Tag Archives: dog bites

Held to a Higher Standard, part II

We humans recognize that there are constructive, or at least “legal” and acceptable ways for us to vent our aggression.  Instead of gunning the motor and ramming the car that cuts me off in traffic, I turn the air “blue” inside my car with some choice bad words.  Rather than pulling out a gun and shooting the guy who lets his Mastiff poop on my lawn (and doesn’t clean it up) I can shoot  a picture and with this evidence report him to the appropriate  authorities.  Though I might want to punch out the rude sales clerk, I can be rude in turn, or ask to speak to her manager.  We are social animals, meaning we live with others of our kind, and that means we will inevitably disagree and anger each other, sometimes to the point of violence.  All of the examples above are aggression, but we’ve ritualized physical violence into lawsuits, complaints and swearing.

Dogs have evolved a similar set of ritualized behaviors.  They’re social animals, too  — and they carry dangerous weapons (large teeth and powerful jaws) around with them all the time!   If dogs hadn’t found other ways to express and avoid violence, they’d have killed and injured each other to the point where their species wouldn’t have survived!  Dogs actually start learning this ritualization before they can see or walk.  If the puppies bite too hard on mama-dog’s nipples, she gets up and takes “dinner” with her.  Puppy teeth, those super-sharp little spikes, come in about the time puppies start wrestling with their siblings.  It has been theorized that evolution “selected” those sharp teeth (not really needed for nursing) because dogs need to learn bite inhibition.  Needle-like teeth penetrate their sibling’s fur, so they can feel a bite that is too roughly delivered! And just like mama-dog did, a sibling who feels pain will pull away from her brother and not want to play.  So dogs learn to “pull their punches” long before they develop the jaw strength and grow the adult teeth to do real damage.

There’s a whole set of ritualized warnings before the inhibited bite! We don’t give dogs enough credit! They actually very rarely make contact. They prefer to freeze with a closed mouth, wrinkle a lip, show some teeth, growl, glare sideways, give a warning snap in the general direction of what’s annoying them. People often say, “He tried to bite, but I pulled away in time.” Unlikely!  A dog’s reflexes are so much faster than ours that when they want to bite — they do. A ninja couldn’t react fast enough to avoid a snap if the dog was in earnest!  A snap that doesn’t “land” is a warn-off that even we humans should be able to notice, understand and respect.

Most dogs will bite if pushed far enough.  Fearful dogs are more likely to bite than “dominant” dogs who are sure of themselves.  However, even when a dog actually bites a human, it’s most often a warning bite where the dog inhibits the bite force. Rather than crushing bone, the snap causes a few punctures. If that bite fell on another dog’s neck it probably wouldn’t even reach the skin through the hair.  Unfortunately, we humans don’t have that protection.

I am NOT making light of a dog biting a human.  It is profoundly shocking and upsetting when one does.  Some dear friends own a lovely “all-American” dog that I’ve known from her puppyhood 9 years ago.  She was under a year old when this incident occurred and I was not as well-versed in a dog’s body language then as I am now.  Helping to clean up the kitchen at their house, I noticed Funky licking the dishes already in the dishwasher.  I yelled at her, she continued to lick.  She may have given warning signals – I think I remember a growl — but I was too ignorant of Doglish then to pay attention. Thoughtlessly, I tried to push her jaws away from a resource she regarded as hers, and she bit me.  It brought me to tears!  Upon inspection, she hadn’t even broken the skin, but the action was so unexpected and seemed so violent to me that I cried!

Believe me, if Funky had wanted to do damage, she could and would have!  She clearly inhibited her bite – meaning it as a warning, not punishment!  I consider that this incident was my fault for expecting her, a puppy, to understand what was forbidden in a human household.  I was a visitor in her house and trying to tell her what to do – which we humans rightly consider to be our right, but at times fail to TEACH the dog!  I ignored any warning signals, and she still didn’t want to really harm me.  To my knowledge, Funky has never bitten anyone else.  She is incredibly gentle with small children and babies, noticeably making allowances for their grabbing, poking and pulling behavior.  How sad if my friends had over-reacted and sent Funky to a shelter or had her euthanized for that one snap.  Unfortunately, many people might have — and many lawmakers want to require them to do so!

I believe dog owners should be required to learn more about their body language and how to deal with and not provoke a dog into biting.  I pray that parents teach their children to recognize the warning signals a dog gives and respect those signals instead of punishing the dog for giving them! It is my fervent hope that we do not automatically assume that all dogs, in all circumstances, with all people will be calm, happy and friendly.   My point in this and yesterday’s posting is that HUMANS are the animals with the bigger brain, so shouldn’t we be gracious enough to extend to dogs the same forgiveness according to “circumstances” that we claim for ourselves?  I certainly would place a bit more of the onus for managing and dealing with those differing circumstances on the animal with the bigger brain!

