep a dog from turning a game of FETCH into that all-time doggie fave, KEEP-AWAY. It keeps your hands well away from the toothy danger zone. It also makes a dog think it’s getting something good instead of being deprived of something else.
The trick is to find something that the dog likes BETTER or at least AS WELL as the item she holds. My spaniel-friend doggie kept his illicit goodie because I didn’t have some yummy treats in my pocket at the time, only dry biscuit. Boring! (But it’s so hard to keep chicken in my pocket all the time…)
For FETCH, usually another throw toy — ball, frisbee, whatever — suffices. As the dog is returning the first toy, brandish the second one making chirpy sounds and pretending to throw it. Most dogs will drop the toy in their mouths in anticipation of the second toy being thrown, and their eagerness to chase it.
For a verboten or dangerous item (like a chicken bone), pull out a piece of cheese or meat. If your dog isn’t food motivated, a squeaky toy often works. Let the dog see it — which means she’ll be able to smell it, too. Wave it around and say, “wanna treat?” Ask for a sit or the dog’s favorite trick (like give-a-paw). Most dogs will drop what they have with all this distraction. Retrieve the verboten item and give the dog the new treat/item.
This works much better than yelling and/or commanding the dog to “Drop it!” It keeps everything up-beat and happy! It’s a win-win. I think it also builds trust because my dog doesn’t see me as a party-pooper, trying to take her fun away. Unlike Aesop’s dog, my dog isn’t left with an empty mouth, but is rewarded for listening to me!