I have phased out food in these instances and reinforce the behaviour of giving using praise, petting and cuddles or a quick game of fetch. It’s always good stuff. I’ve made myself pretty epic to hang around with and I’ve made the consequence of “giving” always, ALWAYS, enjoyable.
The challenge is when she pilfers something and doesn’t care to offer it up when asked. This often happens when I’m not expecting it. On these occasions it seems the object is usually something novel or a favourite chewing substance that is more desirable than anything I can offer. Well, almost anything. I have a sneaky trick. If she chooses not to come, I remove the one thing she values fairly highly. At the risk of sounding terribly conceited, the thing she enjoys more than almost anything else is me.
I disappear for a few seconds, saying “Bye Bye” or “I’m going” and I go inside or to another room. Sometimes I hide behind something so she can’t see me. Almost without fail she notices my absence and will follow and give the object; “Don’t go. Here, you wanted this? Now stay and play with me.” If I’ve gone inside, when I go back outside, she usually comes and gives easily. I can then reinforce this behaviour by giving her more time enjoying the most wonderful thing ever: Yep, that’d be my company.
One of the worst things I could do in these situations is start chasing her to reclaim the object. This would lead to a fun game of chasey that is likely to be repeated on subsequent occasions. If I approached this situation in anger and she dropped the object out of fear or intimidation, or because I’d caught her by the collar and forced her, the chance of her letting me near her again in a similar situation may diminish in the future. She may run faster, hide or retaliate in some way e.g. snarl, try to protect the object from being removed. I may successfully get her to give me things in this way – but the bond I have with her will be slightly diminished each time I use these techniques. It will be marred by the fear of my approach and any “giving” will be motivated by intimidation rather than joyful expectation.
One of the wonderful benefits of reinforcing desired behaviours and doing this routinely during everyday activities is that YOU become a source of all good things. You are predictable. You are fun to be around. You are the best thing ever. Doing what you ask is a pleasure, not a chore because you always say “Thank You” in some way (food, praise, a game, a cuddle, a walk, a sniff, access to good stuff).
There is a downside to this sneaky trick. Times it won’t work are if:
* there is not a strong history of playing, spending mutually enjoyable time with your dog or training using positive reinforcement of desired behaviours. Without this history you may not have developed a relationship where you are the best thing since sliced bread. If your dog fancies lots of other stuff in preference to your company, your disappearance will mean naught. The amount of energy and engagement required to develop this relationship will vary depending on the individual dog. For Scout, I have to admit, it’s pretty easy because she has a natural affinity for people and seeks engagement readily. With Zuri, my Rhodesian Ridgeback, I had to earn the privilege of being highly desired above other enticing distractions: a role I never take for granted.
* there is a strong history of punishing your dog for undesired behaviours. In this case, your dog may be relieved that you have disappeared so that they can have unbridled fun with the contraband. If you have become associated with punishment, your disappearance heralds the disappearance of the threat of punishment. It’s not rocket science.
As an aside, I’ve heard an argument that reinforcing “giving” in this way leads to an increase in stealing behaviour. If you plan your training, have developed a mutually satisfying relationship with your dog (e.g. they are not attention seeking because you fulfil this need), are proactive instead of reactive, have good timing and know exactly what you are reinforcing, this should not happen. It actually decreases criminal behaviour! One reason it may happen is if you only “trade” with your dog for an object when they steal it and at no other time. You are actually teaching your dog that the only way to get your attention and something desirable is by nicking things first. That is an error of application, not a failure of the training principle involved.
Here’s my disappearing trick in action: https://youtu.be/q2jFWY1pVw8