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Held to a Higher Standard

I wonder how many humans have never shouted at someone else in anger, or thrown/slammed an object when frustrated? Is there anyone who’s NEVER used bad language when cut off in traffic, or hasn’t walloped the family dog when she swiped something off the table? Can you honestly say you haven’t (at least once) slapped/punched someone — or spanked a child — because your temper boiled over?

Honestly, I must admit that I’ve done all of the above! I would be VERY surprised if anyone other than Mother Theresa (and she’s dead) is innocent of those or similar expressions of fury. Though physical violence is never a good solution, psychiatrists say expressing our anger and aggravation is healthy and natural. So, I wonder why the family dog is never allowed to express hers…

Reading MINE, a Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs by Jean Donaldson has reminded me how we hold our Family Dogs to an impossibly high standard.  We demand that they direct no aggressive behavior (even ritualized) toward a human or another dog for their entire lives, regardless of circumstances!

Ms. Donaldson points out that dog-created injuries are a particularly emotional issue — a dog bite is far more likely to be taken to an emergency room than a comparable kitchen accident. She says, “One is far more likely to be struck by lightning several times…Kids are also astronomically more likely to be injured or killed by a parent or guardian” than by the family dog.  Yet, “the standard we have set for them [dogs] is one we would consider absurd for any other species of animal, including ourselves.”

Please do not think I am recommending that we allow our dogs to bite. Any biting behavior should be dealt with immediately and if the dog cannot be re-trained the owners should use a muzzle (or some other fail-safe) and/or consider euthanasia. However, there is a huge gulf between warnings: a snarl (lifted lip), growl, air-snap, corrective bite that intentionally doesn’t break skin, and the serious multiple puncture, grab-hang-on-and-shake-the-head bites of a dog that’s out of control — its own and its owners!

I’m not talking about dogs trained to attack or people who intentionally harbor dangerous animals as “protection.” Those are in another category and are in the nature of weapons, just like a trained martial-artist’s hands and feet. I am talking about the run-of-the-mill family pet that occasionally has a bad day and growls or snaps when pushed too far!  When our society was rural, we all were better acquainted with the animal kingdom.  As Ms. Donaldson says we took dog bites in stride because “Dogs were animals and animals sometimes bit.” Now, we want to sue and demand that lawmakers ban breeds, instead of legislating minimum training requirements for owner and dog.

Seems like this is such an emotional issue because we feel betrayed when the family dog snaps.  Dogs are “man’s best friends,” right?  So when they show anything less than unconditional love and acceptance of everything we shove at them, we are hurt. And not just from the teeth-marks! The pain goes deeper – we trust our dogs to be the one creature that will always “be there” for us.  So, when they aren’t – worse, if the dog hurts someone we love — there is grief, sorrow, even anguish in addition to the physical hurt.

We have to understand that dogs, just like humans, can have a bad day.  A dog that is in pain lashes out.  A dog that is tired, gets cranky. A dog that is stressed, has less self-control.  A dog that is afraid will try to protect herself.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t expect a lot of our dogs, just that we shouldn’t expect more of an animal than WE can deliver!

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And Thereby Hangs a Tail

If we see a dog, a tail should be hanging thereby! However many breeds don’t have much of one! Though there are a few, like the Australian Shepherd, born with little or no tail, almost all “bobbed” breeds get that way through human intervention. I’m not going to discuss the issues concerning pain and trauma to the dog in this post. Even if the process was totally painless — even if it does indeed save a working dog from damaging its tail (as is the excuse for many of these cosmetic changes) — I would still consider docking a dog’s tail to be cruel to the animal.

Dogs depend on their tails to communicate. No wild canine species is tail-less. Most have large, well-furred caudal appendages! A tail adds weight to carry around, and growing thick fur requires lots of good food that could be used by the brain or kidneys!. Natural selection has a way of eliminating structures that are unimportant, that do not contribute to a species survival. If the luxurious tails of wild dogs didn’t help them stay alive, the ones with smaller tails would have won the evolutionary race until dogs were naturally tail-less.

But that isn’t the case. In cold climates, wolves and foxes curl their tail around their noses during sleep to keep warm. A tail can act as a counter-balancing rudder when making quick changes of direction. Even though domestic dogs don’t need a tail to keep warm or hunt, they still need it to COMMUNICATE.

