Christmas Bites: Don’t eat that…don’t chew that…don’t touch that…

Don’t eat that…don’t chew that…don’t touch that…

With so many tempting but out of bounds bits and pieces hanging around during the holidays, it’s easy to understand how challenging this might be for most dogs.

While some dogs can be concerned by new and elaborate decorations cropping up all over, most dogs will be interested in investigating novel items. This usually means that they will approach them, sniff them, taste and chew them – that’s how dogs explore their world!

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Make it easy to get it right!

Management is very much the name of the game, particularly if you have a puppy or a dog who is interested and interactive. Make it really easy for them to stay successful thinking carefully about how and where you arrange decorations, presents, party-food and other temptations.

  • keep things out of reach, remembering that dogs can jump and climb
  • take care with storing and disposing of foods and presents
  • use management, like baby gates and leashes, to prevent your dog accessing forbidden items
  • confine your dog safely when temptations are in play
  • consider decorating only limited areas elaborately

Check out this gorgeous scene, carefully managing puppy Tucker’s access to that tempting tree!

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This fantastic management example is from Linda Adams Brennan of Canine Coach, starring the adorable Tucker!

More on holiday hazards here and more on management during the holidays here.

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Uh-Oh! Management Fail!

Sometimes management can fail; the door was left open, the baby gate removed, the dog wasn’t being watched. It’s easy. You are human and your dog is canine – mistakes happen.

Now the dog has got something we would prefer he didn’t have. What now?

  • First, consider the situation: is the item harmful to your dog, will they damage it? If, the answers are, no, let it go and don’t worry about it. Next time, step up your management to do a better prevention job.
    If you need to reclaim the item, do so carefully…

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  • STOP! Don’t pursue the dog. Going after them serves to convince them that what they took must be wonderful (because everyone wants it!), which may lead them to ingest it quickly (so nobody else can have it) or guard it (use distance increasing signaling to keep every else away).
    Some dogs might even take stuff to get that attention and chase, as it works every time!
  • Instead, move away from your dog. Sounds counterintuitive, but moving away will attract the dog to you.
    Move away and pretend to engage with something really interesting, with lots of oohs and aaahs for effect. For example, scurry toward the kitchen counters and tap it, move things, wiggle things. Keep oooh-ing and aaah-ing until your dog approaches to check out what you are up to.

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  • Even if you must get the item back more urgently, don’t pursue the dog. Instead move away and create a diversion by, for example, opening the fridge and rustling packaging, getting the dog’s lead and pretending to prepare for a walk, or tossing food rewards away from your dog.
    We don’t want to rely on this strategy too much, it’s for emergencies only. Otherwise, we might have the dog taking things to get you to play this game!

This is the important part:

Continue with your diversion tactics until your dog moves away from the item. Don’t make this interaction about the item or about getting it back.

When the dog discards the item, continue to redirect them. For example, encourage them to follow you into another room by moving and talking to them excitedly, jollying them along with you. You might even toss a toy or food rewards into another room to help your dog move away.
Close the door behind them – they don’t need to be present when you recover the item. Remember, we are not making it about the item!

Step up your management to prevent repeats of this!

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There is absolutely no point in attempting to punish scavening behaviour – scolding and reprimanding won’t help you here. Once the dog has taken the item, they have had their fun and the behaviour is reinforced to happen the next time.

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Step up management and start teaching them the behaviours you would rather they do when temptation is available.

The Floor is Magic

Food on counters, tables, and on low coffee-tables, during the celebrations can be difficult for dogs to resist.

Scavenging behaviour is normal, natural, necessary dog behaviour; behaviour that we humans go out of our way to suppress.

Making sure to practice settling and working on some canine entertainment in set-ups where food will be available tantalisingly close to your dog will go along way to helping prevent your dog taking food that’s out of bounds.

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Plan ahead!

Where will food be most tempting during your gathering? At the dinner table, on the kitchen counters, in the living room low-down?

Introduce the Floor is Magic game in those places and start practicing now.

Work with some pretty yummy food rewards and let your dog see you place one treat on the counter or table. Immediately toss a couple of treats on the floor.

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LOOK! from Distractions

LOOK!, as a reorientation exercise and cue, is a valuable skill to have in your arsenal for all sorts of situations.

LOOK! means that your dog orients toward you, away from a distraction for reward. They never get access to the thing they have been cued away from. You can use any word that you like, such as “Leave It!”.

Check out these puppies learning to leave tissue, a puppy-destruction-favourite:

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The key here, as always, is to make sure that you set your dog up for success. We need to use leads and barriers, along with space and distance from the distraction to effectively teach the dog to respond to you when close to temptation.

You can use anything as your distraction such as food, decorations, gifts or the Christmas tree. In the following tutorials, food in a bowl on the floor, is used as the distraction:

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Each time your dog looks toward the distraction, cue “LOOK!” (or whatever cue word you like) and wait for your dog to reorient to you. Reward well and repeat.

Very soon, your dog will focus on you because the distraction tells them that focus is the most rewarding thing to do!