A viral video surfaced in my social media last week that shows an adorable, fluffy golden retriever named Archie being gently chastised by his owner as he steals, teases and then runs off with sundry household items, including a telephone, remote control, shoe, wallet and pen. Archie’s approach is playful, and he hesitates just long enough for his person to reach for the item before he turns tail and disappears into another room. The video is amusing, and many times, this behavior is seen as a minor nuisance rather than a serious behavior problem. Nonetheless, I have heard many families over the years describe their frustration as they watch their impish canine running off yet again with their checkbook, their cellphone or their dish towel.
In some cases, dogs steal items from around the house so that they can chew them. Chewing provides rewarding sensory feedback and is a normal part of a dog’s repertoire, and one of our jobs as a dog guardian is to teach her what is hers to chew and what is not. When a dog steals an item to run under the bed and destroy it, the motivation is often the act of chewing itself — what fun it is to shred paper products, soft leather and various other things that smell like a dog’s favorite people!
Item stealing that looks like Archie’s, however, is a little different. When the dog steals an item and goes to find his owner, parading around with the item in his mouth only to flee joyously when the owner reaches for or chases after the dog, we are usually looking at social play as the motivating factor. This is especially true when the owner reports that the dog won’t even usually chew up the item if given the chance — he really just enjoys the chase. In cases like this, we must teach the dog that stealing items is socially quite boring, while “stealing” his own toys is a whole lot of fun!
If your dog is a thief of household items, you should first ensure that your house is safely “puppy proofed.” Puppy proofing is not just for puppies, either — even if your dog is a full-fledged adult stealing your medicine bottles or valuable decor, these things must be put out of reach until better behavior patterns have been established.
After you have removed dangerous or valuable items from her reach, be sure that you have a toy basket full of fun bones and stuffed chew toys that is well within her reach and in a central location in the home. Each time you come home, when you come in from a walk, and when she comes in from pottying outside, seize the chance to encourage her happily to get a toy from her toy basket. Walk over there yourself and show lots of interest in her toys, grabbing or tossing a toy for chase or tug. Spend some time playing with her, showing her that her interest in her own toys leads you to be interested in her toys, as well.
When she steals an item that’s not hers, as long as it’s not valuable or dangerous to her, try to act completely uninterested. Walk out of the room, turning your back on her and going on about your business. If she drops the item soon after, pick it up when she is no longer watching you or standing over the item. You may need to wander into another room or act as if you might walk into the yard in order to encourage her to drop the item without saying so.
If the item is valuable or dangerous, approach her with a treat in hand and bring the treat to her nose as you say “Drop it;” then give her the treat as you take the item away. Secure the item out of her reach.
If you only focus on getting back those items that are “contraband” (your possessions), your dog learns this is a reliable way to get your attention. Thus, you must be certain to start chase games whenever you see her saunter by with her own toy or bone. Act excited and pretend you want that toy, too — playfully give chase and start a game of tug or fetch. Spend just five minutes playing with your dog when you see her with her own toy, and over time you will reverse your pooch’s playful pilfering.
Megan Maxwell, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist whose column appears on the first Tuesday of every month in Extra. Volume may prohibit individual replies to emails. The information presented here may not be applicable for every pet and is not intended to serve in place of an individualized behavior or training plan.