Canines are social animals and all social animals need to share information and keep track of relationships within the group. If they could not, they would not survive long in or as a group. Their language, unlike ours, is primarily one of posture, gesture and body language. The tail is one of the most expressive body parts a dog possesses! Dogs do not wag or make other moves with their tails if they are alone, so a tail is clearly used to communicate with other animals.

My comprehension of “Doglish” is no better than an English-speaking adult trying to master a complex, unrelated language like Mandarin Chinese. Even though I can’t begin to see, let alone interpret even half of what a dog’s tail tells another dog, it tells me a lot!

Clipped beneath the belly, the dog is afraid and afraid to the point of protecting against injury. Hanging limply straight down, the dog is nervous and doubtful, especially if the tail gives a tentative wag. Clamped tight over the anus, the tail tells another dog that it is NOT welcome to sniff butt — the dog may be fearful or be a dominant dog denying an inferior into his personal space. Hanging low, but slightly curling and wagging just a bit, the dog is friendly, but wonders if you are. Held motionless, straight out, level with the spine and stiff means the dog is hunting — it might be a little furry creature or a playmate or the dog next door who has come too far into his domain. Held high over the back, with the fur fluffed out says the dog is trying to establish dominance, even if the tail is wagging it will wag stiffly from the base like a metronome. A loose, easily-moving tail making big swishy swooping wags is relaxed and pretty happy. A tail whipping from side to side, carrying the hips with it means the dog is very happy and excited and seeing someone he likes. A tail that goes around and around like a propeller says the dog has nothing else on his mind except being your friend.

Those are only the meanings I came up with right off the top of my head out of my poor, broken-Doglish patois! A canine probably would detect three or four times that many meanings besides! (Also, please note that the tail only tells part of the “tale” and with each position above, a change in ears, muzzle, body, vocalizations etc. can further shade the translation.) My point is that if I, a mere human with no caudal appendage, can get that much information from a tail, a dog without one must be handicapped much like a deaf human using sign-language would be if he lost a hand.

Take the Rottweiler, for example. They are big, smooth-muscles dogs with a sleek coat — and if not docked — a long, somewhat bushy tail! I’m sure that is why the tail is docked. Having something pretty close to a GSD’s tail looks mis-matched “hung” on the sleekly-furred rump of a Rottie. However, docked down to a couple of vertebrae, the tail cannot give the signals I described above. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Rotties are one of the most difficult dogs to “read.” We’ve taken away their means of communication. I think much of their reputation for aggression stems from humans and other dogs misunderstanding their signals. Signals that a Rottie thinks he’s sending, but doesn’t have the tail to put across.

In most breeds, tail-docking these days is really for cosmetic reasons.  Breeders couldn’t accomplish everything with genetics alone, and resorted to snipping off the bits (usually ears and tails) that didn’t match.  Yes, there were some reasons to trim vulnerable parts when dogs were out in the field all day, getting their tails ripped up by the brush, or to keep them from being chewed up in a dog-fight. To deprive a dog of his means of communicating just seems wrong to me and I wonder at the promotion of the practice by those who are advocates for a particular breed and (one presumes) the welfare of that breed. And thereby hangs another tale!

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To Tug or Not to Tug?

Yesterday, two daycare doggies, who’ve been friends since they were in puppy class together, discovered the joys of TUG! They played TUG with the un-stuffed animal toy, then with the indestructible Frisbee, then — best of all — with the soft-squeaky bone. They played standing up and lying down. Once, one lay on her back while the other TUGGED her all over the floor! Obviously enjoying this new game, they’d go to something else like wrestling or chase-me, but kept coming back to TUG! I knew immediately when they returned to TUG, because EVERY time the two would start growling!

That started me thinking. As far as I remember, whenever I’ve played TUG with a dog, or observed other dogs playing there was usually growling involved! Not of the I’m-going-to-eat-you-for-breakfast variety, but really-in-the-moment growling. In a few cases where I didn’t know the participants all that well, the determined rumbling has made me pause for evaluation! But in all cases, it soon became obvious — watching the dog’s body language — that this was just an integral part of the game! The mock-ferocity made it more fun!

Even most people playing TUG with their dogs “growl!” Not “Grrrr!” but we tend to talk while pulling, don’t we? “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! No, you can’t have it!” all said in a rough, throaty voice quite different from conversational tones. And we draw out certain words — “Iiiiiii’ve got it!” so our vocalization mimics the dog’s rumbling even more!

