How to Teach Your Dog to Take Treats Gently
And save your skin.
Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)
One second your pup is demonstrating the perfect sit, the next they seem like they’re going to swallow your whole hand along with the treat you promised them. Experiences with overly enthusiastic treat takers are universal. But some dogs are only “chompy” when revved up, so this can be a good assessment tool — in these cases, the intensity of the alligator-like behavior can indicate a dog’s arousal level. Some dogs seem to naturally take treats gently, but most need lessons to achieve this skill, which starts by teaching your dog the cue “gentle.” Having a dog who does this can relieve much of the conflict-induced frustration that occurs when you want to reinforce your dog’s good behavior but also want your fingers to remain intact and connected to your body.
Teach “Gentle” to a Dog
Avoid confusion by teaching the cue “Gentle” as its own behavior rather than during a training session for some other behavior. Commit to the idea that your dog needs to take the treats gently or they don’t get them at all. In other words, don’t allow the snapping behavior to be rewarded.
To teach your dog what “Gentle” means, hold a treat in your hand, close your fist around it and offer it to your dog. If your dog bites at your hand, keep it closed; this means either toughing it out or wearing gloves, depending on your dog’s behavior and your tolerance. When they stop biting and lick your hand (or even nibbles gently and painlessly), say “Gentle” and open your hand completely to give them the treat.
Keep saying “Gentle” each time you offer your pup a treat to help them associate the word with the behavior. If they have a relapse and return to their former finger-gnawing ways, pull your hand away and then offer the treat again, using the cue “Gentle” to remind them of what you want. This will keep you from dropping the treat in response to the snapping.
How to Protect Your Fingers
Until your dog knows how to take treats gently, there are a couple of ways to protect your fingers when giving treats outside of training sessions. At home, put cream cheese or peanut butter on a wooden spoon and offer your dog a chance to lick this food a few times. This is a way to reinforce your dog without putting your hands near her mouth.
In a dog park or class setting, offer the treat on your flat palm. Many dogs who will snap at treats held in the fingertips are able to take them properly when they are presented on an open hand. A final option is to drop the treats on the ground rather than giving them directly to the dog.
It takes a lot of repetition for most pups to learn to take treats gently, and the occasional effort to teach someone else’s dog by, for example, holding them in your closed hand is unlikely to be effective. Unless a pet parent is teaching this at home, save your fingers by either flat-palming the treats or tossing them on the ground. These techniques won’t teach your dog or their dog park friends to take the treats politely, but they do keep your fingers safe!
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Karen B. London, PhD
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.