Do you seemingly have a klepto-canine? Perhaps he slowly sneaks up on you, snags an object, and bolts or he jumps out of nowhere, grabs, and runs. Either way, he has your stuff and you want it back. Younger dogs tend to have more compulsive stealing behaviors, as do certain breeds, but all dogs can be prone to the grab and dash behavior. There are several reasons why he may exhibit this behavior and a lot of it depends on you. As an owner, your natural instinct may be to chase him and force him to return the item, both of which make your situation worse. Take heart, however, that with some interventions and behavior management your little thief can and will learn to leave your stuff alone and be content with what is his.
The Root of the Behavior
Puppies steal objects completely out of curiosity. His whole world is new and he explores and learns through his mouth. When he takes your things, he is not trying to be disrespectful or naughty, he is learning. Most dogs that steal are between the ages of six to eighteen months. Dogs do not understand possession of objects, only wants and needs. If he wants or needs something, he will take it and want to keep it. If you try to take it from him, he will run. When a dog grabs and runs it is because he has learned that if he takes something you may try to take it away. He has also learned that being chased is fun, so he is hoping you will chase him, which only adds to his excitement.
Golden Retrievers, Papillons, Yorkshire Terriers, and gun dogs bred to find, carry, and retrieve objects seem to be more prone to grab and run. It is seemingly in their nature to have an object in their mouths. If you have a grown dog that is grabbing and running, he may be doing so for several reasons. Grabbing objects to chew is most likely about needing to chew and get out nervous energy. Breeds that need a lot of activity and mental stimulation, such as Border Collies and German-Shorthaired Pointers, may turn to thievery in an effort to get out nervous energy. If your dog is spending a lot of time confined to the house or boring yard, he may be stealing in an effort to shake up his life. Objects that belong to you and smell like you, such as socks and underwear, are a common item stolen by dogs and it is usually about wanting to be around you. Very few dogs will go without stealing food at some point, and it is more about craving than hunger. Regardless of his reason for stealing, the act itself is almost always self-rewarding. When he steals, he gets stimulated, comforted, fed, and chased. He is winning. Dogs have learned to flee after a grab because you most likely chased them to retrieve the object. Your dog does not see items as ‘yours and mine,' he just simply sees what he wants and takes it. If you chase him, he thinks it is a game of chase and keep-away. It is the fun game and attention that he loves, and now he knows another way to engage you.
Encouraging the Behavior
Stopping your dog from the grab and run behavior is part preventative and part reactive, but it all falls on you. Puppies need proper chew toys and should not be left to roam unattended. By limiting his opportunities to steal objects he should not have, and by providing him with a lot of chew toys of his own, the chances he steals decreases. A properly exercised dog or puppy is a happy pet. Take the time to offer lots of activities such as walks, playing catch, and tug-o-war as well as mental stimulation through brief moments of training exercises. Crate training, if he needs to be left alone, can also be used to limit his ability to steal. Make sure to not crate him for periods longer than six hours. Hiring a dog walker to come in the middle of the day is also helpful. Limit his ability to access your personal belongings by putting things away and closing doors to bedrooms, closets, and bathrooms.
Training your dog to ‘leave it’ can be helpful in that as he approaches an object he may want to take, telling him to ‘leave it’ indicates it is not for him. It is also a way to have food out and feel confident he will not steal it. Some trainers recommend teaching your dog to ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ in one area outside of the kitchen and dining areas during meal preparation and meal times so that he is not tempted or in the area to steal food. Making sure he is not ravenous at meal times is another way to limit his desire to steal food. By providing time-released snacks as part of a toy is a great way to stimulate and feed him at the same time. Owners have found it useful to put food in a Kong, freeze it, and then leave it for their dog to play with and munch on throughout the day.
Possibly the worst thing to do when your dog steals is to run after him. This only encourages his behavior. Trainers recommend ignoring him, running away from him, or calmly offering a trade with a high reward treat while giving the command the ‘leave it.' Most dogs can only hold one object in their mouth at time so showing a high reward treat and throwing it away from the dog often prompts him to drop the stolen object and pursue the treat, thus giving you time and space to retrieve your item.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Just as most pet owners initially chase a dog that has a stolen object, many will grab the dog and attempt to wrestle the object out of his mouth. Your dog will be completely confused by this behavior. His initial reaction will be to clamp down on the object, and your reaction is to then attempt to pry his mouth open. There is a good chance he will perceive this as an aggressive attack and may even growl. All of a sudden, what seemed like a fun game has turned into an altercation. Your dog may even keep this interaction in his learned behaviors and become aggressive and possessive over objects and food. If this scenario has played out in your home on more than one occasion, an experienced trainer can help you break the cycle and stop the grab and run as well.
Dogs take items and run because it is fun. Taking items provides an immediate reward because he has found something to play with, something to comfort him, or something to eat all in one action. When you chase him, it makes him even happier in that he has more fun and attention. Limiting his access to items you do not want him to have, teaching him to ‘leave it’ and stay out of the kitchen and dining room during meals, and providing him ample stimulation and activity throughout the day can limit his stealing. Rather than chase him when he steals, ignore him or offer a high reward treat in exchange.
By a Black Lab lover Zoe Byer
Published: 02/25/2018, edited: 01/30/2020