There are a lot of trainers who point to the growling and warn against playing TUG with a dog because it’s an aggressive game and a test of strength and you don’t want the dog knowing it’s stronger than you are. Now, there is some validity to this. I certainly wouldn’t walk up to a strange Rottie and challenge him to a Tug-o-war with his favorite toy! Also, if a client of mine suspected their dog of resource guarding, I wouldn’t recommend the game to them! But I think forbidding TUG altogether is missing the point!

The point is that TUG is a GAME! Dogs understand GAMES! Their play almost exclusively consists of mock-fighting behaviors! But they can tell if another dog wants to have-at-’em or just have some fun! Mostly they tell by body language. Even rough-and-tumble “fighting” is recognized as sport when preceded by a PLAY-BOW. That’s the silly, butt-in-the-air, elbows-on-the-ground, tail-waving pose. Before playing, especially with a new acquaintance, each dog bends down in this posture, usually wearing goofy, tongue-lolling expressions on their faces. It’s an invitation to frolic and have fun!

Old friends don’t always do the full, formal Play-bow. They give a little bob and call it good. But it’s short-hand, like saying “Sup?” instead of “Hello! What’s up with you?” When dogs play TUG, they’ve passed the preliminaries and all war-like postures and sounds are taken in good fun. You can further tell that the dogs know it’s a game BECAUSE THE LITTLE DOG OFTEN “WINS!” Yep! The bigger dog “throws” the match so it’s more fun for his friend!

There have been some studies done showing how play helps prepare the mind for learning. In a study done with dogs, the testers used TUG as the game. After playing TUG for a few minutes, the dogs learned a set lesson quicker than dogs who did not play the game. And here’s the kicker — it didn’t matter whether the dog WON or LOST the game of TUG before their lesson!  Their brain was flooded by good-feelings chemicals that helped them learn no matter what the result.

So, I think we should be aware that TUG isn’t the best game to play with certain dogs in certain circumstances. However, for the most part, if the DOG understands it’s just play, I don’t think we humans should put too much emphasis on winning and losing. The dog certainly won’t!  It’s not whether we win or lose but how we play the game — something else our dogs can teach us!

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It’s Funny Now…

Folks are always sending me videos of dogs and little kids with captions saying how “cute” and/or “hilarious” their interaction is. Most of the time reading that, I cringe, but it’s like passing an accident on the highway — I just have to look! So I hit “play.” Unfortunately, just as I suspected, most of the time I don’t find the interaction a bit funny.

The latest one today showed a toddler sitting on a couch, a plate in his lap with a sandwich on it. He was really a really cute kid! Mom was sitting on one side of him and the FD (family dog) on the other side. From the smothered laughter “voice over” Dad was the one filming.

So, both parents were in the room. It also seemed obvious to me that what would happen would be no surprise to them. From Mom’s look of happy anticipation and Dad’s chortles as they watched the little boy and FD, the parents were hoping to record something “cute” and “hilarious.” They were HOPING to have a certain set of circumstances repeated.

The FD was a large Shepherd/Lab mix or maybe a Rottie mix. I thought he was really cute, too! He was also much taller than the little boy, and probably weighed 4 times as much. The FD was calm and not making physical contact with Junior, but was focused on the sandwich with the intensity of a heat-seeking missile. If he drooled, the slime would’ve landed in the kid’s lap, if not on the sandwich!

At one point the little boy picked up the sandwich and the FD leaned in closer. I thought, “oh, no!” but the child calmly pushed the dog’s head away and put the sandwich back on his plate. The FD allowed his head to be pushed away, but remained fixated on the food, leaning even closer, if possible.  It seemed like the house rule was he couldn’t touch anything on the kid’s plate.

All the while, the child hardly looked at the FD. He kept looking at Mom and Dad wondering why they were staring at him and laughing. After about 45 seconds, Junior picked up the sandwich to take a bite — and “presto-change-o” it was gone! The FD slipped in and inhaled it right out of the kid’s hand and mouth. The child looked at his empty hand while the parents howled and guffawed.

It’s obvious that these parents love both child and FD very much, and wanted to record this “fun” interaction between them to preserve the fond memory. It’s also obvious that the child has no fear of the dog, nor really resented having his lunch stolen, and that the FD is probably pretty gentle around the boy. However, it was equally obvious to me that those parents have no idea what they are teaching the dog, let alone the child.

Sure, it might look cute and funny now, but by allowing a dog to steal food from a child, you are teaching the dog that he is above that child in the pecking order. As a dominant animal, he will feel free to take food (or anything else) any time he wants, expecting the subordinate “pup” will let it go. What happens when Junior decides to take something back? The FD would very probably give Junior a “correction” as any dominant dog has the right to do! And dogs commonly correct their puppies with a nip to the face.

