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You come downstairs and go to slip your feet into your snug slippers. Only there’s just the one slipper waiting for you. It’s also unusually quiet in your noisy household. You wander around calling for your dog. Eventually, you find him tucked away in a corner with a somewhat familiar slipper hanging from his mouth. You try your best to pull it out, but he thinks you just want to play tug of war. Whatever you try, he just won’t give it up. It’s the same problem when you try and feed him tablets when he’s ill, or when he’s got his mouth around anything else in the house.
If you can train him to open his mouth you’ll never lose another slipper to his nashers again. You won’t have an uphill battle when you take him to play fetch as well, he’ll just give up the ball so you can throw it for him again.
Training your dog to open his mouth isn’t always as simple as you’d hope. Once dogs have found something they enjoy chewing, convincing them to let it go isn’t a small feat. Likewise, if his mouth remains firmly shut as you approach with some unpleasant tasting medicine, getting him to open up can be challenging. You will need to use mouth-watering treats and food to encourage him to open wide. If he’s a puppy this training may take just a few days as he’ll hopefully be a quick learner. If he’s aging and not quite as receptive as he once was, be prepared to spend up to ten days training.
Get this training right and he’ll open up regardless of what he’s got in his mouth, or what you want to put into it. It also makes trips to the vet's and examinations a lot smoother.
Before you begin, you’ll need several things. Break his favorite food into small chunks or get hold of some tasty treats. You will use these to tempt him to open up--he can’t get those snacks if his mouth is kept firmly closed. A clicker may also speed up the process.
You will also need a quiet space at home to practice. Find ten minutes each day for training at a time where there won’t be noisy children tearing around, or several things you’re in the middle of (I know that’s easier said than done).
Apart from that you just need a can-do attitude and you’re good to get going!
The Irresistible Treat Method
Stand in front of him
Make sure you are alone, then have your dog sit in front of you. You want his attention focused entirely on you. Make sure you have a few treats in your pocket.
Give the command in a clear voice. Also say it in an upbeat tone, you want to keep the whole thing a game. If he think he’s playing, he’ll be more eager to continue learning. You don’t have to use the word ‘open’, you can use anything you fancy.
Wait for him to open
Keep a close eye on his mouth and wait for him to open it. If he doesn’t open it after a few seconds, hold out a treat, that’s guaranteed to open the trap door. Then be ready to react swiftly.
As soon as he opens his mouth you need to give him a treat. You can also throw in some verbal praise to emphasize he performed a correct behavior. If you wait too long to give him the treat, he won’t associate the reward with opening his mouth.
Practice, practice, and more practice
Make sure you spend a few minutes each day training. After a couple of days he’ll have made the link between the command and the behaviour you want. Once he opens his mouth swiftly after you instruct him to, you can stop giving him treats every time. He understands now and the food incentive will no longer be required.
The Hands On Method
Have your dog sit in front of you in a quiet room. Make sure his attention is on you and that you have treats with you. You can also use a clicker to speed up the training process.
Head for his mouth
Slowly reach down and tease his mouth open with your fingers. Place your fingers at the back sides of his mouth and squeeze gently. This will automatically make him open his mouth. Make sure you aren’t too rough, you don’t want to scare or hurt him. Also be silent as you do this, that way when you praise him in a second he knows he’s done something right.
Once his mouth is open, click, give him a treat and reinforce the point with some verbal praise. It’s really important you show him he’s behaved correctly. He’ll learn much quicker if he’s rewarded promptly and handsomely. Practice this several times in the first session.
Introduce a verbal command
On the second day you can issue an ‘open’ command as you open his mouth. Use whatever command you like, dogs can learn a huge number of different phrases. Over time, he will associate the command with the hand action, at which point you’ll be able to stop getting covered in dog slobber. Again, when he opens, click, treat and praise. Continue doing this for a couple of days.
Lose the slobber
When you think he’s getting the hang of it, you can stop encouraging him with your hands. By this point, he’ll know what is expected of him and the command alone should be prompt enough. Once you reach this point you can gradually cut down on treats until they’re not needed at all.
The Toy Lure Method
Be armed with a clicker
Make sure you have your clicker with you at the ready, you’re going to use it to get him opening wide. You’ll also need a generous supply of treats and a toy handy.
Make the toy his world
Play with the toy through out the day with an animated and excited voice. Play tug of war, roll around with him, make that toy the most desirable object in his world. Leaving it in his bed at night will make it smell like him and make it feel even more like his.
Hold it above his head
Have him sit in front of you then take the toy and dangle it above his mouth. His natural reaction will be to open up to try and close his teeth around it. This is precisely what you want. As soon as he does that, click your clicker to signal to him he’s done something right.
At the same time as he opens his mouth, issue a cue like ‘open wide’. Make sure you say it in a firm but playful voice. You want him to think this is all one big game. That way you’ll keep his attention and he’ll keep learning. As soon as he does open up, drop the toy into his mouth and play around with it for 20 seconds. This is his reward, so really give him lots of attention.
Slowly lose the lure
Practice like this for the first couple of days. By the third day he will associate the command with the action, so you can stop holding the toy above him to get him to open up. Now just give the command while you hold the toy behind your back. As soon as he opens up, reward him with the toy for a short period again. Keep doing this for a couple more days, then gradually give him the toy less and less. At this point he’ll open up even without the promise of his favorite half-chewed toy.
Written by James Barra
Veterinary reviewed by:
Published: 10/25/2017, edited: 01/08/2021