Why we should avoid taking that item from your dog
By Hannah Burton
There is nothing scarier than your dog picking up a potentially dangerous item on a walk! Every instinct tells you to rush over and get that item from them!
I have personally experienced the horror of a dog in my care picking up a dangerous item. I was completing a pet sitting job with a very curious dog who liked to pick up any and all items. Leaves, tissues, latex gloves, sticks… you name it he picked it up! We were out for a walk one day when he turned around to me with a disposable razor in his mouth! My panic was unbelievable, here was this dog in my care carrying something in his mouth that could potentially cost us a trip to the vets!
Every bone in my body told me grab that razer from his mouth and chuck it straight in the nearest bin. This would have been a dangerous pursuit, however, as though this may have provided immediate safety, this may have cause issues with item possession later down the line.
To help avoid guardians being put in this dangerous situation, here are the answers to our most frequently asked questions around taking items off your dogs.
Why is my dog picking up items?
Dogs, especially young puppies, explore the world almost exclusively with their mouths. Most dogs are very orally fixated as young dogs, a combination of teething and curiosity.
When your dog leaves your home for the first time there is a whole world to explore! A dog’s predominant sense, is smell, meaning taste very strongly links with this. You may see your dog licking where another dog has just urinated, this very strange (and unsanitary!) behaviour allows them to better take in information about the unfamiliar dog.
In this same way, picking up items allows dogs to explore and see what they are. They don’t understand that that very exciting chicken bone or disposable razor may be potentially dangerous! As guardians, it is our job to help our dogs be safe while also allowing them to explore the world around them.
Why shouldn’t I take things from my dog?
An excellent question, and one I am extremely glad you asked. As much as possible, we should avoid taking items from our dog’s mouths, instead either swapping for items, distracting our dog away or teaching our dog to willingly drop them.
Imagine for a moment, that you are drinking your favourite drink. I enter the room and take your drink off you. Or I take a sip. Or I throw the drink away. Every time you see me, I touch your drink. Eventually you’d probably get a little uncomfortable every time I moved towards you. After even more time you’d probably tell me off.
If we are constantly pulling things from our dog’s mouths, they will eventually get fed up. For dogs, if they have it, it’s theirs! Your dog feels exactly the same as you would if I kept touching your drink, or anything of particularly high value. Dogs cannot speak to ask you to go away, instead we must pay close attention to their body language for a better indication of how they are feeling.
I take things from my dog all the time, (s)he doesn’t mind!
You might be right; your dog might not mind at the moment. You may be taking low value items from your dog. However, what happens when they pick up an item, they feel they need to protect? By constantly taking items off your dog, you may even be adding value to that item because now it’s the item that everyone wants!
Equally, your dog might be telling you that they do mind, and their subtle signals may be being misinterpreted. If you reach towards your dog and they have something high value that they would prefer to keep, there are certain body language signals you may observe. It is likely their body will go very tense. If they are not looking directly at you, it’s likely they will look at you with a “side eye”, known as whale eye or moon eye. You may see a very small lip curl and even hear a small growl. You can see this more clearly in the image of the dog below.
Regardless of your dog’s boy language, it is still advisable to avoid taking items off your dog, even if you gave them the item in the first place! Instead, swapping your dog for high value items will reduce the conflict your dog feels about giving that item up.
How can I make my dog feel more positive about my presence around items?
If you are seeing behaviours that have you worried about your dog’s feeling around items, it is relatively easy to work with them to help them to feel more positive about your presence.
When your dog has an item that they feel worried about keeping, simply move towards them at a distance which they feel comfortable with and throw some treats towards them. Now, your presence is no longer taking items, instead you are adding tasty treats.
Repeat this process every time your dog has an item they may wish to protect. Pay close attention to your dog’s body language and get gradually closer to them as their pace.
Equally, giving your dog a safe space within the home where they can take items and remain undisturbed may make them feel more confident around that item. Having a crate or a playpen where guardians do not enter can encourage your dog to relax when they have these high value items.
How am I supposed to play fetch with my dog if I can’t take the ball off them?
Generally, we do not recommend playing fetch with your dog. Though some dogs love it, the repetitive action of back and forth running can cause joint issues. Equally, the excitement of the ball can cause your dog’s adrenaline levels to rise to the point where they are unable to think straight.
If you wish to continue playing fetch with your dog, it may be best to get two identical balls that you can swap your dog for. Equally, teaching your dog to drop the ball (more on how to do this later) so you do not have to remove the ball from your dog’s mouth can promote positive feelings towards the game.
It’s an emergency! How do I get this item off my dog?
When answering this question is always important to look at what you are considering an emergency. If your dog picking up non-toxic items they don’t plan to eat, it is probably inadvisable to take these off them. For example, if you are taking non-harmful items off your dog, now they have meaning. Before it was just a face mask, but now it is THE facemask that everyone wants. and your dog has it! What a fun game!
Alternatively, if you are constantly swapping your dog for things, the very intelligent pups may learn to pick up items purely for the opportunity to swap it! In this instance, you have taught the exact opposite to the behaviour you were trying to teach!
Instead, it is recommended you only take items from your dog that may cause them genuine harm or that they intend to eat.
If your dog has picked something up that you need to get off them, one method to do is to use Chirag Patel’s Counting Game. By making what you are doing much more interesting than that item, your dog is much more likely to drop the item without you having to intervene.
Alternatively, having practiced swapping for items with your dog will encourage your dog to drop the item in question. Practicing at home with toys and items you can give back will encourage your dog to give up items in the future.
What can I do to encourage my dog willingly drop items?
Teaching a “DROP” cue to encourage your dog to willingly drop items from his or her mouth is the best method for getting potentially dangerous items off your dog.
Using the Chirag Patel method, you can teach your dog DROP is a very positive word that means treats are going to rain from the sky! Using this method, it is advised you start by pairing your chosen cue (usually drop) with treats raining from the sky. Once your dog has made this association, you will see their head turn at the sound of the cue.
Note: If you have previously used the words “Drop!”, “Drop it!”, or “Leave it!” when taking things from your dog’s mouth, it is not advisable to use this word when training. Your dog may already have a negative association with this word, which may cause them to continue their negative response into training. Instead, pick a new word that your dog has never heard before. Phrases like “Release!”, “Let it go!” or “Not for you!” can all be sentences that your dog has never heard before but can work brilliantly for a drop cue.
Once your dog has made this pairing, you can add a very low value item into the mix. This is usually items such as an uninteresting toy or a tissue. If your dog shows interest in or picks up the item, say your cue and drop treats on the floor. Practice moving towards and picking up the item in situations where you can return it, so your dog feels no future conflict around dropping items.
As your dog gets better and better, you can progress to harder items. Always set your dog up to succeed, they may not be able to drop a chicken bone at first, but they can progress to this from dropping tissues that smell like chicken bones.
It is important to give your dog this cue in a variety of situations so that your dog does not learn this behaviour in a training situation only.