Unfortunately, puppies have thick, loose skin covered with fur to prevent that nip from drawing blood. Children do not have that protection — from either physical or psychological harm. The parents wouldn’t be laughing if the dear old FD decided to chastise that uppity youngster, and Junior had to be taken to the ER for stitches! “What happened? We don’t understand! FD was always so sweet with Junior!” The dog would be blamed and for something that wasn’t really his fault!  For something that was, in fact, the fault of the parents!

I’m sure the parents are not endangering their child deliberately!  They probably haven’t had a lot of training experience or know much about dog psychology.  But they wouldn’t let another child hover over Junior and take his lunch away, would they?  So, why is it alright when the FD does it?  Because it’s “cute?”

On this particular video the typed caption said something like “maybe the kid will eat his lunch faster from now on — the dog was patient for so long!” Is that really what you want a child to learn from the situation? That’s not a solution! The dog should never be allowed to hover over ANYONE — no matter what the person’s age — while they’re eating. A child should be protected from a pushy dog and Junior should learn to move somewhere out of a dog’s reach — like the table or a high counter!

If the dog was taught to respect any two-legger’s personal space, this incident wouldn’t have been filmed. The parents wouldn’t have their “cute” and “hilarious” memory.  But they wouldn’t be in danger of creating memories of a very different kind, either.

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The “Only Dog” Syndrome

We all know that dogs are pack animals, like their wild cousins.  Canines were probably domesticated so easily because the human hunter-gatherer group dynamic was similar enough to a pack structure to feel comfortable to them.  In our modern world, when a family adopts Toby-dog, he adopts the family right back as his surrogate pack.

The single-family home is probably even closer to a wild wolf pack, in some ways, than the extended human clan of long ago.  There is a single mated pair that reproduces.  Most other members of the group are their offspring of various ages.  In some cases, an older, non-reproducing adult (grandma or grandpa) also lives there.  So, it’s pretty easy for Toby-dog to figure out relationships.

Allowing Toby to observe the family hierarchy and come to his own conclusions can create problems, though.  If Toby is adopted as a puppy, he will probably consider he is on equal footing with the other puppies — the kids. So, he can treat them in the same rough-and-tumble fashion as he did his littermates.  If he’s adopted as an adult dog, he may consider that his status is above the “cubs” and think he is entitled to discipline them when they don’t show him the proper respect.

These are probably NOT the same views held by the humans of the household.  A  dog in a household of humans must to be taught to obey all the two-leggers — even the kids.  Both adults and children can easily teach Toby that they are dominant — and without any confrontation or force!  Just show Toby that the HUMANS control the RESOURCES.  That means to get anything he wants/needs:  food, water, treats, toys, attention, petting, play, going outside, coming inside, getting in a lap/on the furniture… Toby has to follow a simple command (like SIT) before the human gives it to him!  There are other issues to be addressed, of course, but that’s the idea in a nutshell!

It’s especially important for the truly “only dog” who lives as a surrogate child in a household of one or two adults to learn this.  It’s too easy to give Toby the idea that he is the King of the Castle!  In canine society, the dominant dog doesn’t solicit attention — only the lower-ranking animals lick faces and beg to be noticed.  So, if “his” humans lavish him with “loving” — very natural to us — he gets the idea that he’s Mr. Big-and-Most-Important, because all the other “dogs” are fawning over him.  Oops!

I’m not saying we can’t kiss and cuddle our dogs!  I’m just suggesting that we need to balance it with making Toby “work” for our attention.  There’s nothing punitive about asking Toby to SIT (on the floor) before he gets up in your lap!  It’s good manners!  Just like we teach our human kids to say “Please” and “Thank you” we need to do the same with our dogs!

In one way, no matter how many humans are in the household, if Toby is the only dog it’s going to create other socialization issues.  Think of it this way, a baby is taken from his parents in one country and raised by foster parents in another.  When he meets someone from his “native land” as an adult, he will not understand their language or customs and may give offense without meaning to do so.  Humans, no matter what their age, don’t interact the same way as another dog would, so Toby needs to be taught how to speak “adult Doglish” by meeting with other dogs of all ages.

I’ve gone on long enough today, and will return to this topic tomorrow.  I just really want to stress how important getting your newly adopted dog out of your house and into some interactions with “his own kind” is!  It’s every bit as important as socializing him to lots of different humans.  And socialization needs to happen both inside and outside the home.

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Trade Me!

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! 

 

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