We have a 4-year-old mixed breed dog named Stella who we adopted nine months ago from a shelter. Our problem is that she steals clothing and runs off to her bed with it. If we try to take the things away she usually runs from us, but the other day she growled at my husband when he approached. We are afraid the growling is going to escalate into something worse. Help!
- Stella's Family
Doggie thieves are motivated by one of two things; they are trying to engage you in a game of chase or the item they steal is highly valued and must be protected. It sounds like Stella falls into the latter category which makes her a "resource guarder." A resource can be anything a dog decides is important. It is not unusual for a dog to guard a bone or special toy, but items with an owner's scent can also be highly valued.
The first order of business is to ensure everyone's safety. When Stella steals something, do not yell, punish or challenge her. This will make her more inclined to fight for her possession. Resource guarding behaviors can quickly escalate to aggression and bites. Instead, try one of the following methods:
1. Trade her for wonderful treats. This is your best shot at getting your item of clothing back unharmed because she will willingly give it up. If a dog is seriously growling and snarling, I will toss several of the treats across the floor and hope they get up to retrieve them. While they are working to get every last piece I take the object back.
2. Use a favorite toy as for the trade. Some dogs are more motivated by a toy than treats. Use the same technique described above except toss the toy away from her to entice her to get up and leave the object behind. Continue to play with her for awhile after you have retrieved your clothing.
3. Try to divert her attention with some other activity. Does she love to go for walks or ride in the car? If so, invite her to go on an outing. Be sure to follow through or this won't work the next time.
Fixing this problem will require a combination of management and training. Keep your clothes picked up so she can't steal anything. Make sure she gets enough mental and physical exercise; a tired dog is a good dog. Lastly, train her to "take" and "drop" on cue. Start with objects she will easily relinquish and gradually move to objects she values more.
- Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org